Stewards of the city: A look at innovative leaders in our community making a difference with their environmental work

Danny Schwartzman – Café owner

Sometimes it’s hard to measure sustainability with statistics.

Luckily for the loyal patrons of Common Roots Café, owner Danny Schwartzman has always been something of a numbers guy.

88.

That’s the percentage of food served in September that was local, organic, fair trade or a combination of the three. The figure has hovered between 80 and 90 percent since the café opened in July 2007. Schwartzman buys directly from many Minnesota producers, and the full-menu fare changes with the seasons.

“We put a lot of energy into not using what most people use,” Schwartzman said. “I’m happy with how far off the main restaurant supply chain we are.”

53.

That’s the percentage of food purchased locally (defined as coming from within a 250-mile radius around the café) since Common Roots opened at 2558 Lyndale Ave. S.

Local isn’t just a buzzword at the café. It’s part of the mission that extends from the kitchen all the way down to the tables, which are handcrafted with wood from the floor of an old Minnesota barn.

50,000.

That’s the pounds of waste Common Roots has composted since it opened — the number represents “virtually everything” the café has produced, Schwartzman said.

0.

That’s the waste generated by the café’s new catering operation, which works everything from business lunches to weddings.

Schwartzman isn’t just focused on the numbers. The 26-year-old sees the café — and its food — as an opportunity for building community, and the numbers are largely intended to connect customers with bigger-picture issues. Common Roots hosts regular events and talks, giving customers the opportunity to meet local farmers, learn more about sustainable agriculture, and discuss the environmental implications of the infrastructure and economy of food.

Here’s a final number.

1.

That represents Common Roots, and Schwartzman’s belief in how it can change a community and support sustainable food, one dish at a time.


Mike Otto – Southwest home builder

An eco-conscious homeowner of means could incorporate all kinds of glittering green technologies into a home-remodeling project like, say, a geothermal heat pump or rooftop solar panel array.

That’s all well and good, but sustainable building doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. It’s a point you’ll often hear Southwest builder Mike Otto make.

The founder of Mike Otto Construction offered an example from a recent project.

His crew removed some 1950s-era windows from a Southwest house. Built long before low-E coatings and gas fills were commonplace in home windows, the energy-inefficient windows would have, at one time, gone straight to the dump.

Instead, they were reused on another home remodeling project, also in Southwest. There, the windows were installed in a three-season porch where they would keep out the rain and the snow but wouldn’t impact heating and cooling bills.

Reuse: a cheap, simple green building technique. And not, despite the current craze for all things green, particularly new.

“Our forefathers used to reuse and reuse and reuse,” Otto said. “It harkens back to the old days — except they never did have good insulation.”

In that respect, we’ve come a long way.

Mike Otto Construction was one of the contractors that last year piloted the new Minnesota GreenStar sustainable homebuilding standards. The addition they built onto a Cedar Lake home added 500 square feet to the split-level house, but it also included efficiencies that actually lowered the homeowner’s energy bills.

Otto’s participation on the GreenStar pilot project garnered him a lot of local attention, as well as some new business. In November, Mike Otto Construction was preparing to move its offices from a converted CARAG apartment to a newly remodeled 1,200-square-foot office in the glass-covered Lake Calhoun Executive Center.

But Otto said he was building green before GreenStar — not only because he supports sustainability, but because building green often leads to a better, longer-lasting product.

“We’re going to do this no matter where green goes,” he said.

What was important about GreenStar, though, was that it set a standard for green building and established a certification process for new-home and home-remodeling projects. That should discourage “green-washing” by unscrupulous contractors who market sustainability but don’t follow through on the job site, Otto said.

Otto now serves as chair of Minnesota GreenStar’s Design Professionals Education Committee, a group tasked with developing a green building curriculum for contractors. It was one part of a strategy to get every player in the state’s housing industry — from real estate agents to architects — up to speed on sustainable building.

“We can’t expand before we educate,” Otto said.

 


Seth Stattmiller – Owner of used bicycle shop

Seth Stattmiller’s used bicycle shop arrived on the scene in 2007, just in time to capitalize on several converging trends.

