Opportunity Delayed?

23 11 2009

Over the past decade, cities have utilized a variety of methods to encourage and/or require sustainable building practices within their jurisdictions. All across the country green building incentives were enacted. According to a recent AIA Survey, 138 cities have some form of green building programs. Methods that rely on density bonuses or tax increment financing to reward/incentivize developers were predicated on growth. Unfortunately, the building boom over the last three to five years has fizzled (for the time being at least). It is no secret the development landscape has changed. Obviously, fewer projects being built equals less opportunities to incorporate green infrastructure within our landscapes. This really isn’t a problem if a project was being built in a greenfield. In fact, on a number levels especially in regards to stormwater management and water quality, it is preferable. But for the greyfields and brownfield sites that comprise much of our urban landscape, it is opportunity delayed. The opportunity being to convert these sites to better use and mitigate their negative impact. The old parking lots and retail centers continue to absorb and radiate heat while directing polluted stormwater into overburdened infrastructure and streams. This is particularly acute in areas that were built prior to modern stormwater standards.

So what are cities doing to encourage the incorporation of green infrastructure under these new market realities?

Stormwater Fees. Realizing that general funds can no longer meet the demands imposed on cities by the Federal Government and State Agencies, many cities have or are relying heavily on stormwater fees. Typically these fees are applied to everyone’s property based on impervious surfaces. It is common under these programs for property owners to receive discounts through the use of various stormwater management strategies. These often include green infrastructure related tools (i.e. green roofs, bioretention areas, pervious pavements). Depending on the significance of the fees, this can be a deciding factor for property owners to retrofit their properties. However, in most cases they are not high enough to warrant major investments.

Dedicated Funding. The City of Portland has taken a page from the art world and have enacted a “One Percent for Green” program that works similar to the more common “Percent for Art” programs. It is funded by allocating one percent of the city’s construction budget for the purpose of building green streets both on public and private property as long as it treats public stormwater. It also includes any new and retrofit projects that wouldn’t trigger the Stormwater Management Manual.

Economy of Scale. The unique double functioning nature and triple bottom line benefits of green infrastructure has prompted cities to combine stormwater management with other projects such as parks, streetscapes, road improvements, and other capital projects. The economy of scale allows them to stretch their dollars further to meet the needs of the city.

Direct Reimbursement. As mentioned in an earlier post about Chicago’s green roof program, cities are offering direct reimbursement of installing green infrastructure. This has manifested itself mainly for constructing green roofs. These reimbursements typically run around $5 per sf. Depending on the situation this can reduce the square foot cost for a green roof by as much as 30%.

Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). CWSR Funds are another useful tool offered by each individual state that municipalities are utilizing to fund green infrastructure projects. Funding is provided by a combination of EPA grants and State matching funds. The basic premise is the fund provides low interest loans to municipalities for wastewater treatment, stormwater management, nonpoint source abatement and estuary protection projects. The payments toward the loan are reincorporated back into the fund where they can be loaned again. This method is increasingly becoming popular as a means of implementing green infrastructure projects across the country. The 2009 Stimulus Plan (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA) gave a considerable boost to these programs. It includes $4 billion for Clean Water State Revolving Fund projects and $2 billion for Drinking Water State Revolving Fund projects.

Together programs like these have enabled municipalities to continue investment in their stormwater infrastructure. As cities grapple with the current market conditions, we should expect to see new creative funding ideas and a continued commitment toward increasing the use of green infrastructure throughout our cities.

-Brian Phelps



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