The title of greenest city goes to . . .
Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who is the greenest of them all?
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has a plan to slash his city’s planet-warming greenhouse gases to 35% below the 1990 level by 2030, and make L.A. the “cleanest and greenest city in the country.”
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has a blueprint to cut his city’s greenhouse gases to 20% below the 1990 level by 2012, creating “the greenest large city in the United States of America.”
In both metropolises, those lofty promises are facing a critical test.
Today, the L.A. City Council will hold a public hearing and vote on Villaraigosa’s proposal to make private developers meet nationally-developed green building standards. Next month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will act on Newsom’s proposed building ordinance.
Which is stricter? San Francisco’s, by a long shot.
Which will remove more carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere? Los Angeles’ -- but only because it’s a bigger city, with a population approaching 4 million; San Francisco’s population is under 800,000.
By and large, city governments can’t control gas-guzzling SUVs, devastated forests and big industrial pollution, all of which are major causes of global warming. On the other hand, the built environment is their bailiwick. Buildings account for an estimated 43% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., compared with 32% from transportation and 25% from industry.
But buildings’ environmental footprints can be dramatically reduced by using low-irrigation landscaping; efficient heating, air-conditioning and lighting; solar panels; roof gardens; and low-emission paints, glues and carpets.
Seventeen states, including California, and 80 localities require public buildings to meet green standards. But so far, only one state and 14 cities are applying those rules to private construction.
Los Angeles would be the biggest city to join the list. Still, San Francisco’s proposed standards “would far surpass those of any other large city,” according to Brooks Rainwater, director of local relations for the American Institute of Architects and author of a comprehensive study on green building programs.
Both cities use the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system, developed by an industry-led nonprofit, the U.S. Green Building Council. The group audits buildings after construction and judges them as LEED certified, the most lenient standard, up through LEED silver, gold, and platinum.
The LEED system is spreading rapidly across the country, with architects and developers competing to offer customers the most eco-chic projects.
Since 2003, L.A.'s public structures, such as libraries and fire stations, have had to be LEED certified if they have more than 7,500 square feet of floor space. But San Francisco has gone a step further, requiring LEED silver certification for any public construction over 5,000 square feet.
San Francisco also has a higher standard for fast-track permitting: Buildings must be LEED gold to qualify, while the threshold in Los Angeles is silver.
Nancy Sutley, L.A.'s deputy mayor for energy and environment, acknowledged that her city is moving more cautiously, but noted the “sheer scale” of its construction activity compared with its Northern California rival. “We think of San Francisco as a boutique city,” she said.
Jared Blumenthal, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, counters that among other multimillion-dollar projects, his city is converting a 500-acre former Naval base into 6,500 units of housing that will be certified as a LEED platinum neighborhood development. “Hardly boutique!” he exclaimed.
And with slight condescension, Blumenthal adds, “We are thrilled that L.A. is now going to start reducing its CO2 . . . If L.A. implemented our ordinance, it would have an even greater impact for all Angelenos.”
L.A.'s new proposal for private construction, which would take effect in November, is looser than San Francisco’s in every category. It would require the equivalent of LEED certification only for buildings of 50,000 square feet or more. In San Francisco, over the next four years, commercial buildings of 25,000 square feet or more would have to meet LEED gold standards, and residential high-rises of that size would have to meet LEED silver levels.
The L.A. plan would cover low-rise residential and single family homes only in developments with at least 50 units. San Francisco’s would cover all single-family homes and low-rise developments.
Sutley noted that the Los Angeles ordinance would cover more than twice as much space -- 7.5 million square feet -- as the San Francisco program, which would cover about 3 million square feet. “There were legitimate concerns about overwhelming the system,” she said. “We will learn by doing.”
Some critics discern a lack of political commitment in L.A.'s plan. “San Francisco’s Department of the Environment is a robust, well-funded agency led by professionals with experience in green building,” says Matt Peterson, president of Global Green, a nonprofit group that has advised both cities on their programs. But L.A.'s effort, he said, is understaffed and lacking in authority.
Sutley countered that green building is “a high priority” for the mayor, and said the city’s existing staff has ample experience working with LEED-certified municipal buildings.
As for San Francisco’s stricter ordinance, she said with a chuckle, “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a different group up there.”
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Los Angeles and San Francisco are moving to adopt laws to cut pollution from buildings. Both plans use the nationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design scale, which awards points for efficiency, materials and indoor air quality. Ratings range from LEED to LEED silver, gold and platinum. For residential buildings, San Francisco uses a similar system called GreenPoint.
New commercial buildings
* Los Angeles: must meet LEED standard if over 50,000 square feet
* San Francisco: must meet LEED gold standard if over 25,000 square feet
New high-rise residential buildings
* Los Angeles: must meet LEED standard if over 50,000 square feet and six stories high
* San Francisco: must meet LEED silver standard if over 75 feet tall
New low-rise residential and single-family units
* Los Angeles: must meet LEED standard for developments of 50 units or more
* San Francisco: all buildings must be GreenPoint rated
* Los Angeles: must meet LEED standard in buildings over 50,000 square feet
* San Francisco: must meet LEED silver standard in residential buildings over 25,000 square feet; must meet LEED gold standard in commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet
Greenhouse gases avoided annually (by 2012)
* Los Angeles: 83,000 metric tons or 0.02 metric ton per capita
* San Francisco: 60,000 metric tons or 0.08 metric ton per capita
Sources: Los Angeles Planning Department; San Francisco Department of the Environment