Photo courtesy of Solid Green Systems.

Charla Gomez, AICP, LEED ND, EcoDistricts AP, is Principal / Founder of Pristis Sustainability Advisors based in San Francisco, California. She holds an MS in urban planning/sustainable development, an M.Arch in energy efficiency/sustainable design from the University of Arizona, and a bachelor’s in architecture and urban design from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia. She most recently was project manager at Brightworks Sustainability, San Francisco. Among other positions before that, Gomez was a Planner III with the City and County of San Francisco and a planner and sustainability specialist with Ecology and Environment, New York, New York. Her specialty practice area is district-scale sustainability planning and project implementation.

Land Use Planning and Entitlements for Zero Net Energy in the BAYLANDS

By: Charla Gomez AICP, LEED ND, Founder, Pristis Sustainability Advisors, San Francisco California

The Baylands is a 700-acre master plan proposal for the City of Brisbane CA, on one of the largest undeveloped sites on the west side of the San Francisco Peninsula. The Baylands offers a unique opportunity to redevelop a well-located brownfield site — a precious commodity in the Bay Area — into a world-class sustainable and “regenerative” community. At stake is how the developer, Universal Paragon Corporation, can commit to deliver the project’s entire development program (about 12 million-square-feet of various land uses) with carbon neutral buildings. In 2015 the City of Brisbane adopted a sustainability framework for Baylands that follows One Planet Living (OPL), the highly aspirational framework created by Bioregional in the UK. The OPL framework calls for carbon neutral buildings as one of its core principles, and, most likely, it will be mandatory for the developer to build the project accordingly. This is because compliance with Baylands’ energy goal will need to be in alignment with the fast approaching Zero Net Energy (ZNE) goals of California for residential by 2020 and commercial by 2030. Thus, the delivery of carbon neutral buildings in Baylands is simply a necessity.

Land use planning challenges

Also at stake is also how Baylands can decide on its final land use plan, which should allocate the renewable energy generation capacity required to offset the energy demand of its carbon neutral buildings, including 4,400 dwelling units. The planning process for the Baylands has taken several years and it is currently under review by the City Council, with a projected approval timeline of mid-2017 or later. Brisbane is holding several public meetings and workshops before a final decision for a land use plan can be made. At this point, such decision is being influenced by the City’s Planning Commission final recommendation of last year, which calls for Light Industrial, Research and Development, Office, Retail, Commercial Recreation, and Open Space only. The recommendation excludes housing — a key component of sustainable communities. The 2016 recommendation also allows a one-to-two million square-foot net increase in building area, and it is anchored by a large utility-scale renewable energy generation area.

The area planned for such renewable energy generation in Baylands covers 170 acres. Such a massive allocation of land for renewables (about 23% approximately of the total site) is central to the recommendation of the Planning Commission, and it is based on the environmentally superior land use alternative that best fits the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), according to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR). The size of such area is also justified to meet the renewable energy needs of Baylands to achieve the “carbon neutral buildings” goal, but it also satisfies the renewable energy generation needs of certain areas outside the project (including from City facilities). Overall, this land use planning alternative would make The Baylands net energy positive, but certain questions remain unanswered.

Sustainability is undermined  

While the project’s energy goal appears to be achieved, it is unclear how the Renewable Energy Alternative and its land use planning approach have the capacity to shape the urban fabric and neighborhood character of a true sustainable community. Indeed, the recommendation to allocate such a large area exclusively for renewable energy generation has counterintuitive effects. Dedicating170 acres to community-scale solar is obviously a huge carbon sink, but results in a solar farm surrounded by commercial uses—more of an eco-industrial park, and less a neighborhood or group of districts with a 24/7 live-work-play environment that can shape the character of a sustainable community.

Can The Baylands develop a land use mix that truly supports community sustainability in alignment with One Planet Living and be CEQA-compliant at the same time? The answer is that such alignment may not be necessary. On one hand, CEQA allows a lead agency to issue a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” through which the city can approve a project that advances The Baylands’ overall goals, especially those involving sustainability, which are so embedded in the project’s vision. On the other hand, a creative approach to land use planning and building-scale sustainability could offer a win-win solution.

An independent study completed by Pristis Sustainability Advisors, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, found that The Baylands can meets the Carbon Neutral Building goal for the proposed plan by Universal Paragon by allocating only 66 acres to renewable energy generation. The study built its conclusions on a Zero Net Energy (ZNE) study completed by Arup in 2012 that demonstrated the feasibility of ZNE buildings in California to meet ZNE energy goals for residential by 2020 and for commercial by 2030. Pristis concluded that residential land use is “carbon neutral” for land use planning purposes, freeing housing from the competing land use allocations in The Baylands — and debunking the perception that residential use might potentially be responsible for the need to have this project generate large amounts of renewable energy.

Lessons learned for a ZNE planning approach

A ton of research is currently underway to demonstrate the viability of ZNE at the building-scale level, meaning the need to showcase how buildings from different types can meet the ZNE requirements, particularly in terms of sourcing their renewable energy needs on-site. According to the ZNE definition by the California Energy Commission (and the one likely to be adopted as part of CALGREEN, Title 24, Part 6), buildings should maximize the possibility to source their renewable energy needs somewhere in the building envelope or within the site limits. And yet, the relationship between ZNE building-scale analysis and ZNE planning analysis need further study as developers interested in large-scale ZNE projects face highest-and-best-use analysis of several land use planning alternatives with various renewable energy needs.

Therefore, for ZNE practitioners looking at the feasibility of ZNE districts, urban planning considerations begin to take a central role as land requirements for community-scale solar create competing needs for land use allocation  of other typical uses, such as residential, commercial, open space and the like. For the developers involved in planning of carbon neutral projects (an especially for those working in transit-rich, urban, infill projects), it is of paramount importance to understand the renewable energy generation requirement and implications in land use planning.

Last but not least, ZNE districts will need to plan and get approved by municipalities with the supportive infrastructure to run large-scale ZNE projects. Such infrastructure includes planning for energy storage, distributed energy utilities (i.e. Thermal loops), electric vehicle charging facilities, and other complementary technologies that will ensure the smoothness distribution of energy demand and supply between buildings and community-scale solar areas.