There was the burgeoning green movement — particularly active, it seemed, in Southwest — as well as the advent of the vintage bicycle as a kind of hipster status symbol. Throw high gas prices into the mix — a factor that encouraged many people to drive less and ride more — and you’ve got an environment primed for a used-bike business.

When he named that business Re-Cycle, Stattmiller gave his Hennepin Avenue shop a definite green tint. But the shop doesn’t exist solely to make the eco-conscious feel good about buying a bicycle.

“We’re a bike shop first,” he said. “That I try to be clear about, so people know they’re getting a quality ride.”

Stattmiller pointed out that Re-Cycle offers a 30-day guarantee on it bicycles, which are refurbished by a crew of three full-time technicians.

“Next, we’re environmentalists,” he continued. “Each
bike sold is 350 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution reduction because of the reduced needs [compared to] buying a new bike.”

By that estimate, Re-Cycle had reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 800,000 pounds by November.

One could quibble with the math behind that estimate (an explanation is offered on the Re-Cycle website, www.re-cycle.com). But it’s hard to argue that refurbishing used bikes doesn’t have some kind of environmental benefit, assuming it both reduces the need to manufacture new bicycles and encourages bike-riding over gas-powered transportation.

Stattmiller, who earned an MBA from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, began selling bicycles almost on a whim.

“I was dating an eBay junkie,” he said. “She [claimed she] could pick things out at a garage sale and know [they were] worth more than they’re selling for.”

“And she was wrong three out of four times,” he added, “but when she was right, she would make $100 on a $4 purchase.”

The first two bikes Stattmiller purchased were an old Schwinn Breeze and a British roadster manufactured by Phillips, circa 1960s. He spent $20, did little more to the bikes than pump up the tires and wipe off the dust, and was able to sell them on eBay for $50.

Inspired, Stattmiller filled up his apartment with bicycles, got dumped by the eBay junkie, bought even more bicycles and eventually opened a warehouse just off of Hennepin Avenue. Along the way, he learned a bit more about bicycle repair, too.

Now, Stattmiller not only manages Re-Cycle, he also hosts online bicycle sales on his store’s website.

“The idea was to do something that I liked doing that might pay the bills if I ever got lucky enough,” he said.

That it’s also good for the environment, well, that’s just a bonus.


Ryan and Tina North – Co-owners, Twin Cities Green

How do two former actors wind up the owners of funky store on Hennepin filled with all sorts of eco-friendly products — everything from organic mattresses to jewelry made from recycled materials?

If you ask Tina North, who runs Twin Cities Green, 2405 Hennepin Ave. S., with her husband Ryan, it was a matter of turning a hobby into a full-time job.

“We had been doing theater for a long time. I have always been really crafty. It was one of those things where we’d kept driving past stuff on the street, and I’d want to stop, take it in, and give it a home and turn it into something else,” she said. “So, eventually, I was like, ‘You know, that’d be a really good store. If you just had stuff that you made it into other stuff — took junk that would be in a landfill and turned it into gifts and other merchandize.’”

Ryan North also noted that his wife’s “crafter’s instinct” meant that their home was quickly filling up with odds and ends. The couple was at a crossroads in their careers and decided to open their first store — Re Gifts in South Minneapolis in 2006.

At the urging of their customers and a need for a larger space, the couple opened Twin Cities Green on Hennepin in the fall of 2007. The roomy 3,400-square-foot space formerly housed Via’s Vintage Wear. The space is as green as their products, complete with compact fluorescent lighting and a floor made from recycled tires, among other things.

You can find virtually anything in the store with the exception of large appliances. The Norths try to go beyond simply selling the products. They say everything in the store has a “back story,” and they spend hours researching every product to make sure it is truly green.

They also want people in the community to know that their store welcomes everyone.

“You have don’t to be an environmentalist, a hippy or even part of the green environment to walk into our store,” Ryan North said. “A lot of people [envision] this crunchy granola idea when it comes to green stuff. We work against that.”


Craig Wilson – Developer, consultant

Craig Wilson grows vegetables in his Lowry Hill backyard, and he’s thinking about getting chickens.

