Denver Strives to Bring Sustainability to Scale

City Integrates Green into Every Department

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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was elected in 2011.

Jerry Tinianow is chief sustainability officer for the city of Denver.

Jeff Tejral is manager of water conservation at Denver Water.

Ignacio Correa-Ortiz is senior architect/urban designer for the Regional Transportation District in the Denver area.

Rick Padilla is housing and neighborhood development director for Denver’s Office of Economic Development.

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2014 9:40 am

While Colorado’s epic floods of September 2013 made national news, it has been a water disaster of another kind that worries Denver’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jerry Tinianow the most.

“Really it’s the lack of precipitation,” he said. “Drought is a much bigger threat here.”

In June, Denver published its first Climate Adaptation Plan, intended to help the city and county prepare, mitigate and plan for risks associated with an increase in temperature and urban heat island effect, an increase in frequency of extreme weather events, and a reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt, among other potential consequences of climate change. A hotter, dryer climate does not bode well for area ski resorts, which represent an important segment of the region’s economy.

Denver’s first foray into sustainability, which Tinianow called “Sustainability 1.0,” began in 2006 when former Mayor (and now Colorado Governor) John Hickenlooper launched Greenprint Denver. This effort established benchmarks and developed modest goals through the end of 2011. When current Mayor Michael Hancock was elected that year, he launched the second version of the city’s approach to sustainability.

“The principal features of ‘Sustainability 2.0’ can be summed up in the four-word agenda that Mayor Hancock gave me when he hired me in 2012,” Tinianow said. “That four-word agenda was ‘Scale and everybody plays.’

“What we mean by ‘scale’ is that these illustrative, boutique-type programs that you see in a lot of cities were great for introducing the conversation, but now we have to move big numbers … numbers that make a difference. Not just demonstrating what can be done, but actually making changes at scale,” he said.

The “everybody plays” part of the agenda was a shift from sustainability being the responsibility of one small department, to sustainability being “a basic operating practice of every agency in city government,” Tinianow said.

As a result, Denver’s sustainability office is small by design. Tinianow and a staff of two work with all other city departments to coordinate and integrate sustainability.

“The mayor is very much a systems thinker,” Tinianow said. “We want to ensure that basic resources are available and affordable to everyone both now and in the future,” he said. “And we emphasize the word ‘now’ because that speaks to the prosperity of the current generation. It’s hard to have a conversation with them about sustainability if they’re worried about where their next meal is coming from.”

While Denver’s 2020 sustainability goals are organized around 12 resource groups of equal importance, Tinianow said the city’s three biggest challenges at present are issues related to energy, water and affordable housing. Major upgrades to the city’s rapid transit system, including four new commuter rail lines, an additional light rail line and a bus rapid transit corridor, will also transform the Denver area in the next few years.

Energy

Denver was one of 10 cities in the U.S. to be selected to participate in the City Energy Project, a joint initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation.

“We had already determined that commercial buildings were the greatest opportunities for energy savings and renewables,” Tinianow said. “Of the energy savings we need to achieve, we’ll probably have to get a disproportionate share of that out of our commercial buildings. It’s a lot easier to hit big numbers in commercial buildings than it is with single-family homes,” he said.

At the same time, the Colorado General Assembly recently authorized local jurisdictions to develop Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE ) financing programs for energy retrofits in commercial buildings, and Tinianow said Denver hopes to be the first city in Colorado to have such a program. PACE is a financing mechanism that allows taxing bodies to sell bonds and provide loans for energy efficiency upgrades, with financing repayment attached to the property and added to the property tax bill.

Looking into the future, Tinianow said, Denver is trying to develop a program that would be a “game changer” in energy conservation. One idea being discussed would be creating a private investment vehicle that would be like performance-based contracting on a community scale. In other words, once evaluators determined the savings that would be generated from a community-wide energy efficiency program, a privately funded pool of money could be created to finance the improvements in both residential and commercial properties throughout the city. In such a model, home or business owners would continue paying their usual amount for power until all the installation and financing charges were satisfied by the money saved on energy. This would allow energy upgrades to occur with no up-front costs to building owners.

“It’s not just energy,” Tinianow said. “We think this could work for water conservation as well.”

Water

Denver Water is an autonomous authority that sells water to the city of Denver and suburban communities, serving 1.3 million people, or about a quarter of the state’s population. Manager of Water Conservation Jeff Tejral said the conservation of water has been a priority in Denver throughout the city’s history, but the last few droughts have been so severe that “it’s expanding our ideas of what conservation really means.”

“It’s not just about using less during a drought,” Tejral said. “Metering and billing are pretty important parts of conserving. If you’re not metering it, you can’t measure it, and if you’re not billing people, they’re not getting a signal. There’s no real skin in the game for them.”

