Saturday, June 13, 2009

Truth in Advertising

In today's world of high costs for construction and facility operation, it makes sense to strive for public use of buildings that would otherwise be single-purpose. Given this rationale, one of the early successful integrations of this for a nature-focused organization is the Natural Resources Defense Council headquarters in Santa Monica which achieved a Platnimum LEED rating in about 2004, the first public museum to achieve this rating (photo above). It's close to public transportation and has other "New Urbanist" qualities, since it was adapted from an existing building in the heart of downtown. That's the kind of green building that should be most encouraged, not new construction buildings in far-flung, transit-unfriendly, pedestrian-unfriendly areas.

The "museum as boardroom" idea caught on, and the MWD found it to be a useful strategy for its own purposes. The recent Center for Water Education in Hemet, also billed as the "first LEED Platinum Museum" was constructed as part of the MWD water storage facility for its headquarters use, then expanded to include a non-profit museum, which has become problematic. It is also far away from any transit, urban centers, commercial activity, and has to expend additional energy and money to bus visitors in from the LA region. It would seem to be counter to the philosophy of LEED that large structures can justify isolated project locations by attempting to shrink the footprint. The pioneering retrofit of its existing facilities by the NRDC for its New York offices provided the cutting-edge rationale for "in-place greening" in 1989.

Now another attempt to impose large "nature museum" structures in green clothing is being objected to by the public, to be located in the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary. A proposed $30 million nature museum in Whittier Narrows moves forward in public hearing. According to the Star-News, "The project has now grown into this enormous museum for the entire watershed, and the actual nature center part of it is completely gone. The entire building is a showplace for the water districts. Why should that be put in a bird sanctuary?" said Grace Allen, lead docent at the nature center and member of Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area - the group formed to oppose the project. They have offered alternatives to a large, environmentally destructive project.

Thus "public education" can be transformed into a form of greenwash using public dollars to create bureaucratic edifices. At least the MTA Headquarters building made no such pretense of its gilded palace, with its immense scale in contrast to all the transit facilities around it.