Coloring the city green

Green housing projects are sprouting up all over Chicago, with niches of environmentally minded homes completed, under way or in the planning stages.

Neighborhoods at the forefront include Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown on the North Side, and Bronzeville, the South Loop and downtown lakefront on the South Side, according to Erik Olsen, who tracks green building projects across Chicago on his Web site ( www.greenbean.typepad .com).

Currently, about 36 residential projects are listed on the Web site as completed or in progress, but that number changes regularly as more are added.

"Many projects have been in the works for some time, but now that the housing market has slowed, developers see green as a way to differentiate themselves," said Olsen, who began compiling the Web site in 2006.

The clustering of these projects is more than coincidence. Some Chicago aldermen have made it a priority to attract green construction, and community organizations are pushing for such projects.

Besides tracking green projects, Olsen is also administrator for the City of Chicago's Green Permit Program, a fast-track program the Department of Construction and Permits began in 2005 to encourage developers to be energy efficient.

How quickly? A green permit can be issued in about six weeks, down from four months or so for a building permit.

That has spurred a lot of green building, said Michael Wilkinson, president of Wilkinson Blender Architecture, which specializes in environmentally responsible designs.

"Developers are tied to the bottom line and not necessarily green-minded, but some will now add green features to get a project off the ground more quickly," said Wilkinson.

Some areas also attract eco-conscious residents, noted Kathryn Tholin, CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a non-profit promoting sustainable development.

Logan Square is one neighborhood where local politics, neighborhood activism and demographic makeup translate into a buzz of green activity.

Ald. Rey Colon has pushed the green issue to the top of his buildings agenda in the 35th Ward, alongside affordability and historic preservation. They are needed to maintain the diversity of the Near North Side neighborhood, he said.

"Development is a hot-button issue for many residents," said Colon. Residents "feel developing green buildings is a more responsible way of moving our community forward."

In 2002, Colon established a zoning advisory committee made up of representatives of neighborhood groups and technical experts to review requests and make recommendations for zoning changes. In the last couple years, the committee has looked more favorably on developments that include green elements, such as solar panels, energy-saving mechanical systems and sound water-management plans, said Michael Jaskula, a real estate attorney and chairman of the committee.

"We think green designs in the long run will be better for the environment and cheaper for whomever lives there," he said. In the last two years, the committee has approved eight of the 24 projects it reviewed; three had green components, said Jaskula.

Until recently, the barrier to pursuing green housing has been a lack of good information and materials, said Tholin. She sees significantly more construction going forward because green products are more plentiful and aren't always more costly than those that use traditional building materials.

Chicago also provides incentives. Some new initiatives, including the Green Permit Program, were inspired by Mayor Richard Daley, who wants to make Chicago the greenest city in the U.S., said Commissioner of Buildings Richard L. Rodriguez. Besides quicker approval, applicants can save $25,000 in fee waivers for consulting services from two in-house green permit experts, he added.

The criteria to determine whether a project qualifies for a green permit include LEED Certification, a U.S. Green Building Council rating system that measures the environmentally responsible components in structure. The city's Department of the Environment also established a Chicago Green Homes Program certification, a scaled-down version of LEED, said Rodriguez.

"In the past, many people didn't make a connection between the environment and their housing choices," said Rodriguez. To establish this, "we'll train our entire staff to be green experts if we need to."

David Wolf, 30, a Realtor for @properties, and his wife Robyn, 29, are among new home buyers who plan to join the trend of living green. By January 2008, the couple expects to move into a two-story condo in a four-story building under construction in Bucktown that is seeking Chicago Green Homes certification. Their apartment will have extra insulation, a green rooftop and radiant-heated floors that draw warmth from energy-efficient heated water tubes under the flooring instead of a traditional water heater, said Wolf.

"I'm conscious of the impact we have on our environment, so I thought this was a great opportunity for us to live in a hip, eco-friendly condo," said Wolf.

Besides, he sees the garden rooftop combining energy savings and smart city living. "We'll have a ready-made yard for the kids and dog we plan to have in the future," he said.

The green building, designed by Wilkinson Blender, will have another residential unit below Wolf's apartment and ground-floor commercial space facing busy Damen Avenue.

But even large-scale projects are going green, in part thanks to the aldermen's efforts.

Ald. Manuel Flores (1st) is just one. Several non-residential enterprises are completed or under construction in his ward's established "Green Zone," which overlaps into Ald. Colon's ward. They include Green Exchange, a business incubator, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Residential developer Belgravia Group Ltd. intends to build 71 townhouses and 11 single-family homes in the Green Zone, but it needs Flores' approval of a zoning change.

"I told them [Belgravia] the project has to be green or else I wouldn't approve the zoning changes because it's located in the Green Zone," said Flores.

So Belgravia executives will seek LEED certification for the project, which will include green components such as well-insulated windows and energy-efficient appliances, said Jacob Kaufman, a Belgravia executive vice president. They intend to tap local sources for building materials with a lot of recycled content. And rain barrels will collect water residents can use in their gardens, Kaufman added. Construction is slated to begin next spring, he said.

Some "green" architects say the best way to boost the residential greening of Chicago is to spread developments throughout as many neighborhoods as possible.

Martin Felsen, co-principal of UrbanLab, a "green" architectural and design firm in Bridgeport, said the projects promote themselves as residents take notice and ask questions.

Chicago will host the U.S. Green Building Council's annual conference and expo Wednesday through Friday, at McCormick Place. For details, see www.greenbuildexpo.org.


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