Another major contributor to water conservation is regulating the flow to meet demand. Since water evaporates more quickly on the Colorado plains than it does near its source in high mountain reservoirs, it’s a critical balancing act to discharge only the water that’s necessary at any given time, Tejral said.

Severe drought in recent years has caused Denver Water to redouble its efforts to conserve, accelerating its goal of reducing water consumption by 22 percent below its year-2000 per capita usage. At the time, it had hoped to reach that goal by 2030, but the devastating drought of 2002/2003 prompted the agency to move that target date up to 2016. Tejral said he’s confident that goal will be reached, but even if it is, the region can’t afford to relax.

“The hard part is knowing whether you’ve actually changed people’s behavior permanently or is this just a momentary blip downward due to the drought or the economy? I guess the answer is that we’ll know more in the rear-view mirror,” Tejral said.

About half of Denver’s water comes from the Colorado River basin and the other half comes from the South Platte River and other mountain streams fed by snowmelt. The amount of snowmelt varies widely from year to year, which is why the system’s reservoirs are so important, Tejral said.

The agency uses a mix of carrots and sticks to encourage conservation. The carrots are a variety of rebates on low-flow toilets, faucets and other water-saving fixtures, as well as programs for industrial, irrigation and commercial users. Denver Water partially subsidizes and educates consumers on xeriscaping to replace turf grass with low-water-use native plants. The sticks include a set of regulations that restrict when irrigation can be used and others that outlaw the wasting of water in various ways. The agency has enforcement officers, but Tejral said they do more educating than ticketing offenders.

Community outreach is a big part of Denver Water’s conservation plan. It’s “Use Only What You Need” campaign incorporates advertising and direct outreach to home-owner associations, civic groups and schools. Staff is available to help customers find leaks or figure out why their water bill is exceptionally high and what they can do about it. A pilot program informs residential users how their water use compares with a model household of the same size and describes how they can reduce their water bill by following best practices.

After the drought of 2013, Denver Water implemented a “water budget” program for large users like schools and golf courses, which Tejral said has given these users more flexible irrigation hours while saving as much as 35 percent more water than in previous years. A car-wash certification program helps area car washes save water while still providing quality service.

Another priority has been the recycling of non-potable water, Tinianow said.

“We do have the capacity to recycle water by treating it at a level that’s not quite to drinking water standards but where it can be used for other things like irrigation. Most of the water used in Denver is for irrigation, so if we can replace potable water with recycled water wherever that can be done at scale, we can have some huge savings in water,” Tinianow said. “And the cost of recycled water is only 10 percent of the cost of potable water,” he added.

Denver has rationed water in the past, but has had a decent amount of precipitation over the last two seasons, Tinianow said. “However, we’re all very cognizant of the fact that it’s only a matter of time before the next big drought hits.”

Transportation

Because Denver grew up on an open plain, space has never been a problem… and that’s the problem. Denver International Airport is nearly 23 miles from downtown – a 55-minute drive on a good day. Sprawling over 54 square miles, it’s the largest airport by land area in the U.S., and more than twice the size of the island of Manhattan. The Regional Transportation District (RTD) operates several bus lines servicing the airport, but since the 1980s, RTD planners have been dreaming of a better way. Beginning in 2016, that dream will finally come true.

FasTracks is “a multi-billion dollar comprehensive transit expansion plan to build 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations, and enhanced bus service for easy, convenient bus/rail connections across the eight-county district,” according to RTD literature.

The long-awaited commuter rail link between the airport and downtown Denver will become a reality in 2016, reducing the travel time to just 35 minutes and making the airport feel a lot closer, said RTD Senior Architect/Urban Designer Ignacio Correa-Ortiz.

The project has been partially funded by a 0.4 percent sales tax approved by Denver-area voters in 2004. The new tax was expected to pay for the estimated $4.7 billion project, but the economic downturn later in the decade forced planners to go back to the drawing board, Correa-Ortiz said. That’s when RTD leadership turned to the private sector to fill in the gaps.

“We created the largest public-private partnership (P3) in the nation for public transit infrastructure,” he said. The $2.2 billion Eagle P3 deal includes a $1.03 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration and a 34-year, $450 million financing agreement with Denver Transit Partners, the private concessionaire helping to finance a portion of the project.

In total, the FasTracks project will add 57 new transit stations, which in turn will spawn sustainable, transit-oriented communities throughout the region, Correa-Ortiz said.

At the center of the FasTracks project is the iconic Union Station, a downtown depot built in 1881. In its heyday, six different railroads operated 80 trains per day through the station, but throughout the late 20th Century business in and around Union Station steadily declined. The building and the vast stockyards and rail yards surrounding it fell into disrepair.

“RTD acquired Union Station (in 2001) when there was basically no interest from anybody in the region to invest in it,” said Correa-Ortiz. “Today, it has become the hub of all of the RTD’s rail and bus systems and has become what I describe as the mother of all TODs.”

