Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement

The Capitol Hill Community Council elections are coming up next Thursday, June 25th, and will be held at the Cal Anderson shelter house (between the park itself and the ball fields), at 7:00 PM. Click here for more info about the candidates.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Activating Vacant Space via Social Media

This post is an expanded hybrid of several posts from the People's Parking Lot site.

In response to the demolition of a treasured strip of local businesses in Seattle, I put together a quick video calling for the takeover of the resulting vacant lot. My intentions were mixed: part of me was bored, another part frustrated; I wanted something to happen but I didn't know how to make it happen. So I turned to the internet to complain, rabble-rouse, and instigate: a familiar reaction by much of the blogging community. This would mark the second blog I'd started in a year that was supposed to be the virtual seed of real-life action -- a tall order, I now realize -- but it would also be by far the most effective.

Upon sharing my work with the author of a neighborhood blog, I was approached, via my blog, by one of the organizers of a community garage sale to try and secure this empty lot for a community space. As one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, many residents are without garages and would benefit from an open and visible location.

Of course, my only credentials for approaching the property owners were a video calling for guerilla occupation of their site and a blog that attracted a few readers a day. Luckily, I had just met an industrious individual on a social networking site for design professionals who had a friend working for the (notoriously absent) property owner. Through this connection, I emailed a principal who authorized the use of the space, after reading a proposal that my connection had reviewed (without his review, I wouldn't have known how to approach the property owners; I wouldn't have known that liability would be their major concern, nor would I have thought that the free PR would have been of value to them).

After securing a single-event insurance policy and spreading word of the sale via the aforementioned neighborhood blog, I awoke yesterday morning to walk down to the site. As I approached, I couldn't believe my eyes: there really were about forty sales setting up. People were strolling onto the lot for the first time in months.

My partner -- whom I met five days earlier after she saw my video though a link on another group's email list -- had an easel and a stack of post-it notes, and was ready to ask the attendees what else they wanted to see on the lot. After several hours we had ideas ranging from the immediately practicable (outdoor movies) to the whimsical (corn maze).

In the last few days, the emails from interested folks have been coming in regularly. My blog now gets about 25 hits a day and the facebook group that was only me and my wife six weeks ago has 30 members. With this combination of virtual and real-life exposure and brainstorming, plus a property owner that is open to sharing their space, it looks as if we have the seeds of a internet-based, grassroots neighborhood movement. Who knows what, if anything, will come of it, but from my current vantage point -- that is, looking at this empty lot in the middle of a vibrant urban neighborhood -- the possibilities seem endless.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

(Huge) Garage Sale Saturday!

Check out the 2009 Capitol Hill Garage Sale Roster here. Of 78 registered sales, 38 will be on the lot. Please come by and plan to stay a while.

People's Parking Lot will have a table set up where we will be brainstorming your ideas for the future of this space.

And if you have a buck or two to spare -- to help cover the insurance premium cost -- tip jars will be available.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Garage Sale at the People's Parking Lot!

Since the destruction of the 500 block of East Pine – former home to Capitol favorites like the Cha Cha Lounge, Bus Stop, and Kincora Pub – to make way for another bread loaf of a condo development, the block has been anything but “vibrant.” After neighborhood residents called the city on its lax enforcement of development standards and the economic crisis made construction projects less feasible, the project was put on hold, hastily paved over, and stood for a short time as a parking lot (a use not permitted by its current zoning). For the last few months, the lot has served mainly as a repository for beer cans and a shortcut for pedestrians, though it has also been inspiration for one painter, and the subject of an amateur video calling for occupation by the neighborhood residents.

However, the lot is poised to regain its status as a social center of the neighborhood, for one day at least. The Second Annual Capitol Hill Garage Sale– sponsored by the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog,Unpaving Paradise, Sustainable Capitol Hill, and People’s Parking Lot – has been granted permission by the property owner, Pine and Belmont LLC (Murray Franklyn of Bellevue), to use the spot as a community garage for all the apartment dwellers that want to participate on June 13th. It is free to participate in the sale but registration is due by June 10th.

This event also stands as an example of the power of social media to connect similarly minded people and allow them to, in this case, have an effect on the built environment, or its use at least. In an age where it is easy to join a facebook group or author and read blogs, without actually doing anything – slacktivism, as they call it – some might consider this small victory inspirational.

In the wake of Unpaving Paradise being awarded $150,000 of park levy funds for the conversion of another Capitol Hill parking lot to a P-patch, could this event be construed as evidence a shift from auto-centric and generally top-down development patterns to a more community-based future, focusing on the needs and desires of current residents? Are we going to get a nice public plaza or a handsome building with local shops at grade on this site? I doubt it, but it is refreshing to see positive use coming out of spaces that sit empty in one of most active neighborhoods in the city.

