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Amid Budget Cuts, Esty Finds Solace At 360 State

by Paul Bass | Dec 20, 2012 4:03 pm

(14) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Environment, State, Downtown

The morning after absorbing another sucker-punch to his budget, Connecticut’s energy czar found a hopeful vision for the future in a downtown New Haven apartment lobby.

Daniel Esty, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), offered that soberly optimistic view at a ceremony in the lobby of the 25-story 360 State Street apartment tower.

He helped hang a new plaque on the wall announcing the tower’s “LEED Platinum” status. The tower became Connecticut’s “first, largest and only building” to receive official what’s called LEED Neighborhood Development Platinum certification. That means it has been built not only to save lots of energy through modern conservation and energy-saving techniques, including an on-site fuel cell. It’s also designed as part of a green neighborhood strategy—across from a train station, on bus lines, in a walkable urban downtown.

360 State’s builders were able to do that in part thanks to an estimated $12 million in “green” tax credits administered through Esty’s office.

Esty said Thursday he hopes many other builders will follow 360 State’s lead by taking advantage of those credits. Because he hasn’t had to cut that program.

He does have to keep cutting lots of other projects under his aegis. In a special session Wednesday night legislators passed a plan to finish closing a $365 million state budget deficit. Their plan will cut between $500,000 and $1 million from DEEP’s $70 million budget, according to Esty. That’s on top of another $1.5 million that disappeared from his budget in “rescissions” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made to start closing the deficit.

Esty made no effort to hide his disappointment at having his ambitions trimmed for the foreseeable future.

Like a good soldier, he praised his boss in an interview for having raised taxes two years ago along with making cuts to pass version 1.0 of the current two-year state budget. (Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of this story to watch an excerpt of that interview.) He spared his boss any blame for the new rounds of cuts: The economy took longer than people expected to recover, he noted. A new bipartisan consensus has evolved in both Hartford and Washington: People want budget cuts, not tax increases, to tackle budget deficits in tough times. Despite the sweeping victories of Democrats (including Esty’s wife, U.S. Rep.-elect Elizabeth Esty) in last month’s national elections, both parties have adopted different versions of the Republican economic approach to tough economic times. Gone is the idea of spending government money to make public investments to spur the economy.

Paul Bass Photo “The governor is right.” Esty said. “The public’s tolerance for any larger state government isn’t there.”

So next summer his department will cut back on the number of lifeguards and clean-up crews at state parks, Esty said. Some parks will be open less. The state will still clean up dangerous environmental spills, but will work harder at the get-go to make sure the polluters pay the money. Like other agencies, DEEP won’t be seeing new money flowing to spend on ambitious new projects.

“We are making a big push for using limited government ... money to leverage private capital,” he said. “We’re going to use limited resources to get big things done.”

Exhibit A: 360 State.

That 500-apartment luxury tower, which opened two years ago, has become the gold standard for how to make buildings energy-efficient and part of a walkable, public-transit-accessible, “new urbanist” landscape. It sits across the street from a commuter train station. Major bus lines stop at the corner. It has water cooling towers and a bathroom-exhaust recovery system. A customer-owned grocery, Elm City Market, inhabits the first floor. It’s the first apartment tower in the world with its own fuel cell generating heat and electricity onsite. Tenants have customized meters, connected to an iPhone app, to track how much water and electricity they use. The on-site garage has a charging station for electric cars. Tenants can walk to theater, music, restaurants, and downtown jobs within blocks of home. (Click here for details on all the building’s green features.)

Make that the “platinum” standard, not the gold standard. The plaque Esty helped hang in the lobby Thursday morning marks the highest rating bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council in its Neighborhood Development Program.

The building’s owners claim that they’re saving 60 percent of the energy usually consumed at apartment buildings—and that in some apartments heat pumps haven’t even had to be turned on yet.

“This building represents the new model” for how Connecticut will promote “cheaper, cleaner, more reliable energy” at housing complexes that allow help the environment by reversing urban sprawl (drawing tenants from the suburbs) and fitting into pedestrian-, bicycle-, mass transit-friendly settings, Esty told the two dozen muckamucks assembled for Thursday morning’s event.

He spoke of how the 360 State tax credit project showed how small government investments can leverage large green private investments—in these case, $12 million helping spur $150 million. (The developer cashes in those tax credits by selling them once it meets project benchmarks.)

Esty, who drove his electric-powered Chevy Volt to the event, spoke of spurring a network of electric-car charging stations statewide. He spoke of helping natural-gas filling stations crop up to serve taxi, delivery, and government public-works fleets and help wean the state from fossil fuels. Outside the budget-reality-darkened halls of state government, out in the light of innovation, an energy czar can still dream.

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posted by: anonymous on December 20, 2012  4:15pm

Boosterism notwithstanding, the fact that this project earned a “LEED” rating has become a running joke among architects and city planners throughout the nation.  Green design isn’t just about architecture, it is about the setting.

