Almanac

Viewpoint - March 31, 2010

Guest opinion: Gateway project wins key supporter

by Mitch Slomiak

The Menlo Gateway project affords our community an opportunity to support a major commercial real estate development that raises the bar in addressing the challenges of climate change.

I could not have imagined writing the preceding sentence last September when I examined the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the originally proposed project. Then, although the buildings and grounds already included some impressive sustainability features, my attention was riveted on the greenhouse gas emissions expected to result from the overall project.

Specifically, the draft report said the new buildings and associated transportation were projected to result in a net increase of about 24,000 metric tons of CO2, over and above the roughly 5,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions from the vehicle trips as well as natural gas and electricity use related to the current old office buildings that the project would be replacing. The report noted that this 24,000 metric ton net increase could be reduced to 15,000 metric tons through some vague voluntary measures then being "considered" by the developer.

For several years, the Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee has closely studied the challenges of climate change and the scientific mandate to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050 to avert the worst consequences of climate change. This is a responsibility shared by every individual, business, community, and political unit, as noted in the Climate Action Plan unanimously adopted by the Menlo Park City Council last spring. The greenhouse gas analysis for the action plan showed our overall Menlo Park community emitted nearly 500,000 metric tons of CO2 annually in the baseline year of 2005.

Against this background, the Gateway impact report was shocking to me, as it appeared that this project alone would result in a 3 percent to 5 percent increase for our community above existing levels. My comments on the report called on the developer to eliminate this CO2 increase with mitigations and offsets.

David Bohannon, the developer and a 2007 Green Ribbon Citizens Committee participant, immediately contacted me. He expressed a desire to reduce the CO2 footprint of Gateway to as low a level as was technically and financially feasible and invited me into a dialogue with him and his environmental consultants over several meetings to seriously explore solutions.

These efforts have resulted in significant changes to the project that I find commendable. The buildings' CO2e (equivalent carbon dioxide) emissions came down to roughly 3,100 tons of CO2e and the developer has agreed to buy offsets from a stringently monitored program to zero out the buildings' remaining impact. If every existing commercial structure in Menlo Park could be somehow remodeled to the standards of Gateway, with a similar approach to offsets, nearly 30 percent of our community's CO2 impact would be eliminated.

Transportation-related emissions are a trickier issue, as car-trips are more complex to assign to a specific development. The developer has agreed to implement robust transportation demand management strategies likely to reduce the greenhouse gas impact from car trips by 17 percent to about 8,200 metric tons per year in 2020.

Thus, the revised Gateway project — though very large — is estimated to result in a net greenhouse gas footprint increase of about 3,200 metric tons per year over the development it will replace, which increases our community's total CO2 emissions by 0.6 percent.

However, the actual increase is likely to be lower, because these emissions estimates conservatively assume that every single car trip to these buildings is a "new" trip. Because many of the tenants would likely be relocating here from other locations in our area, this emissions increase is likely well under half this 3,200-metric ton estimate.

And during the life of the project I expect that large-scale shifts in transportation patterns and improved vehicle fuel efficiency will further mitigate the remaining emissions conservatively estimated for 2020.

If our City Council and the developer agree to require the sustainability features, mitigations and offsets that are now in the project, as well as ensure that any payments to the city for shortfalls in transportation demand results are used for greenhouse gas reductions, then I believe Menlo Park will be raising the bar for other communities in addressing such gas impacts for commercial developments.

Better yet, the innovative approaches embodied in this project can be used as a starting point for evaluating future commercial real estate development in our city when our council is ready to adopt land-use guidelines related to climate change.

Mitch Slomiak is a Menlo Park Environmental Quality Commissioner and Co-Chair, Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee.

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