He walks most places. He shops and eats locally. As his neighborhood’s board president, he advocates for green space, smart development and pedestrian-friendly corridors

So each morning when the 36-year-old heads to work Downtown at Kandiyohi Development Partners, a green consulting and development firm that he and two partners founded in 2005, it’s pretty easy for him to say, as he often does, that he practices what he preaches.

Wilson traveled the world in his 20s and after seeing environmental degradation that could have easily been avoided with strong planning and development, he realized how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

“Sixty percent of the world’s resources go into building,” he said. “We can make a tremendous impact by rethinking our approaches to building design and to the production of energy.”

Kandiyohi assists companies, schools, and other clients with green building —  everything from writing policies and master plans to retrofitting buildings to reduce their footprints and become energy efficient.

They’ve consulted on the Target Center green roof, are working with developers of the Lyn-Lake apartment complex, Blue, on LEED certification (which recognizes green building materials and practices), and designed a comprehensive plan to develop a green Nicollet Avenue boutique hotel before the project stalled.

They helped the University of Minnesota-Morris develop a plan to go completely off the grid in a few years (meaning that they would produce their own electricity on-site), helped Lutheran Social Services design and build low-income green apartments along Park Avenue, and planned the Midtown Eco-Energy electric generating plant in South Minneapolis (that project was eventually abandoned).

Wilson also advocates for higher-density development, mass transit, and cohesive planning along commercial nodes and corridors, understanding that sometimes the greenest aspect of any given building is simply its location.

“We have the potential in this city to absorb many more people,” he said. “We can create dense, interesting urban areas and still have quiet single-family neighborhoods.”

Wilson, admittedly, drives to work. But that’s because he’s Kandiyohi’s designated driver — the other employees all live close to Kandiyohi’s Marquette Avenue office and commute by bus, bike, or walking.

They all practice what they preach, too.


Kim Bartmann – Restaurateur

“I was told by many people that I could not light a restaurant with LED,” said Kim Bartmann, creator of the Red Stag Supper Club at 509 1st Ave. NE.

But LED bulbs uplit onto wooden beams — beams certified from sustainable sources, mind you — seem to work just fine, she said. She said the energy-efficient lights even respond to the amount of daylight in the restaurant, dimming and brightening whenever necessary.

Bartmann has completely overhauled normal restaurant operations in the quest to create the state’s first LEED-certified restaurant. LEED is a certification for green buildings that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. That certification is a tall order for restaurants, which consume more energy than any other type of small business.

“Some materials I really had to hunt for,” Bartmann said, “but I’m kind of a natural scavenger.”

She collected banquettes and discarded marble from the remodeled Marriott Hotel, wood paneling from the scraps of a job done at Harvard University, and doors reused as tabletops from the Cobalt Condominiums.

Through the installation of high-tech equipment, the Red Stag was projected to use 70 percent less water, 50 percent less gas, and 50 percent less electricity.

One big saver is a water heater the size of a bread box that pumps water through hot flames only as it’s needed, so water isn’t cooking in a tank all day.

All the water fixtures are low-flow, and the toilets have a “half-flush” option for even less water use.

In the kitchen, an optical eye across the cook line senses heat and smoke and adjusts the fan accordingly. In a typical restaurant, the fans are working full-force all day long. The restaurant buys locally and composts.

“I think it’s very important to demonstrate that sustainable business practices are actually smart business choices,” Bartmann said, dismissing a question about the startup costs for a “green” building. “Actually, I think I built the Stag out for much less than many of the restaurants we’ve seen close in the last six months because I spent a lot more money on new technology that saved me money.”


Eric Utne – Community organizer, entrepreneur

Eric Utne has had his hand in all sorts of progressive projects over the years. He was the founding publisher of Utne Reader magazine, has taught at the City of Lakes Waldorf School and Watershed High School, serves as a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, and is a member of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

He just launched his latest initiative — Community Earth Councils — on Nov. 12 at the University of Minnesota campus. The councils bring together elders and youth in the community in an effort to tackle social and environmental challenges at the local level. So far, three councils have formed and more than a dozen were launched as a result of the November symposium.

