DDA tries to build more sustainability

December 24, 2009
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Going green can now result in more “green” for a downtown property owner.

The Downtown Development Authority recently extended its maximum grant by half as much — from $50,000 to $75,000 — in its highly successful Building Reuse Incentive Program that is aimed to assist property owners within the district.

But to collect the additional amount, a building owner has to include sustainable elements in a renovation. Solar panels, wind turbines, waterless urinals, low-flow toilets, green roofs and other energy-saving and environmentally sound items are qualifying elements.

The larger grants came about because the DDA was originally considering adding a program exclusively for sustainable elements. But the board soon discovered it couldn’t do that because the state’s charter, which governs all DDAs in Michigan, didn’t allow for it.

“As we studied the DDA act with our counsel, Dick Wendt, we found that we didn’t feel that would be an eligible activity, to actually reimburse developers for sustainable elements in a building. So we view this as sort of a work-around,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

“The eligible elements of the BRIP program remain the same, but we’re adding an incentive for those property owners that incorporate sustainable elements in a building renovation by increasing the amount of a fully eligible grant,” he explained.

The DDA began the BRIP program in August 1996 and revised it twice, once in July 1998 and again in September 1999, before adding the green element last month. The board established the program, which is funded at $200,000 each year, to encourage the utilization of older buildings and storefronts in the district and to reduce the vacancy rate downtown.

The DDA has awarded more than $2.4 million in BRIP grants over the years; those awards have helped leverage over $109 million in private investment since the program began.

“The BRIP program has now been around for 14 or 15 years, so I thought it was time to reevaluate our priorities. Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t a sustainable-building movement, so to sort of incorporate this into our activities was a good idea, I thought,” said Fowler.

Another reason it made sense to make the addition is because the city has developed a national reputation as a green leader among municipalities, with the latest effort being the banning of bottled water in city buildings and at city-sponsored events.

“It’s really aligning our activities with the city’s strategic plan of the triple-bottom line of wanting to promote a sustainable community,” said Fowler.

Applicants for the larger grant will have a better chance of collecting an award if they provide the board with a laundry list of green items that will be included in a project.

“We want it to be a substantial commitment toward the sustainable building, not just screwing in a few CFV light bulbs,” said Fowler.

The larger grant is not retroactive, meaning those who have used BRIP funding to restore a building and included sustainable elements in a project can’t reapply for additional funds for work already done. But interior renovations, such as a new storefront, could qualify for more funding if green elements are part of the work.

“I think it might. We have to do a little more work with the committee to figure out how we’re going to award the additional amount.

“As I said, we want it to be a substantial commitment to sustainable elements and we haven’t really finished thinking through how all that is going to work. We might need to have a few applications in front of us to figure that out,” said Fowler.

“If it’s somebody who is going for LEED certification, that is an easier one to look at because we know somebody else is going through the checklist and we’ll be able to determine what their level of commitment is, depending on the level of certification they get.”

LEED certification isn’t required for an application. DDA members didn’t want to force a property owner to go that route and incur the additional cost to be certified.

“So we have to have our own checklist, in case they don’t,” he said.

Fowler thought it would take a few more months for the DDA to finalize that checklist.

Adding a larger grant to the BRIP program for sustainability doesn’t suddenly make it a green effort. The program itself has always had a preservation goal, and that means BRIP has always been a sustainable effort.

“Of course, one of the best things you can do in terms of building sustainability is to reuse a building, because demolition and disposal of the existing built environment is very wasteful,” said Fowler.

“So it sort of goes without saying that preserving old buildings is a very sustainable thing to do. This attempts to take that (sustainable) philosophy to a higher degree.”

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