Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Green & Building: Do They Ever Really Go Together?

Cambridge's commercial real estate is exploding and almost entirely in Kendall Square.  Last year, according to the city's website, six new projects broke ground, totaling over 1.8 million square feet in new construction.  That is a staggering number in a city of 6 square miles and 105,000 inhabitants. 

How should environmentalists, particularly those focused on carbon reduction, view this construction?  Should they oppose it all because of its net impacts?  Should they support construction in Kendall Square because this new construction is geared toward innovation, and from this innovation may come answers to our oil dependency?  Is there ever a point at which we will say that economic activity must cease because of its impacts on our planet?

In a recent group email, I rambled in these pastures.  The organizing question of the exchange was -- should a local environmental organization take a position on the massive amounts of development happening in Cambridge.  My view is "yes", it should.  But there is no need to over-simplify an admittedly complex issue.

Here's what I wrote:

Here are some "green" questions that come to my mind --
  • Should we support new development at all?  If yes, then how much?  At what point should we oppose it?
  • Where should new development locate?
  • What types of development do we prefer to see -- housing? commercial? Why?
  • What conditions should we seek to put on new development -- required LEED construction, incentives to reduce auto travel to and from work such as reduced parking availability, subsidized T passes for tenants, etc.?
  • Should we have an opinion about the appearance of buildings, or just about their net impact on the environment?
Because the new development is transforming the city in so many ways, here are some "other-than-green" questions that I can't avoid as I think about the development question --
  • How do we incorporate 21st century buildings into what is in effect a 19th century city?
  • As a community with a progressive value set, how should we respond to economic activity that represents the forefront of human scientific endeavor (the Human Genome Project as only one example), but requires big buildings to accomplish these goals? 
  • Who are all these new people moving in -- they all seem to be half my age with twice my intelligence?
  • Where are they going to live, and with all of their plentiful disposable income, what are they doing to housing prices?
  • Does Cambridge need to house them all, or can Medford take some of them?  Would anybody want to live in Medford anyway if they had the option of living in Cambridge?
  • How many coffee shops does a city really need, and does a cup of drip coffee really cost $4.00?
  • Should I hate this development because it fattens the city's coffers, or should I love it?  Or can I have a third thought about it?

And, as another person has already pointed out -- is anybody doing any regional planning here? (I agree -- I think the answer to this is "no".)  Are we just left to fend for ourselves and try to do the best we can?

These are just some of the questions, but I will add this --

The mantra among urban planners these days is "Put density near transit" which can also be phrased "If you have a transit node, then density should go there".  This is especially true when there is a rail line.  It is a more efficient use of resources -- land, infrastructure, energy, and reduces per capita energy consumption significantly.  I agree with the sentiment.  I also do not agree with the contention that the Red Line is at capacity -- which is sometimes heard these days.  

Getting one's mind around the technology explosion underway, particularly in the life sciences, is difficult to do.  From an urban perspective however, the Red Line forms the spine of today's Massachusetts technology corridor -- from Alewife station in the north down to UMass Boston in the south with stops at Tufts (Davis Square), Harvard, MIT, Mass General, the state legislature (Park Street), and connections to the Seaport District, Logan Airport and Amtrak (NYC and Washington DC) at South Station.  There are few transit lines in the world that can boast this level of "connectivity".  A regional planner -- particularly one focused on economic development -- would notice this and work to augment it, not undermine it.  How we view it may be different, but regional planning cuts lots of ways.

I also know from studying innovations clusters that the activity happening in Kendall Square is fairly unique (read "exceptionally unique") in the United States, and indeed in the world.  Paris, France for example, is trying to replicate this phenomenon.  NYC is too.  San Francisco/Bay Area has it in some ways, but at much lower densities.  Google has solar panels shading their parking lots Mountain View, CA, but an employee has a 40 minute drive to any meeting in San Francisco.  At some level, it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks of us, but it's worth noting.

The development in Kendall Square is being driven by forces that extend well beyond the boundaries of Cambridge.  Companies build buildings here because they want to hire the bright, energetic young minds who have loads of ideas, skills and ambitions.  These people may develop a revolutionary Alzheimer's drug, or a next cancer therapy.  And many of these young scientists are also entrepreneurs.  They may have arrived here because of MIT, but they stay here because Novartis or Microsoft offers them a job after they finish their PhD.  Or they decide to start their own company.  Companies -- particularly drug companies -- want to be near this talent pool, especially because world-class research hospitals are just across the river.