Since the workshop: Chula Vista, CA strives for energy efficiency and sustainable development

chula vistaThe farmers’ market at the Otay Ranch Town Center in Chula Vista, CA. Photo by Kurt Bunch

Last fall, Smart Growth America visited the city of Chula Vista, CA, the second-largest city in San Diego County, to deliver technical assistance on using the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system as a framework for pursuing sustainable development at the neighborhood scale. The workshop helped inform Chula Vista staff, developers and the community on the energy saving benefits of smart growth site design.

Since the early 1990s, Chula Vista has been working to address climate change and reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions through a number of programs and policies. Its Climate Action Plan (CAP) was one of the first of its kind in the State of California. The City has partnered with its local utility for the past five years to explore ways to reduce GHGs and improve energy efficiency in new development. Smart Growth America’s technical assistance workshop gave the City the opportunity to explore LEED-ND as an approach, in terms of energy efficiency and green site design, to achieving the sustainability goals outlined in its CAP.

The workshop focused on two conceptual project sites—the first, a 23-acre previously developed infill site referred to as “670 L Street,” and the second, a ‘greenfield’ site called “Planning Area 12.” Both projects propose developments with a mix of commercial and residential uses.

During the October workshop, the Smart Growth America team, including Smart Growth America Vice President Roger Millar and Eliot Allen of Criterion Planners, met with City staff, the development teams for the two sites, community members and representatives from the local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). Participants were first given an overview of the LEED-ND rating system, a system that incorporates both green building practices and smart growth principles. Following the overview, workshop participants used the rating system to consider the LEED-ND eligibility of the two project sites. The group prepared a preliminary scorecard for the L Street site, which they found well-suited to LEED-ND designation due to the connectivity of the site design, local development patterns, and the site’s location near existing infrastructure. For Planning Area 12, the group conducted a more general assessment of LEED-ND eligibility. The site was found to be largely LEED-ND eligible, except for the compact development prerequisite, which was potentially problematic concerning non-residential density.

A little over half a year since the workshop, the Chula Vista team that helped organize it reports that the redevelopment project at the L Street site, a property owned by a local school district, is on hold. Despite the delay, the developer is interested in exploring LEED-ND certification in the near future, learning from the workshop that it is easier to achieve than previously thought.

With respect to Planning Area 12, the Chula Vista team is reviewing revised plans that incorporate a mix of land uses. A bus rapid transit route will also soon be operating near the site. Although plans for Planning Area 12 have not been finalized, the Chula Vista team sees potential to benefit from a smart growth site design, interfacing with the adjacent regional mall, community and commercial services, and planned transit infrastructure.

In conjunction with preparing LEED-ND scorecards for the sites, workshop participants also tested the City’s new Climate Neighbor tool, which quantifies the energy and greenhouse gas emission savings attributed to implementing LEED-ND strategies. The Climate Neighbor tool is being developed under the local government/utility partnership program as an innovative way to identify additional energy savings attributed to things like high-density, mixed-use, walkable places, rather than relying solely on building energy savings.

Creation of the Climate Neighbor tool was spurred by Chula Vista’s adoption of a ‘Reach Code’ in 2009. The Reach Code is a building code that is more stringent or “reaches beyond” the state-mandated energy efficiency standards. Chula Vista developers facing stricter energy codes have requested that the City identify and recognize the inherent energy savings of good planning and design. Working with Global Green, the San Diego Green Building Council, and Criterion Planners, the City used LEED-ND parameters as a basis for the Climate Neighbor tool, quantifying the energy savings associated with smart growth site design and planning. At this point, the tool is still in beta testing, although its completion is anticipated within the next six months. The City plans to share the tool with other communities once it is finished.

The projects at L Street and Planning Area 12 are good candidates for LEED-ND, but interestingly, a third project, the mixed-use, high-density Millenia project is now seeking LEED-ND certification. A project of the Corky McMillin Companies, which has a track record of mixed-used, smart growth developments (like San Diego’s award-winning Liberty Station project), Millenia has also been designated a Smart Growth Urban Center by the regional planning agency, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). In discussions with the Chula Vista team, Millenia’s project manager stated that after complying with the City’s Reach Code, eligibility in the LEED-ND program was very achievable. He also emphasized the importance of demonstrating to other developers the energy and monetary savings that can result from LEED certification.

Beyond assessing the two project sites for LEED-ND eligibility, Smart Growth America’s recommendations after the workshop included providing technical education for local developers. To this end, the City has hired a consultant that is not only providing trainings to staff on the new energy code going into effect July 1st, but is also available to assist developers with the more technical aspects of energy conservation measures in their projects.

Already an incredibly progressive city, the Chula Vista team saw the training on the LEED-ND rating system as another step in working towards their sustainability goals. Ed Batchelder, the Development Services Department’s Planning Manager, sees potential to develop a design features high-level checklist to more quickly prescreen sites for LEED-ND eligibility. And the Department’s Senior Project Coordinator Janice Kluth thought the process of applying the LEED-ND rating system to project sites was helpful in realizing that the City is not actually that far from achieving this kind of development. Although the LEED-ND requirements may not become part of Chula Vista’s regulations in the short term, she does believe they will inform how the City plans and designs future developments.

Smart Growth America’s technical assistance program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local planning solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses, while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place. Two other nonprofit organizations—Global Green USA and Project for Public Spaces—also received competitively awarded grants under this program to help communities get the kinds of development they want.

Workshop Materials:

Technical assistance