Projects with environmental attitude
By Jim Sulski
Crains Chicago Business
July 19, 2004
A little more than 10 years ago, when urban planner Ray Tomalty brought up the idea of a “green community” — a housing development that embraces the idea of being environmentally friendly — few people could join in on the conversation.
“Now, there are conferences all the time on green communities,” says Mr. Tomalty, a consultant with the Montreal-based Cooperative Research + Policy Services and an adjunct professor at McGill University in urban planning. “The level of interest is exploding.”
Across the metropolitan Chicago area, several green communities have sprouted up in recent years, from Prairie Crossing in Grayslake to Tryon Farm in La Porte County, Indiana. They tout environmentally friendly traits ranging from acres of open green and natural space to the ability to rely less on the automobile to the use of less chemically treated building materials. In some cases, developers publicize energy efficient appliances that are placed in their homes.
What’s pushing the spread of these green communities, Mr. Tomalty says, is a growing concern over the environment. “Global warming is one of the main drivers,” he says. “People are seeing cities as ever-consuming machines, producing air pollutants and greenhouse gases.”
“Developers are understanding that people are in favor of the environment,” says Vicky Ranney, the president of Prairie Holdings Corporation, which co-developed Prairie Crossing, a 677-acre green community of 359 homes. There are about a dozen homes left for sale at the development, which opened its doors in the mid-1990s.
Ms. Ranney admits, however, that to many people “green” may mostly mean wide open spaces of natural land. “We’ve had some people move here because they were environmentalists,” says Ms. Ranney. “But across the board, people loved the openness of the place.”
In addition to buyers, developers have also been pushed towards green development by the government, ranging from local municipalities trying to preserve open space to the U.S. Clean Waters Act of 1972 which protects the nation’s waters, including wetlands, a topography common to northeastern Illinois.
There is yet another growing catalyst for green communities, Mr. Tomalty says, namely, the link between personal health and community design. “We’re finding that in communities that are based on car travel where no one walks, people are more likely to be obese,” he says.
Mr. Tomalty adds that green development can be somewhat tempered by another type of green: costs. “It depends on the type of community,” he says. “And while going green can push the upfront costs higher, it can drop long-term costs. For example, if someone adds solar collectors to a development, over 10 years the cost of those collectors will be reimbursed in energy savings.”
What’s key with green communities is what defines them as “green,” say industry experts. But, they say, it’s unclear what truly constitutes a “green community,” and some developers bend that definition so it better wraps around their more standard housing developments. “A lot of developers have been trying to attach the green rubric to their projects,” Mr. Tomalty says.
Now green community development is even reaching urban areas. Earlier this year, Frankel & Giles Real Estate announced that their new Loft Works, a 39-unit four-story building at 1919 S. Michigan Ave., would be the South Loop’s first green condominium development.
While there is no opportunity for open space around the development, the project will feature several “environmentally-positive” features, such as solar panels that will produce power for common areas, flooring choices made from renewable lumber sources such as bamboo and mesquite, low-volatile organic compound paints and possibly a wind turbine to produce electricity.
Developer Robert Frankel, partner at Frankel & Giles, says he was inspired to build a green city development after building his family’s single-family home on the North Shore. “I wanted my family’s home to be healthy and energy efficient,” he says, adding that, during the process, he discovered green building techniques didn’t cost much more than traditional ones.
Home buyers like the seclusion at Tryon farm in northwest IndianaThe lack of open green space connected to the project hasn’t dimmed buyer enthusiasm. Since announcing the project earlier this year, Mr. Frankel has sold about half the units there. “It helps differentiate us,” he says.
Out in the suburban green communities, however, space is key with buyers.
Open land and a feel of seclusion is what has also been attracting buyers to Tryon Farm, says co-developer Eve Noonan. “You feel like you’re a million miles away from your troubles when you come out here,” she says.
About three-quarters of the 170-acre development will be preserved as open space — forests, pastures, ponds and woods.
About 30 residents currently live at Tryon Farm, which will feature 150 homes when finished. Noonan says that because of the Northwest Indiana location, about one-third of her buyers are residents who commute to their jobs in Chicago; one-third are second homeowners; and one-third simply split their time between a city home and a Tryon Farm home.
Open space and the preservation of forests and savanna is a big thrust at the Sanctuary of Bull Valley in Woodstock, according to developer Jack Porter of Jack Porter & Associates Inc. Sales have started at the 105-home, 200-acre green community and the first construction takes place later this summer.
In addition to existing green spaces, the development will also restore native prairie, forest, woodland and wetland vegetation. “There will be 100 acres of conservation areas overall,” Mr. Porter says.
In addition, the community will feature a number of other green touches such as grass swales that will substitute for curbs and gutters. “Rainwater will be dispersed over a grassy area. There will be no sewer pipes,” Mr. Porter says.
Around homes, meanwhile, rainwater will be directed to rain gardens. “We’re also encouraging green building out here,” Mr. Porter says.
Among the green touches at Prairie Crossing are more than 360 acres of protected open land that includes wetlands, lakes, trails and a 20-acre organic farm; connection to Metra stations that home buyers can walk or bicycle to; and a 120-foot windmill that generates power for a number of operations, including the organic farm.
Next up is the construction of 36 condominiums and retail and commercial space, Ms. Ranney says.
Mr. Tomalty and others expect the interest in green communities to stay strong. “There is going to be a growing market as more people think about the environment,” he says. “Developers will cater to that.”
“Buyers are truly becoming more sensitive to the demands to protect these elements of the environment,” Mr. Porter says. “And what a lot of this comes down to is the best management practices possible for the land.”
“The people who come to us insist on all the green things but they’re not tree huggers,” Ms. Noonan says. “There is just a love for the land and a real feeling about roots. Maybe this stems from Sept. 11 and the fact that it’s incredibly peaceful and beautiful out here.”