Your Views: Council’s actions belie ‘climate emergency’

Your Views: Council’s actions belie ‘climate emergency’
Landmark Mall site.

To the editor:

City Council recently deferred its decision for the proposed Landmark Overlook development across from the Landmark Redevelopment project. Council had many concerns but, disappointingly, not about the lack of energy efficiency standards or renewable energy systems.

Nearly 60% of Alexandria’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. While council declared a “climate emergency” – with a goal requiring a 4% to 5% annual reduction to cut GHG in half by 2030 – reductions are currently one-tenth of that.

Alexandria’s Green Building Policy standards are insufficient to ever exit our emergency. Take the approved Landmark Redevelopment with 4.2 million square feet of new buildings on 50 city acres. There’s no requirement for an energy efficiency level to minimize the power needed to operate the buildings, nor one for the installation of renewable energy systems. The developer need only make the project “solar power ready.”

Notwithstanding its “climate emergency,” council’s approval of millions of square feet of such new buildings over the past few years – with no on-site renewable energy capacity and no effective limit on their GHG emissions – is what Texans call “all hat, no cattle.” It’s an aspirational goal without accountable action.

The Green Building Policy does require public developments to be net zero energy, where actual energy used is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy, such as the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. However, 96% of Alexandria’s GHG comes from private facilities and transportation. Without accountable action in these two areas, the public sector’s 4% GHG provides few cattle for council to round up.

Virginia’s Dillon Rule, among many things, prevents localities from requiring stricter building energy codes and energy efficiency requirements than are in the statewide building code without permission from the legislature.

If council believes climate change is an emergency, it should relentlessly press for state authority to implement more rigorous standards than state code. Meanwhile, it should enact an ordinance implementing Virginia statute 58.1-3221-2, as three other cities and counties have.

This code permits jurisdictions to offer tax breaks on the value of any building that exceeds energy efficiency standards of Virginia’s Building Code by 30% or more. The city should simultaneously establish policy using the same statute that all new private developments – like public ones – will be net zero energy upon completion.

The Dillon Rule doesn’t prevent the city from trading something it wants – such as affordable housing – in return for what a developer wants. Net zero should therefore be facilitated by tax incentives for a development’s on-site solar, battery storage and microgrids. Council should rank decarbonizing the grid alongside affordable housing when developers request additional height or density since these city priorities are not either-or, but both-and.

A Washington, D.C. study shows any initial cost premium for a developer is compensated by a return on investment of up to nearly 38%. Such efforts should be supplemented by retrofitting up to 5% of existing buildings per year through electrification, energy efficiency and renewable energy by similar incentives, with low-cost financing such as C-PACE.

Arlington has similar GHG levels as ours, but with a LEED Gold green building standard for developers’ bonus density, and a net zero option for multi-family units. Despite a “climate emergency,” Alexandria’s standard is LEED Silver.

Alexandria should use LEED Zero energy, with other energy requirements such as adequate electric vehicle charging stations. Transportation is more than a third of Alexandria’s GHG emissions, but by 2040, nearly 40% of vehicles will be electric, reducing their emissions to 21%.

Landmark Redevelopment plans illustrate the shortfall: only 2% of its 6,618 parking spaces have an electric charging station – for 2,500 dwelling units and thousands of hospital and commercial employees and visitors.

Council balances numerous competing priorities when approving a development, from tax base to use. But despite a “climate emergency,” we’ve undertaken virtually nothing with regard to the private sector’s 96% GHG share. The Dillon Rule is an obstacle, but it shouldn’t prevent actions for deep energy savings required by this sector – unless council declares climate change is no longer an emergency.

-Joe Sestak, Alexandria