March 1, 2003 - From the March, 2003 issue

TreePeople Breaks Ground On Its Green Community Center

For 30 years, TreePeople has worked to reshape the public's perception of trees and greenscape, from aesthetic in nature to vital infrastructure. The inter-relationship of buildings and nature will be on display next year when TreePeople opens up its Center for Community Forestry. The groundbreaking design by Marmol Radziner + Associates not only will allow the building provide its own water, but the center also will generate its own power. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Andy Lipkis, President of TreePeople, in which he discusses the center's construction and what TreePeople aims to achieve with its completion.

Andy, when last interviewed, you outlined for TPR your plans for the new TreePeople Center for Community Forestry. Update us on the goals and the status of what some have asserted is the environmental facilities equivalent of the Getty Center?

It's a $12 million project and we broke ground a month ago. What we have here is the first of its kind. It is not just TreePeople's headquarters and a set of offices. As far as I know, this is a first-where a community has come together to build a specialized facility with a specific set of resources and programs that are all there to help that community heal its city and make it environmentally and economically sustainable.

TreePeople is going to celebrate our 30th birthday this year. In those 30 years in terms of our basic mission of inspiring people to take responsibility for the environment, nothing's changed and everything's changed. But, our next 30 years is focused on making this a sustainable city. We have goals set out to take everything we've learned over the last 30 years and say, "My God, by applying everything with focus, we can make it happen."

There are four key pieces of the Center, four themes that go through it that make that sustainability vision possible-education, demonstration, facilitation, and support. The education center will teach citizens, kids, policymakers, and agency people about what is possible and the role each of us has to play as managers of the city's living ecosystem.

In terms of demonstration, we think it's critical that everybody, including businesses, builders, and developers, see that these green technologies are viable, attractive, and ready to go now. Everything about the center will be models of green technology. It is important to demonstrate the technology because there is this mythology that it's somehow not ready yet, that it's for the future-that's not true.

These are going to be offices and buildings that any business would be proud to be in-very rentable and very saleable. Our goal is that all the money that's going into buildings that are unintentionally damaging the environment can begin to help heal the environment through the use of green development technologies.

Third, we have learned that the integrated management of infrastructure under the paradigm that Los Angeles is a living ecosystem and not simply inert concrete will allow us to save money and actually solve problems. However, our disintegrated bureaucracies currently are undermining each other unintentionally. What's critical for success is the process of facilitation. One feature of our center will be a stakeholder process facilitation center-a conference center. Our facility will contain features that no other conference center in the region will have, and I will get into that later on.

The fourth and last goal of the center is support for community action and restoration of the environment-the core of TreePeople's work over the last 30 years. The center will serve as a nexus for training, tools, and it will provide access to volunteers to support projects. One feature of the center will be a tool bank. It will be like a fire station-people can check out a truck loaded to the gills with the tools they need to support their school or their neighborhood in taking greening action.

How are you allocating your $12 million budget for this project? Can you break down the project costs for our readers?

Well interestingly, a good chunk of it is just construction and the other just related costs in what it takes to make something happen. We've been working on this project for 12 years. The big conversation and concern about green building is that it's more expensive. A chunk of it has been for us, but part of the theme and the burden of TreePeople is blazing trails. By committing ourselves to doing something different to show that it can be done, we pay a premium for that.

So that's where a chunk of the costs have gone. The other thing that's really important in the context of green building is to know that the money we're investing now is money we're not going to have to spend later. These buildings are going to generate their own energy and generate their own water. We could have, for a lot less money, built a facility that meets our physical needs, but that will pollute Los Angeles like every other building. When this project's done, no rainwater is going to leave the site. It's all going to be used to water the landscape, to activate our watershed education gardens that are right at the core.

So the choice that every developer has-but most don't know it because nobody's held this standard before-is whether or not to build a facility that worsens global warming and air pollution, worsens our dependence on foreign oil, and incurs high storm water, energy and utility fees. We're paying more up front, but we're not going to have to pay much of anything for energy or water in the future.

We've got a companion interview with David Wiggs from the Department of Water and Power in Metro Investment Report this month. One of the questions he addresses is how fast and how intelligently DWP has gone about supporting green power. Has DWP been an ally and a contributor to the TreePeople Center?

They have been an ally and a partner and we have had a good dynamic for years. Their staff has participated in the design of the center from the beginning and they also are a major supporter of some of our programs. I believe they are heading in the right direction, but there's a lot further to go. The problems and the challenges are not the people, but the old codes, the old agency structures, and the old protocols that prevent collaboration. DWP's people want to move more quickly, but they fear audits based on rules that are not necessarily appropriate anymore. We need more collaboration and integration.

