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Building Proposals Would Aid Anacostia

Sewage, chemicals and trash have plagued the Anacostia River for more than a century, while overdevelopment has eroded its shores. But now the same entities that created this trend may try to reverse it: Developers on the waterfront soon may have to abide by strict environmental protections, meaning roofs covered in vegetation, toilets that flush with recycled water and buildings designed to be energy efficient.

It’s a big step for the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., the quasi-government agency that oversees development along the river. Created three years ago to spur revitalization while also protecting the endangered river, the agency is now setting its sights beyond its own properties. It hopes to not only improve the river’s health but also to inspire similar environmental techniques in the region by showing that such standards are feasible, said Brendan Shane, director of environmental programs and policy at AWC.

“It is going to take time,” he said. “I think that our idea is we need to be starting right now. We need to show that these methods can work so as these buildings are built … you change the landscape, and you really do make a very big difference in cleanup.”

The standards are stricter than those found in the D.C. Green Building Act, which made Washington, D.C., the first major city in the U.S. to require that private developers make new buildings energy efficient. That act requires most public buildings and private buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to incorporate enough energy-efficient techniques by 2012 to meet the standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system, called the Leadership Energy Environmental Design Building Rating System.

But the AWC was able to go a step further because it is overseeing a crop of new buildings during an era of revitalization — in other words, it’s easier to enforce such standards before a building is built than after development is done, said Dan Winters, a member of the U.S. Green Buildings Council and a managing principal at Evolution Partners.

“It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, and the D.C. leaders-that-be understand that they have one shot to get it right because the stuff they built there is going to last 50 years,” he said.

The AWC takes particular pride in its plan to limit stormwater overflow — a major factor in the river’s pollution. Under the proposed standards, developers will have to design their projects to “retain and beneficially reuse” one inch of stormwater generated in a 24-hour period. Officials estimate that this seemingly small amount will actually prevent 85 percent of the runoff that currently overflows into the sewers, which in turn dump out into the river.

The overall plan mimics those in places such as Chicago and Milwaukee, “green cities” where numerous buildings sport roofs of vegetation that soak in contaminated water and naturally purify it. Called the “AWC Gold Standard,” the proposal includes four main areas: integrated environmental design, green building, stormwater control and site planning and preservation.

The four areas cover a slew of regulations: A LEED professional must oversee a building’s design for energy efficiency. Parks that disappear under development must be replaced. Woodland or meadow buffers must be preserved or created along the river. And the list goes on.

All are well-intentioned and necessary regulations, but the agency should ensure that the process doesn’t hinder the result, said Jim Abdo, founder of Abdo Development. Although Abdo is not yet developing in the Anacostia area, his company has built residential buildings throughout the District, and he takes pride in his awareness of historic preservation. Abdo has looked into enacting some environmental standards — such as green roofs — but the bureaucratic process involved in getting a LEED certification seriously hampers development, he said.

“Some of the things, irrespective of the cost, are just the right thing to do,” he said, later adding, “But there are layers of bureaucratic oversight that go with certification right now, and that is burdensome.”

While the AWC proposal has its own standards beyond the LEED rating, it also requires developers to meet some LEED standards. To ensure that this process doesn’t stunt economic development, the agency should work with developers to find out how to make the process run smoothly, Abdo said.

“I don’t believe that the development community per se is resistant to embracing these concepts. I certainly embrace it myself. The problem is the process hasn’t been refined well enough yet,” he said. “I think that will go away over time. This is still a very new phenomenon.”

Because the proposal is breaking new ground, the agency is putting together a group of outside experts, including a LEED professional, to research the cost and feasibility of implementing the standards. While price usually is the main issue, Shane said he expects the plan to be practical.

“These aren’t cost-prohibitive technologies,” he said. “There probably is a premium. Hopefully it is small.”

Winters said the initial costs usually are made up by the ongoing savings from energy-efficient utilities. The real issue, he said, is keeping everyone to the same standard: If some slip through the cracks, then those buildings may be able to charge less for a service or for rent.

“I think it’s very important that they keep a level playing field so that they’re all in same boat,” Winters said. “That’s the most important thing.”

But since the proposal is just that — a tentative plan — some developers already have started their projects. When possible, the proposed standards have been integrated into those developers’ contracts, Shane said. But the standards only will be required when the AWC board approves the proposal, which he said could be within a few weeks. A meeting to gauge residents’ support of the plan is set for Wednesday.

“We’re walking the walk on projects already,” Shane said. “Those are all elements that not only help deal with stormwater but just create a more desirable community.”

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