Magazine article USA TODAY

The Real Estate Industry and Environmental Protectionism Can Coexist: Builders Are Finding Ways to Increase Profits While Providing Ecological Benefits to Society. (Ecology)

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Real Estate Industry and Environmental Protectionism Can Coexist: Builders Are Finding Ways to Increase Profits While Providing Ecological Benefits to Society. (Ecology)

Article excerpt

TAKING NIMBYISM (Not in My Back Yard) to new heights, actor/ writer/director Woody Allen recently objected to a new apartment building in his historic New York City neighborhood by making fun of the developer's alleged "compromise" proposal. In public testimony, he likened the protracted negotiations over approval of a higher-density residential project to negotiations over how far to go in desecrating a great work of art, stating:

"If one was to take a genuine work of art, a painting, a Van Gogh for example; a vase with some sunflowers in it, and developers came along and said `Look, this has been great for years, but progress is progress, and we would like to add a half-dozen sunflowers to this picture and we'll make them consistent with the sunflowers that are already there. But you know, we feel it would beautify and it's in the name of progress and development' and they go before the equivalent of the landmarks commission, but in the field of art, and, in the spirit of compromise, they say, `Well, we won't give you six. We'll give you three sunflowers,' the point is obvious. The whole thing is mined."

Apart from the fact that they are extremely funny (even to someone like myself, who has been fighting for the approval of new buildings and places for most of his life), Allen's comments illuminate the tension inherent in the building approval process. All too often, one person's "progress" is another's desecration. At the same time, the testimony effectively highlights the concept of a false "compromise"--one that simply results in less of a loss to the impacted community and its revered resources, whether natural or, in this case, historic.

In my view, the struggle to advance environmental and economic development goals simultaneously is a core corporate responsibility. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than for leaders of the real estate industry. This dual focus on economic considerations and environmental sensitivity is one of the most crucial elements of any sound national policy regarding environmental protection. Why do I care about this? As the CEO of one of the largest owners of developable land in the country, I am very familiar with a full range of environmental issues and associated laws, regulations, and agencies, whether at the municipal, state, or Federal level.

The battery of stringent Federal restrictions on real estate activities have the laws' critics, of course, especially regarding their often unintended consequences. I am among those who have argued before Congress and in other forums that, if the legislators who drafted those statutes knew then what we know today about the implementation of some of these laws, they might have structured them very differently. Real estate investments and projects can be structured to advance key environmental objectives positively. With that in mind, I would like to make two simple points: Genuine "win-wins" should go beyond false compromises to advance key environmental objectives, and policies to encourage "greener" or "smarter" development must recognize real estate's potential for positive results.

Let me provide three examples of positive results that the real estate industry is already having on the restoration and conservation of environment resources. Each constitutes a success for the environment and for the economy.

Recycling environmentally distressed real property. The first involves environmental cleanup and redevelopment of so-called "brownfields" properties. Brownfields are properties that have become "environmentally distressed" as a result of contamination.

The environmental and economic arguments for "recycling" well-situated former industrial properties have been very compelling to some real estate development companies. In fact, those firms, as well as their capital and credit partners, have sometimes played the decisive role in underwriting the cleanup of contaminated real estate and returning it to productive use. …

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