“Connecting generations has huge potential; each has gifts to give the other,” Utne said of the councils.

Utne describes the Linden Hills Community Earth Council as something of a national outreach arm for Linden Hills Power & Light — the nonprofit that is working on energy conservation efforts in the neighborhood. Three of Linden Hills Power & Light members — Felicity Britton, Bryce Hamilton and Tom Braun — are also involved with the Linden Hills Community Earth Council.

Utne urges people interested in forming councils to include a diverse mix of people in the community — both elders and youth.

Besides working on launching the Community Earth Councils, Utne has a few other projects in the hopper. He is also working on launching a new website that would draw on ideas from Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, a digest he published that inspires city folk to find ways to connect with nature. And if that doesn’t seem like enough to do, he’s also working with his colleague John Miller on a new curriculum at the University of Minnesota called Whole Systems Healing. The undergraduate course explores the social and environmental dimensions of healing.


Felicity Britton – Executive director, Linden Hills Power & Light

A few decades ago, a very young Felicity Britton lived in an in-town house with chickens and a compost heap. That was countercultural, even in a more progressive Australia. Few people were collecting compost back then. And they definitely didn’t raise chickens in town.

“It was pretty embarrassing,” Britton said.

Funny what a few decades can do.

Today, Britton is the volunteer voice for green efforts galore. She’s the secretary of People for Parks, a parks support group. She’s the executive director of Eric Utne’s new Community Earth Councils initiative. And she’s been a strong member and voice for the ubiquitous Linden Hills Power & Light.

She travels all over the state and beyond to learn more about anaerobic digester technology and teaches adults how to clean in a more environmentally friendly manner. At home, she has a large compost bin that’s always full and a small trashcan that takes weeks before it’s ready to be emptied. While her neighbors struggle to figure out what’s compostable, Britton’s young daughters, 5-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Isabelle, know to put crayons and Band-Aids in the trash and bring pizza boxes and tissues downstairs.

Until only a few years ago, she’d never tried her hand at volunteer work. Her professional life involved marketing a cruise line from home. On the neighborhood level, she was a book club member, friendly with her neighbors and known to frequent Linden Hills Park on a near-daily basis, doing yoga or taking her kids out. But she wasn’t a
volunteer.

Not until a friend of hers, a long-time Linden Hills Neighborhood Council member, nudged her to run for the board.

After winning a seat, she discovered a natural fit. Friends and neighbors noticed. They approached her for the People for Parks job. They approached her for Linden Hills Power & Light. They approached her for the Community Earth Councils.

“I guess I don’t know how to say ‘no,’” she joked. But she only continues to say “yes” because, she said, Linden Hills is a neighborhood that welcomes the organizations she works with.

The only people she still gets some resistance from are her own children. Even though they compost and attend Power & Light board meetings and entered into the Green Film Festival, Britton is no cooler to them than her mother was to her while growing up.


Scott Benson – 11th Ward City Council Member

As recently as this decade, the City Council did not have a dedicated committee to deal with environmental issues. Talk of solar panels, energy studies, emission controls — they mixed in with the day-to-day activities of the Council, battling for attention with sewer work and traffic studies.

An environmental coordinating team existed, but at a time when global warming is an everyday discussion, Council Member Scott Benson (11th Ward) no longer saw that as efficient. For both environmental and economic reasons, Benson said the Council needed to start thinking creatively about all things green.

Hence his proposal for — and the Council’s ultimate creation of — the Health, Energy and Environment Committee.

When stories emerge about growing grass on the roofs of the Target Center and City Hall or about the back-and-forth discussions over installing solar panels on the Minneapolis Convention Center, chances are they’re coming from the young committee.

It’s a group that focuses almost solely on thinking up the future, he said, which makes it a refreshingly creative outlet. Less structured, too. Dreaming of wind turbines in the metro tends to be a bit more hypothetical than crunching budget numbers.

