LEEDing the Uptown development boom

As Minneapolis aims to hit ambitious climate goals, what is green building’s place in the mix?

The Blue Apartments
The Blue Apartments, a LEED Silver-certified residential complex at 29th & Aldrich, is just one of many area developments that employ sustainability rhetoric as a marketing tactic. Photo by Mira Klein

Five years ago Michael Peterson moved to Uptown from his longtime home near Lake Harriet. Peterson and his wife, who were looking for a more walkable, transit-friendly and sustainable lifestyle, had plenty of options to choose from. They scoured the scores of newly developed high-end apartment complexes that line either side of the Midtown Greenway, eventually settling on Track 29, a 200-unit building on Bryant Avenue completed in 2014. 

Track 29 is next door to LEED Silver-certified Elan Uptown Apartments, across the Greenway from the LEED Gold-certified MoZaic office/retail complex and just two blocks east of the LEED Silver-certified Blue Apartments. Uptown’s green building boom, although not at pace with its luxury residential boom, is nevertheless noticeable.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely recognized green building certification program in the United States. Operated through the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, LEED provides both a framework for sustainable building practices and a system for third-party verification. Other certification systems include Energy Star, Net Zero and Living Building Challenge.

All of these programs are voluntary. The Minneapolis plan review process includes a checkbox for green building, “but it’s a self-labeling mechanism,” explained Vicki Carey, senior building inspector for Southwest Minneapolis.  

It’s difficult to evaluate implementation in practice because green building features are largely absent from the city building code, said Jon Sutherland, Carey’s Uptown counterpart. “If it’s not in the building code, then we’re not looking for it,” he said. 

Green building holds greater urgency as the Twin Cities region anticipates housing an additional 888,000 residents by 2040. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, building construction and use together account for 39% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. In Minneapolis, this percentage is nearly double: Buildings accounted for 71% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. While the 2040 plan outlines a series of policy goals to decarbonize the built environment, Minneapolis already ranks high by national green building standards, coming in fifth among major cities in the 2018 Green Building Adoption Index. 

The vast majority of Minneapolis’ green-certified projects are located in Downtown, but there are a half dozen or so LEED projects within Uptown’s central corridor and many more that tout other sustainable features. 

And they are advertised accordingly. From the liberal use of the prefix “eco,” to code words like “livability” and “walkability,” Uptown’s new developments are marketed with phrases that aim to evoke a sense of do-gooder sustainability coupled with the ease of high-end living. 

But green-tinted language is not unique to LEED-certified residences. “Almost all of the buildings you run into now, that’s just their lingo,” Peterson said. This was true of Peterson’s experience with Track 29, which, although not LEED certified, was built with environmental features including on-site stormwater management and sustainable landscaping practices. Such features were ubiquitous among the buildings Peterson toured. “It’s pretty much a can of corn,” he said. “It’s all the same.”  

Despite the seemingly standard nature of sustainable features from one new development to the next, green building experts are clear that not all “greening” is the same. “Nothing is truly green or sustainable; it’s what you compare it to,” explained Melissa Rappaport Schifman, sustainability consultant and author of “Building a Sustainable Home.” Schifman’s book chronicles the process of obtaining LEED certification for her home 10 years ago. It wasn’t until construction was complete that Schifman learned about the Net Zero model, a certification even more stringent than LEED. “If I had known, I never would have run a gas line into my house,” she said. 

Although LEED is popularly treated as synonymous with green building, skepticism remains that it is the best way to achieve climate targets. 

LEED was always a compromise. When the program started in the late 1990s, it succeeded because architects were able to transform what were once considered radical ideas into commercially viable products. 

In the decades since, this mainstreaming has made room for LEED standards in municipal building codes, raising the bar for construction across the board. But the exploding business of LEED certification has tied its operations up in the business of profit-oriented developers. And ultimately, by pushing for technological fixes, LEED leaves the fundamentally social relationship between people and the built environment unchanged and unchallenged.

As reported by CityLab, LEED founder Bob Berkebile himself holds reservations about the program’s environmental impact. “The certification has become: Your building is doing a little less damage to the environment than everyone else’s,” he said. “But that means you’re still having a negative impact. I think that’s a failure.”

Even in LEED buildings, differences in environmental impact are largely lost in translation from developer to property manager to resident. Craig Wilson, founder and principal at sustainability advisory firm Sustology, identifies a tendency to overemphasize features with marginal impact like rooftop solar over high-impact features like insulation. 

Property managers steer clear of discussing features that convey operational and maintenance costs, such as high-efficiency heating and ventilation systems, Wilson explained. “The world should be working by highlighting the embedded costs,” he said. “But we don’t have that level of transparency currently.” 

This misrepresentation is not only rhetorical, Wilson said. It is underselling the real financial savings that a holistic green building approach can bring. Developers may be wary of upfront costs, but green building can realize a significant return on investment.

According to the CBRE Group, a real estate services and investment firm that co-produces the Green Building Adoption Index, real estate investors are increasingly coming on board. In its 2018 real estate investor survey, CBRE reported that for the first time a plurality of investors identified sustainability as an important asset selection criteria. “This reflects a gradual trend of increasing investor interest in sustainability,” the authors wrote. 

But in neighborhoods like Uptown, where residential growth is dominated by national and multi-national development entities, this argument must contend with the realities of the speculative market. “Developers who flip [buildings] don’t care about the long-term financial impact [of green building],” Wilson explained. Financial savings — even if realized after only one or two years — don’t hold the same relevance in the short-term analytics of speculative real estate. 

According to Peterson, Track 29 has gone through three different owners in his five years of residence, passing through the hands of some of the biggest real estate players in the country including Greystar, Village Green and Lincoln Properties.

Uptown’s built landscape is at once seemingly uniform in its green rhetoric and highly differentiated in green building practice. Certifications may vary, but “zen gardens,” complementary recycling totes and ownership structures are mirrored from one building to the next. 

If, as Peterson suggests, all of the Uptown developments are essentially undifferentiable from the consumer perspective, where does the leverage point for better green building lie?

“You’d have to talk to the state building code division,” Sutherland said. “They are the ones that give us the code.” As Wilson argues, consumer pressure must play a big role. But the process of greening Uptown must also contend with the large sums of capital that dominate its shape — a flow that is sustained by both investment and consumer demand for luxury.

Right now, Wilson said, “People just want to feel OK about their consumption.” Sustainability rhetoric may pull people inside the leasing office door, but ultimately, he said, “it’s luxury that sells.”