It’s unfortunate that this project gets credited with a national rating for improving walkability, when in many ways it was designed to ignore people who don’t drive cars.

For example, the place where the tunnel exiting the building meets the sidewalk is an absolute death trap for pedestrians.  Good luck if you are walking on State Street.

The building has ample bike racks and a bike shop, but the surrounding streets are not safe for biking on unless you are an expert cyclist.  The city added “sharrows,” which are the equivalent of saying that a neighborhood is safe because you spray-painted a picture of a police officer on the street.

There is a train station across the street, but no crosswalk to allow people to cross at the garage intersection right in front of the building.

There is a scary empty lot on the corner, which, thanks to the City’s ineptitude around taxes, may remain as a weed-choked lot for another 20 years.

It’s nice that density was added to Downtown New Haven, but projects like this shouldn’t win environmental awards unless they are actually helping to solve the problem, not make it worse. 

This project has a nice market and a few desperately-needed affordable housing units, but on the whole, it represents one of the biggest wasted opportunities in the history of our city.

posted by: Esbey on December 20, 2012  5:07pm

Anonymous, I read your post twice and I don’t see the argument that 360 State made things “worse.”  I see an argument that some things could have been even better.  500 apartments within walkable distance of everything in downtown New Haven, with a first floor occupied by downtown first real market, is a huge win for a vital and walkable downtown.  The Elm City Market increases the value and walkability of all other downtown apartments, so the “win” goes far beyond the 500 apartments in the building proper.  It is a big deal.  On the other hand, if 360 State was not built, downtown would still not have cycle tracks and there still wouldn’t be a mid-block cross walk to the State Street station. 

I agree that the entrance to the garage is pedestrian unfriendly. The size of the garage was mandated by the city; it’s too big. Without the huge garage, the Chapel streetfront could be more attractive (poster “robn” correctly noted this last week.) But, I am not convinced that leaving the main door of 360 State and walking 1/4 block to cross State at the Chapel St. crosswalk is really a tragedy.  It maybe adds 1 minute to a walk? If you go to google maps for State and Chapel and zoom in (using satellite view) on the intersection you will that crossing at Chapel is really pretty convenient.

posted by: streever on December 21, 2012  12:51am

Esbey

I think you make some pretty good points, and just want to address one tragic flaw in your argument.

No significant number of people walks even 10 feet out of their way.

When is the last time you saw a driver take a longer but safer route when it is a daily route? Honestly?

Human brains minimize the perception of risk when it is something that we do as a routine. Traffic engineering and walk-ability must never count on people making the safest possible decision, but rather, be planned around the most LIKELY decision—which is almost always (especially when walking) the shortest possible pathway.

1 minute, 1 second, 1 hour: You realize that people drive 35-40 mph on 2 mile jaunts in New Haven, with red lights every other block? They arrive at the literal exact same time as if they had driven 25 miles an hour, unless by a miracle they get ALL Green lights, in which case, the 2 mile trip takes almost 3 minutes, instead of FIVE.

Yes, people go almost twice the speed limit to save 2 to 3 minutes.

People are not Vulcans, and you can’t plan for them to operate as such. If we made the most rational and safe decisions:
1. No one would speed
2. No one would smoke
3. Everyone would love flying places

I could go on and on, but I think I’ve more than made my point!

posted by: robn on December 21, 2012  10:53am

I’ts nice to give praise for the effort and 360 has been an improvement, but its far from great. Honestly, the sum of LEED checklist does not equal the parts. This project checked many New Urbanist boxes but fails to be New Urbanist. Thats a product of poor design (the tower shape and cladding) an cost cutting which forced parking to the street wall instead of habitable apartments which might have provided “eyes on the street”.

posted by: Esbey on December 21, 2012  11:30am

Streever—it may be that I myself have once or twice jaywalked and/or driven a bit over a speed limit, so I take your point.  Is there actually an issue with folks walking out the front door of 360 State and jaywalking across the street to the State Street station?  (That is, jaywalking a bit more than all the other midblocks downtown?)  If folks are leaving by the side entrance on Chapel (or if very few folks actually commute from 360 via that station) then its not an issue.  If it is an issue, then I agree that the city should install the needed crosswalk now.

Robn—don’t you think the city’s minimum parking regulations are largely responsible for the ugly Chapel street parking garage at the base of 360?  I think the best and cheapest economic development boost to downtown would be to eliminate all parking minimums in the walkable downtown (which can be defined pretty broadly.)  I know that other developers would have made proposals for that site if not for what was considered to be a nearly impossible parking issue.  With the parking demands, it was pretty much impossible to build a viable “new urbanist” design.

posted by: robn on December 21, 2012  11:53am

ESBEY,

The parking structure is 3 bays. A perfectly functional 2 bay parking diagram could have been used allowing the Chapel Street bay to be filled with occupied apartments looking down on the street. Becker didn’t do this simply because of money. Number one; he didn’t want spend money to dig deeper for parking. Number 2; he didn’t want to spend money on mechanically ventilating the garage which is required by building code if you don’t have a very open perimeter.
Its about money not good design. A hermetic tower siting on a lifeless podium.

posted by: anonymous on December 21, 2012  11:59am

Esbey: 360 State could have been a game-changer for New Haven.  Instead, it is mediocre, at best. 