Since this project is going to generate power and water, we'd like for them to help pay for it. We plan to make it available for DWP to bring busloads of developers here everyday, because every aspect of the center is going to teach. If they would use it for that, they will be able to meet their conservation goals, because people are going to be able to build projects that generate power or use profoundly less than they are now.

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So the $12 million new TreePeople Center is not only an training and educational facility, but for pushing the envelope with respect to sustainable design. How do you foresee the new Center design and construction influencing how our new schools are designed and built, how our new public buildings are constructed, how the city's infrastructure is configured? If you shock them with how expensive it is to build and difficult construction is, what do you think will be learned from TreePeople's model efforts?

Our intent is not to shock them with price. Green development will become cheap and readily available because, as you know, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance saying that the city has got to be building green. The Community College Board of Trustees also passed a similar ordinance for all their new construction, and even LA Unified Schools is pursuing the CHIPS approach (California High Performance Schools) which prescribes green building standards for their new schools. So, as public investment kicks in, all of the stuff that's on the books is going to make it that much easier. Ask Arden Realty, which established a business unit that is starting to help businesses retrofit buildings to become green-their clients are asking for it. Companies like BP and others are demanding that they be housed in green quarters. So, I think the cost issue is bogus.

The pay-off for our investment and being on the front end is literally causing billions of infrastructure dollars to be spent in a different way. Needed changes towards sustainable building practices won't come from them being imposed on anyone-we can't impose anything on anyone anymore. Instead, in order for the wide-spread changes to occur faster, the community of designers, developers, builders and policy makers must see that the demonstration works-it all just fits hand-in-glove. So, what may look like a large investment is tiny compared to the literally billions of dollars that will be saved.

What are the take away lessons a school district might learn from TreePeople's experience with incorporating sustainable materials into design?

The simple lesson is that it's very doable and that the school district can in fact meet the new runoff regulations and doesn't have to go to court to fight them. The kids are going to win because, if the campus is performing right, it's going to be green and it's going to be a better place to learn and to play. In addition, it's going to be safer from the sun and it just may well be a place that will capture water and put it back into the ground where we need it.

Can you elaborate on the significance of the urban run-off regulations you just referred to above? And on your project deals with the Clean Water Act regulations?

The Standard Urban Storm Water Management Program is sponsored by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, requiring all new development to trap the first three quarters of an inch of rainfall on site-to trap it, treat it and reuse it or to treat it and slowly release it. The other regulation at play is the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) as specified in the Clean Water Act. That requires cities to control all of the different pollutants, and there are 63 different pollutants now targeted. The best way to manage those pollutants is to capture the water on site and to treat it. The good news is that we've actually built two demonstration projects on L.A. Unified Schools that do this-capture the water, treat it, and then either re-use it for irrigation or put it in the ground to recharge the aquifer.

Any bad news for those who are considering emulating your approach?

The bad news is that emulators might fear that it's going to be way too expensive. Now, the first pilot projects that we did were expensive, but they capture much more than the first three-quarters of an inch. In some cases, they can catch a 4 inch-10-inch storm or hundred-year flood. The first three-quarters of an inch is really quite simple.

What like requirements must school districts meet? How might TreePeople's sustainable development approach address the needs of any district facing these regulations?

They've been asked to meet the first law-to capture, store and treat the first three-quarters of an inch of rainfall. This is pretty easy to accomplish just by putting in grass fields or gardens and having all the rainfall from the hardscape go into the green areas where it can be treated and used. But the second wave is the TMDLs, and the various stakeholders should all be working together to maximize our investment to meet these coming regulations and to make the schools much better places for the kids and much safer.

Lastly, while the new TreePeople Center will inform the built environment, will it also inform the open space environment? How will your project, for example, influence how investments and reclamation projects undertaken by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy?

There's an open space plan that the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy put together with a huge price tag. The question that's always put to Joe Edmiston [Executive Director of SMMC] and others is, "How are you possibly going to pay for this?" In the current paradigm in which he is operating, we're going to have bonds, we're going to do all of these things to buy land and make this possible. However, the new paradigm that we're talking about is that open space is actually critical natural flood control infrastructure and critical water supply infrastructure. The way we see a lot of this happening is that money that could be spent on pipes and hard infrastructure could be more effectively invested in creating more functional open space where nature and technologies that mimic nature, provide those critical services.

When I say functional, I point to the school we retrofitted, with the substantial and generous help of DWP, in Pacoima. The Broadous School, which was a flood site and a source of pollution, now has a beautiful green soccer field with outdoor classrooms and, is now potentially, a neighborhood park. Underneath the soccer field is a quarter-million gallon water cleaning/water infiltration system-it's now critical open space in a place where there was no open space in a severely park underserved community. In addition, the Department of Rec & Parks did not pay for that conversion, DWP and Proposition BB did. This defines our vision.

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