Housing developer seeks different shade of green for Portland-funded project

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PORTLAND — Avesta Housing wants the city to waive a requirement for energy efficiency certification at the Mirada Adams School property on Munjoy Hill.

If granted, the waiver would be third under the ordinance, which was adopted two years ago.

The frequency of waivers has prompted a review of the policy. 

Avesta plans to build 16 townhouse condominiums at the site of the former school at 48 Moody St. The school building has been demolished and development plans are scheduled for Planning Board review next month.

Development Officer Seth Parker said the nonprofit, affordable housing agency is seeking the waiver to reign in the costs of each condo. The units will be sold, not rented, which makes it more difficult to absorb the costs, he said.

“Adams is sort of a different model for us, being a for-sale condominium,” Parker said. “It’s a really tight budget, and we’re really trying to preserve the affordability of those units up there the best we can given the market conditions.”

Parker estimated it would cost about $47,000 for consultants, reporting and registration fees to certify the Adams School project under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, as required by the city.

That would add about $3,000 to the cost of each condo, Parker said.

The ordinance requires LEED certification for construction projects that receive more than $25,000 in city funding. The Adams School project has received $1.71 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding.

Avesta formally submitted its waiver request last week to Planning and Urban Development Director Penny St. Louis, who is responsible for administrative waivers.

When reached on vacation Monday, St. Louis said she hasn’t had a chance to review the request. But she expects to make a decision soon after she returns.

Waivers may be granted when projects negatively impact a historic building, or when certification would be cost prohibitive.

City Councilor David Marshall said he is disappointed that the certification requirement may be waived.

“I guess the waiver has become more of the rule rather than the exception,” Marshall said.

The Pierce Atwood law firm was granted a waiver last year for renovations to the former Cumberland Cold Storage building on the waterfront. That project triggered the ordinance because it received $2.8 million in tax increment financing from the city.

The Baxter Library renovation, which received a TIF, also received a waiver. But Marshall said that one was appropriate, since the project would have lost historic value, and tax credits, because of LEED certification.

“After seeing a couple of these go through, like the Cumberland Cold Storage, it became clear to me we needed to revisit the ordinance,” Marshall said.

Parker said Avesta is committed to the LEED program and plans to build green and energy-efficient buildings. He said the group is not seeking waivers for two other developments.

“We are fully behind the LEED program,” he said.

Parker said the agency is pursuing LEED Gold certification, at a cost of about $78,000, for Phase II of Pearl Place. The year-long project is slated to get started this fall, he said.

Platinum certification is being sought for 37 artists lofts on Oak Street, at a cost of about $20,000. That project is already underway and should be fully leased by next spring, he said.

Parker said additional costs of removing and disposing of contaminated soils have also driven up the Adams project costs.

But the waiver requests have prompted a general review of the ordinance.

The Green Building Incentive Task Force has recommended several changes to the council’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee.

In a July 7 memo, the task force (composed of city officials, developers, business leaders and a green building expert) recommended increasing the trigger for LEED certification from $25,000 to $200,000.

It also recommends, among others, removing renovations from the ordinance and allowing any third-party green certification, rather than requiring LEED.

While discouraged that the Green Building Code has not worked out as well as anticipated, Marshall said he remains committed to developing policies that ensure that tax-funded developers are building energy-efficient buildings.

“Especially when most of our buildings are heated with home heating fuel, it’s just  so important we change the ways in our construction to create better performing buildings,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.