My point is that calling the project the epitome of green design will get you laughed out of the room, unless that room is filled with sycophants.

In addition, due to City Hall’s lack of vision, opportunities to address the crucial issues that I raised above were squandered.

Here’s an excerpt from what Langdon wrote about 360 State in the Hartford Courant:

“Why has jubilation over the biggest housing development ever to come to downtown New Haven been so muted?  .... above it will be four stories of parking for 500 cars. Smart cities these days are doing their utmost to place garages underground or conceal them behind several stories of humanly interesting uses such as housing and offices. This often raises construction costs, but it makes an appealing urban setting, which is more likely to thrive than is a street deadened by two, three or four stories of visible parking garage.”

“Becker & Becker’s design also suffers from having the podium set some 50 feet back from the State Street, in a suburban manner. The overly large setback lets the developer carve out a roughly 30-foot-deep, 76-foot-long vehicular drop-off area between sidewalk and building.”

“With curb cuts in two locations for vehicles to enter and exit, this configuration will be hazardous to pedestrians and at odds with a walkable city.”

“The flaws of 360 State should cause the organizers of the LEED program and advocates of “green” design to think more deeply about what makes a building an urban asset.”

Let’s get some people in office who have a vision for making the city better, not constantly compromising everyone’s health and safety.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on December 22, 2012  5:45pm

robn,

Nice Jane Jacobs reference!

posted by: marceltheshell on December 22, 2012  7:07pm

Some believe the mark of a good projects may be measured by how much discussion it spurs and the focus on minutia.  There’s no short of either with 360 State!

First to all of the 360 State design haters, I would be interested in seeing projects you’ve designed and built in New Haven during the recession that have had a more positive impact on the city from an urban and architectural perspective than 360 State.  Of course decisions were made here based on economics as all successful projects are- there’s a balance and budgets are not limitless.

Concerning those questioning the “greenness” of the project, the building really is quite efficient.  The project is required to report it’s energy usage to the state and since it’s been open it has been 64% more efficient than energy code (normalized for occupancy). 

Regarding new urbanism, parking is not the enemy—it’s a reality of life and placing it above a pedestrian-friendly streetfront of retail is a valid solution.  Of course it would be lovely if the owner could have afforded to place apartments above the retail and wrap the garage, but then the garage height would have been twice as high completely destroying the respect of scale of neighboring cornices.  The cost of below ground parking would have likely killed the project. 
Finally, addressing the cross walk to the train issue—- seriously?? Stop being lazy and walk a ¼ block Chapel!!  *Happy holidays all*

posted by: marceltheshell on December 22, 2012  7:09pm

AS a follow-up, the Commissioner really is an excellent speaker and his comments at the ceremony should be shared with those interested in understanding why he supports projects like 360 State. 

http://youtu.be/GQ7N_EIBBmk

posted by: streever on December 22, 2012  7:38pm

Esbey:
You build to the use you want.
Want people to walk and use mass transit? Build an incredible sidewalk to it.

Instead, we have a giant driveway entrance, and weird timing situation with the light.

It isn’t a question of just reacting to problems, but proactively anticipating and designing to different users.

posted by: marceltheshell on December 22, 2012  8:31pm

streever—Chapel St is the main public pedestrian thoroughfare.  Designing the cross to the train station at this point benefits the majority of transit users.  Of course it may cause a minor inconvenience for those who either live in the building or for some reason are walking through the tunnel, but being a user of this train station myself, I can attest that most of us have no problem walking to Chapel St to walk across State.

Esby- I like your daredevil jaywalking solution!

posted by: robn on December 23, 2012  11:50am

MTS

The cost of below grade parking would have lowered the profitability of the project, not killed it; especially seeing how Mr Becker was the recipient of the largest bonanza of public assistance in the history of CT development including free land). Likewise, the limited budget for above grade items such as the building skin was misspent because the project is just (no alibi) damn ugly.

posted by: streever on December 23, 2012  5:43pm

MTS
When you build an enormous residential tower across from a train station, one would hope you wouldn’t cut out part of the sidewalk connection.

Pro-activity and building for future use is what is important here, and taking into account the way actual people will use the streetscape.

The current configuration was built to get cars easily into the building, which is a shame.

I like the presence of the building. I like the increase in density. I like that they have a grocery store in it. I like that they have my friend’s bike shop in it.

I don’t like however that the building was built without being sensitive to the existing streetscape or toward a lower energy dependent future.

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