While it’s not the first time the city has had such a committee — one existed in the 1970s but didn’t make it through the next decade — Benson said it’s one of the most important ones to have today.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever return to a time when gas is so cheap, we don’t care about conservation and we’re just building [sport utility vehicles] again,” he said. “I suppose there’s a chance that if that did happen, that this committee could go away. But I think with the state that we are in now, with our knowledge we have about what’s happening with global warming and environmental degradation, I don’t see that happening soon.”


Lucia Watson – Restaurant owner

Lucia Watson tries to stay green in all aspects of her life — at home in Linden Hills and at her business, Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, at 31st & Hennepin.

“Personally, I really like to try to live with green practices,” she said. “All the little things like turning the lights off, not wasting water. I like to think I’ve always been of that frame of mind.”

As a participant in a compost program in her neighborhood, Watson, 54, composts just about all of her organic garbage from banana peels to dryer lint and pizza boxes.

At work, she said she tries to buy as much local food as she can. In the summer, almost all of her produce, meat and cheese come from area farms. Much of the food is organic.    

The restaurant has two big pig buckets onhand for pre-consumer waste, such as carrot peelings and other produce parts, that get picked up every day and used for pig food. The restaurant doesn’t compost but recycles everything it can.

Watson said she also is careful about what chemicals and cleaners she uses.

Being green is especially important in the restaurant business, Watson said.

“It’s important because restaurants generate so much waste, just in terms of garbage and electricity and gas,” she said. “It’s really important to me in really a global sense of just how much we use for the luxury of being able to eat out.”

Watson said she’s gradually made her restaurant more environmentally friendly during its 23 years of operation, but it got off to a green start.

“I like to think I came out of some era in the ’70s that was starting to think green and thinking about composting, reusing, recycling,” she said. 

She has dreams of growing her own vegetables on the roof of Lucia’s, but said a more feasible, traditional green roof could be in the restaurant’s future.


Fabrizio Ciccone – Restaurant owner

Fabrizio Ciccone thanked his grandma for teaching him to live off nothing more than what nature provides.

The 42-year-old owner of Café Agri at 43rd & Bryant and Aura restaurant in Calhoun Square has taken many steps to live by that lesson. His efforts to go green include powering his Lyndale home with 100 percent solar energy, converting his diesel Mercedes to run on vegetable oil, buying organic produce from local farmers, and using recycled materials to furnish his restaurants.   

He acts on his ideas as quickly as he thinks of them — he doesn’t want regrets.

“I don’t want to be a person that one day says I could have, or should have,” Ciccone said. “Whatever I can do, I just do it. I’m not afraid to take risks in my life. I’ve taken a lot of risks.”

Ciccone’s heavy accent gives away his Italian heritage. He’s also lived in Russia, Spain and South America.

He didn’t always live by his grandma’s teachings but said he came to the realization about a decade ago that following the laws of nature — eating fruit when it is naturally in season, for instance — is a healthier alternative to eating whatever you want, whenever you want. 

Ciccone said Café Agri, which features all-organic foods from local farms, is his way of promoting a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. He was inspired to open the restaurant this year after losing some friends to food-disorder-related problems and included many gluten-free products on the menu as well.

“We have a mission to try to make our lives better, so let’s start with food and let’s start with eating and not wasting,” Ciccone said.

Café Agri also serves organic free-trade coffee and the wine list is split into four categories: sustainable, organic, biodynamic and local. Each category is described on the menu.

The restaurant recycles everything it can — including corks from wine bottles, which go to local artists. All of the restaurant’s furniture is secondhand or made of recycled materials from a bakery that used to occupy the space. To enhance the lighting, Ciccone added candles in bottles to keep energy consumption down.

He plans to install solar panels atop Café Agri’s roof, but he’s on a waiting list. Composting is another step he’d like to take. 

Aura, which opened in Calhoun Square in 2006, is not at the same level of sustainability as Café Agri, Ciccone said, but it will be eventually. The clientele and competition from other restaurants in Uptown make going green there more difficult, he said, but not impossible.

“There are still things we can do,” he said. “Why not? Why not step forward?”


R.T. Rybak – Mayor of Minneapolis

R.T. Rybak is the Minneapolis mayor with the plug-in hybrid, the unique Toyota Prius that can travel as many as 70 miles per gallon. He’s the one who can often be seen biking to work and who, when the water is warm enough, takes a dip in the Chain of Lakes three to four times a week.

