Los Angeles' Green Building Program: A Grand Statement or Grand Gesture?

As the second most populous city in the United States, Los Angeles is determined to become a sustainable model for all metropolises by reducing carbon emissions via the 2008 Private Sector Green Building Plan. It is not hard to see why this task has been particularly challenging for Los Angeles, considering that the city has grown outward as opposed to upward, but LA still plans on removing 80,000 tons of greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere before 2012 by mandating that all projects of a certain size reach the LEED Certified level.

Here is the biggest question – how exactly is the Green Building Program (GBP) going to reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT) so significantly in a city that is so dependent on the personal automobile? Though it has been well over a year since the ordinance was signed by Major Villariagosa, there has not been a substantial increase in the number of LEED projects completed in Los Angeles, as suggested by the U.S. Green Building Council directory. While some might suggest that this is because design and construction take longer than a year and a half to finish, it can also be attributed to the fact that zoning regulations limit the scope of the GBP to certain regions such as Downtown and Westwood. By limiting the physical regions that are affected by the program, the city will not be able to connect the already dense areas to more suburban neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles.

Another issue that must be brought to light is that the LEED system is not at all the best way to reduce VMT. As a LEED Accredited Professional, I know firsthand that certification does not imply transit-oriented development. While the new LEED V3 places more emphasis on transit location than previous guidelines have, the system of credentials is more highly dependent on energy efficiency within the building itself, so much so, that it is possible to obtain Certified status without incorporating any significant access to public transportation. Furthermore, any project which was submitted for review before June 30th of this year does not need to meet the new regulations. This is not to say that implementing minimum LEED requirements in new buildings is not a good idea in general, but rather irrelevant to the topic that Villariagosa is combating. Studies from the California Integrated Waste Management Board calculate a total savings of $48 per square foot over the life of a Certified or Silver building. But are energy savings enough? Clearly, any positive fiscal production will be regarded fondly, especially given the national economic slump. While it is possible to treat multiple problems with one program, this plan must attack VMT before we praise it for financial reasons.

Now back to the topic at hand--carbon emissions. The mentality of planning officials in Los Angeles is in need of a dire change. Instead of using the GBP as a method of publicizing how sustainable our city is, policy makers should be formulating a plan that will actually work, even if this means accepting a foreign model as superior. In this situation, we could best follow some of the most successful transit models and incentivize the public to actually use ours. Because it is completely impractical to reverse what sprawl has done within Los Angeles, the most realistic move is to target public transportation instead of density. Take Curitiba for example—the city reports that over 70% of commuters use BRT as their primary means of transit. What makes this system so successful is not difficult to replicate in Los Angeles. Passengers in Curitiba pay prior to boarding the bus, which decreases transit time. Additionally, buses have their own lanes and run in 2-minute increments. However, LA drivers do not honor the “Bus Only” lanes that we have running through Downtown. As someone who takes the Dash to and from work, it becomes clear that enforcing the use of exclusive lanes will make the ride shorter and more attractive to drivers.

Additionally, the retrofitting of the Los Angeles bus system will create jobs and revenue. By increasing the quality and frequency of buses, the Metro will attract more users. Studies from independent interest groups such as GRITS assert that for every $10,000,000 invested in public transportation, a savings of $15,000,000 in transportation costs occurs. Another pro is that both white and blue collar jobs will be created. Nationally, over 350,000 individuals are employed in the operation of public transportation, while related fields such as mechanics/engineering also grow.

Returning to the Green Building Program, its most notable distinction from a transit-based plan is quite simple. Because the city is not directly funding the GBP, we cannot count on action; however, private developers, who must pay larger upfront costs for their projects, are the funders of this initiative. Most of us realize that there have been budget difficulties for the state and local governments, but a plan that completely removes government aid from the picture is bound to fail. Though the city will expedite inspections during the construction process, the USGBC’s directory of LEED projects proves that this is not enough to encourage private entities to invest in large projects.

This is not meant to suggest that an increase in taxes through revisiting the decisions made by bad policy, for example Prop 13, is necessary to fund transit changes, though it is does become a relevant point in any community planning debate. What I mean to expose is that funding meaningful initiatives is not easy to accomplish.

Building usable public transit takes time, money, and effort, and Los Angeles city planners know this. In tough economic times, it may seem like the best option to create a financially feasible program, such as the Green Building Plan, even though it may not reduce VMT. Since we hope to become a leader in sustainable development, let’s focus on making evocative changes instead of grand statements.
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