Information Technology

In a recent post I wrote about some steps that LEED could take to provide a better assessment of the "real" sustainability of a building. That is, considering the sustainability not just for the building itself but the use, the activity, that takes place within the walls. I suggested that a digital sign displaying statistics related to sustainability might be a way to publicize the building's and its occupants' performance. Lo and behold, I found a sign on the Pacific Science Center in Seattle that is displaying the carbon emissions for far more than the building itself, but for the entire county.

I'm sure reactions to this board cover the spectrum from anger to embarrassment to indifference to pride, but the real victory is that the information is there, glaring us in face, quietly counting the metric tons (one every 1.37 seconds) of carbon that our county adds to the atmosphere. If the first step to solving problems is awareness, this certainly seems like a good start. So, what's next?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Polish Lights

Not necessarily "green" but certainly a "collaborative" project...

Good Riddance GM

It's even harder to feel bad -- not that I ever did -- about GM's bankruptcy after seeing this ad.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

LEED Evolution

Expanding on what I previously wrote about LEED for retail, the idea of considering the use of a building when determining its sustainability could be applied to other types of structures like, say, office buildings. Take a new sixty story tower in Chicago that pre-qualified for LEED Gold as an example: an evolved LEED system might ask such questions as:

1) What kind of businesses will be tenants? For example, a traditional oil business would be a strike while an environmental consultant would earn points.
2) How will the employees get from home to the office? Single occupancy vehicles or transit?
3) Will recycling and composting be available and used? (I worked in a Unico-owned building in Seattle where composting was available.)
4) If air travel is required, will the tenants offset their carbon? (my previous employer sent employees all over the world in the name of profit-seeking; I can't even fathom the carbon footprint of this portion of the business operation.)

Integrating such "sustainable business practices" into the ranking of sustainability for the building might also lead to more dynamic public relations. Rather than the USGBC plaque inside the front door, maybe a digital sign -- like a sanguine version of the national debt clock -- is mounted over the front doors and displays statistics related to sustainability and ranks the building in comparison with its neighbors. Further competition between tenants in the same building could also be encouraged, publicized, and rewarded.

This sort of "synergy" between tenants and landlords might also be a less expensive ways for owners of older buildings to get involved with LEED: expensive renovations to meet LEED for Existing Building standards might be postponed -- especially in the current economy -- but rent credits could be extended to tenants shifting to more sustainable business practices.

This is, of course, not meant to detract from the sustainable features of the building itself but, rather, to encourage a more robust ranking system that better represents the impact of a building's existence on the natural environment.

Monday, June 1, 2009

LEED for Retail

Full disclosure: I am a LEED AP but, while working as a structural engineer, I (unsurprisingly) never had a chance to put my accreditation to use.

Upon reading a post entitled Sustainability Needs Educated Consumers on Sustainable Cities Collective, I was reminded of an issue regarding consumerism and sustainability that I have been meaning to explore: LEED for Retail. Backtracking quickly, the author of aforementioned article argues correctly that consumers have the tools (namely the internet) to educate themselves about how sustainable a product is before purchasing it. He notes that, unfortunately, we are unaccustomed to researching products ahead of time and seldom take into account the processes behind the product: material, production, packaging, shipping; that is, the "whole picture" required to ascertain whether or not the product in question is indeed sustainable.

Extending this line of thinking to the buildings in which these products are sold brings us to the subject at hand, LEED for Retail. My question is, can a sustainable building that sells unsustainable wares really be considered sustainable?

Take a hypothetical Wal-Mart in a retrofitted Brooklyn warehouse, replete with LED lighting, a green roof that collects rainwater for the fire protection system, located within blocks of the subway and bus lines, with solar panels on the roof, low VOC paint on the walls and bamboo floors, and you still have a Wal-Mart. Under the current business model it would sell toys, clothes and household goods that were made thousands of miles away in China, shipped across the Pacific, loaded on trucks, driven to distribution centers, transferred to delivery trucks, driven to the store, and stocked by folks who might have lost their job at a local store when Wal-Mart came to town.

Sustainable? I think not. Is building a LEED certified version of the store better than the traditional model? Yes...but wouldn't a comprehensive ranking system for sustainability focus on the use of the building rather than just the building itself?

I realize that such an assessment of the complete business operation is outside the USGBC's purview, but I wonder if, at least, any of the four innovation credits could be attained by selling, say, locally produced goods? In the most recent rating system (July 2008), a provision that automatically grants one credit for "green housekeeping" -- which is certainly a form of building use, though not its primary function -- has been struck from the innovation credits, but its ephemeral existence is reassuring.

As LEED (or other systems?) continues to evolve, it seems that the idea of exploring the "whole picture" -- the use of the building by its occupants, rather than just the building itself -- stands as the equivalent of understanding the processes that went into the production of your favorite new gizmo, doodad or thingamajig.