The transit oriented development (TOD) to which Correa-Ortiz referred started with a $900 million redevelopment project to renovate the station and build a massive retail, office and residential complex on the former rail and stockyards surrounding the multi-modal transit hub. All of the light rail, commuter rail and bus lines, as well as several pedestrian and bike trails in the RTD system converge at the station complex.

“We’re looking at 14 different developments in that immediate area that will develop at least 1,500 dwelling units, close to 500 hotel rooms, plus, I don’t know how many square feet of office space, but many of these office buildings will be 12 to 18 stories high,” he said. “It is truly a mixed use development.” The renovated Union Station and the new bus concourse behind it now operate at a LEED-Gold level, he said.

Correa-Ortiz said a major grocery store chain and a specialized food store will be locating in the complex, “so this will no longer be a food desert.”

Tinianow said the city’s overall transportation goal is to reduce single-occupancy commuter traffic by 10 percentage points by 2020. “And that’s a great example of a synergistic goal, because if we actually succeed in doing that we will also be helping our energy goal… and our air quality goal… and we’ll be helping our climate change goal by reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Affordable Housing

In early 2012, Mayor Hancock convened a task force to look at the issues surrounding housing affordability in Denver, said Rick Padilla, housing and neighborhood development director for Denver’s Office of Economic Development. Out of that task force came the city’s 2013 3x5 Initiative, a plan to establish 3,000 units of affordable housing in the city within five years; and the Housing Denver five-year plan that will serve as the city’s comprehensive housing strategy between 2015 and 2019.

Padilla said Denver is the sixth fastest growing city in America. “We’ve got 2,500 millennials per month moving into Denver. We’ve go 27,000-plus individuals that are rent burdened in the city, which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Our studies showed that lots of these folks are students, seniors, single parents and married couples with children. So, we found our population was spiking, but our housing wasn’t keeping up with it,” he said.

The task force gathered input from numerous stakeholder groups throughout the city when developing the Housing Denver plan, and established these eight priorities:

1) Increase Housing Resources

2) Revise and Articulate City Funding Process

3) Reduce Regulatory Burden of Subsidized Housing Development

4) Increase Critical Needs and Homeless Housing

5) Increase Housing Diversity

6) Preserve Workforce and Critical Needs Housing

7) Provide Greater Home Ownership Opportunities

8) Encourage Sustainable Housing Development

“This plan is going to guide the policy and the resource allocation from the city around housing and neighborhood development for the next five years,” Padilla said. Through meetings with more stakeholder groups, his department has developed an action plan with metrics that will be tracked throughout the implementation of the Housing Denver plan.

“The plan is really a recipe for opportunity,” Padilla said, referring not only to the residents who will benefit from the affordable housing but also to the lenders, developers and management companies who will make the projects happen.

Padilla said sustainability in housing isn’t just the encouraging of green building practices (which the plan does), but it’s looking at housing as a part of a holistic community. Creating housing opportunities near where people work, shop and go to school is a high priority. Eliminating food deserts and targeting housing developments in proximity to the RTD’s new or expanded public transit stations are all part of the plan, Padilla said.

“For example, these housing developments have to be within half a mile of a light rail station or a quarter mile from a high-frequency bus corridor. We’re looking at that as a priority because we want to get people out of their cars,” he said.

New housing developments aren’t the only strategy being employed, Padilla said. The city is also approaching existing building owners within the desired transit zones to help them make their properties more affordable through various incentives.

Creative financing is another area ripe for innovation. “In the past five years, we’ve seen a 35 percent decrease in federal funding coming out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This has forced us to look at sustainability from an economic development standpoint,” Padilla said.

One of the strategies is a fee to developers who opt out of meeting certain specifications of the city’s “inclusionary housing ordinance.” These fees help fund other affordable housing development throughout the city.

“So, we’re getting very creative around that right now, and we are actively looking at best practices across the country in cities that have developed permanent sources of funding for affordable housing,” he said.

Tinianow said affordable housing is so important in Denver because of the city’s rapid growth and low unemployment rate (currently 3.7 percent).

“We’re seeing everything you typically see in a booming economy. There are a lot of people moving in and housing costs are going up… so our office of housing and neighborhood development is looking at affordable housing across all income groups, particularly middle income and below,” he said.

Tinianow said Denver’s sustainability programs have contributed to the city’s success when it comes to attracting and retaining major employers.

Panasonic is moving an entire subsidiary with 330 high-paying jobs here, in large part because our sustainability track record was so far ahead of the other 21 cities they studied,” Tinianow said. “Panasonic asked us for a side-by-side sustainability comparison between Denver and the other finalist city. It’s the first time we’ve ever received such a request in a relocation competition, but I don’t think it will be the last, for us or for other cities as well. And we were prepared for it; we completed the comparison 24 hours after the request came in,” he said.

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