He’s the one who’s been talking up the future of a Twin Cities green economy, who’s been leading a movement to scrap bottled water and who just last month took part in a national discussion on sustainability.

Rybak repeatedly calls Minneapolis a unique place where nature and urban life intersect, where city lakes are clean enough to swim in and the ratio of boulevard trees to people is higher than in many other highly developed places.

Before becoming mayor, he earned some of his eco-friendly stripes by starting up a nonprofit, Save the Water in Minneapolis (SWIM), with his wife, also a big proponent of the environment.

But what about the man at home? Is his ECCO house covered in solar panels or sprouting grass from the roof? Not exactly, Rybak said.

His family has taken a less visual approach to green living — barring the uneven sight of his push-mowered lawn — spending most of their efforts in the fridge. Rybak’s movement to end the use of bottled water, for example, flows into his home. He offers just two options: tap water, Brita-filtered or not.

He and his wife also try to focus their shopping on local foods.

“We eat seasonally,” Rybak said. “Throughout the summer, we have tomatoes in season, corn in season, melons and everything that comes in at its rightful time. Right now, we’ve stocked up on a big collection of Honeycrisps that’ll probably get us through January.”

A big part of SWIM was educating neighbors about how a lot of what gets in people’s yards or sidewalks washes directly into the lakes, junk and all. Rybak rakes leaves out of his gutter, and his yard doesn’t get chemical treatments, he said.

Rybak admitted that a lot of the best environmental decisions made at his home probably originated from his wife. When they were in the process of getting their driveway redone, she talked him out of putting in a new layer of concrete and instead installing water-absorbing pavers. That decision later turned up in city policy.

“[My wife] is 5-foot-2, but she’s very powerful,” he said. “… She’s always been my environmental muse.”


Brad Vifquain – Owner of a solar-powered home

Brad Vifquain’s Linden Hills home stands out because of the solar panel array on the roof, but the panels are really just an introduction and an answer to a question Vifquain asked himself nearly two decades ago: How energy-efficient can a house be?

LED lights line the driveway of his house on the 4100 block of Chowen Avenue. Inside are high-efficiency appliances, including a Sun Frost refrigerator and a solar-powered freezer, CFC (compact fluorescent) bulbs in light sockets, outlet switches that cut power to unused appliances, double-insulated walls, a working fireplace and a number of other energy-saving devices.

“I’m looking at my utility bills and listening to people say, ‘Aren’t utilities getting out of hand,’ and I keep my mouth shut,” he said.

The high-school art teacher, who calls himself “a real hands-on builder,” bought the house in 1990 when it was a small cabin and got right to work. No contractors, no consultants. He’s been interested in green design and building for as long as he can remember and leapt at the chance to use his knowledge.

“I probably came at it more extreme than most people,” he said. “I wanted to know: ‘What can I fulfill?’”

He installed an addition and the 24 solar panels, which be bought used from a power plant in the Southwest United States. The panels are over three decades old but still running near full capacity. They’re connected to a set of golf-cart batteries that store the power, which are then connected to the house’s electrical box.

The panels provide about 10 percent of the house’s total energy needs, though if Vivquain ever wanted to make do without certain appliances, he has a switch that disconnects his house from the grid and uses the batteries for sole power.

Last year, as part of a continuing-education class, Vifquain designed a house that functioned off the grid — no electricity or water from the outside; heated by the fireplace and a small solar-powered furnace.

That house isn’t something he’s planning on building for himself in the near future, but he may incorporate parts of the design and thought process — such as regularly heating only a primary living space in winter while leaving the rest of the house cooler — into his ever-evolving desire to reduce the energy needs of his house.

“With this house, conservation is number one,” he said.

Share more green stories

We often look for inspiration far from our own communities, but in Southwest, there are hundreds of people doing all kinds of creative environmental projects worth our attention. We know there are so many others we could have spotlighted for this project. If you want to share stories of other neighborhood folks doing great work, please send them to [email protected]. We will post them at our blog, the “Compost.”