Green vs. Green: Seattle would have more environmentally friendly buildings if environmentalists got out of the way.
As a bastion of liberal values, Seattle is proud to be the capital of what some call Ecotopia. But local advocates of sustainable cities—densely packed urban landscapes with a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and retail uses—are battling with Seattle’s neighborhood activists who, ironically, are using environmental regulations to stop construction of green-friendly buildings that would dramatically reduce energy use. Filing appeals based on the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and the Growth Management Act (GMA), the activists have worked against the construction of two buildings, the Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill and the Stone34 project in Fremont. Both projects are part of the city’s Living Building Pilot Program, which offers various exemptions from land-use and building codes to new buildings that meet a set of rigorous standards—most notably, that they use just one-quarter of the energy and water of typical buildings.
When a developer proposed some modest additional exemptions under the LBPP, the city council caved to pressure from opponents and opened an extended debate about the developer’s motives. As local writer and urbanist Dan Bertolet wrote with exasperation, “Why is there a debate at all? It’s just plain embarrassing that in a city that talks so loud and proud about sustainability, once again we have such hand wringing over a modest piece of legislation that is so obviously the right thing to do.” Meanwhile, just this week, with almost no debate, the council passed emergency legislation banning some small-lot development, because three-story houses are “too big.”