East Lansing developments spur climate change debate

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Kayla Effner

Construction crew at work on The Hub project on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Bogue Street. The 10-story mixed-use project was approved by the City Council in December of 2017.

Building projects in East Lansing are causing controversy about the environment. Some activists say the energy efficiency of the new buildings won’t do enough to address climate change.

Nicholas Jansen, Michigan State director of the Sunrise Movement, is one.

“We need every new development to be carbon neutral,” he said.

This means that buildings would produce enough energy through solar panels or other methods to compensate for what they are consuming.

Jansen is one of the thousands of young people who have joined the Sunrise Movement to fight climate change and create millions of jobs in the process.

Members say wind and solar energy is not only possible, but more realistic and affordable. The organization attributes the continued use of nonrenewable resources to a handful of executives and aims to eliminate wasteful energy consumption completely.

“There are so many possibilities that could satisfy both calls for justice and for economic expansion, if only we can agree that the benefits must be widespread and place-specific, rather than continuing on the path of maximized corporate profits for the distant few,” said East Lansing resident and Sunrise supporter Nichole Biber.

Although energy efficiency standards have improved, members are fighting for more decisive change.

According to Tim Dempsey, director of Planning, Building and Development for East Lansing, all the current projects were proposed by outside developers.

The three major developments in East Lansing are known as The Hub, the Center City District and the Park District Project. Like most modern developments across the country, these projects must be certified using LEED standards.

“LEED is leadership in energy efficient design, a scoring system process where building owners can try to achieve lower energy use,” Dempsey explained.

LEED was introduced in 1998 and has become mainstream. To be approved by cities and keep energy costs down, most developers have written these standards into their building codes.

The U.S. Green Building Council has claimed that LEED buildings reduce energy efficiency by 25 to 30 percent. Many sources, including the New York Times, have criticized LEED standards, saying they do not save as much energy as predicted.

With less than 12 years to prevent climate catastrophe according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Jansen says this simply isn’t enough.

“What we need is everyone down to individuals, to organizations, to cities to come out and support the Green New Deal,” he said.

Jansen described the proposal by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York as the only realistic plan to address climate change.

The developments in East Lansing, while primarily designed to attract consumers and diversify markets, have some environmental benefits. All three projects are building up instead of out.

“The most energy efficient developments are vertical,” Dempsey said.

Keeping urban areas dense reduces the need to travel by car and build new infrastructure. Stacking floors also minimizes heat and energy use, Dempsey explained.

According to Environmental Services Administrator Catherine DeShambo, East Lansing is headed in the right direction.

“Currently the Commission [on the Environment] is working on an energy policy that will set forth a goal and plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy for city facilities. This is also a strategic priority of City Council,” she said.

DeShambo also mentioned the city’s efforts to spur solar market growth and to reduce carbon emissions.

In 2016, the City Council passed a Climate Action Resolution along with 500 U.S. cities which honored the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement after the nation withdrew.

“The Commission is also in the process of updating the city’s 2009 Green Building Policy,” DeShambo added.

Residents and activists, however, have a greener vision.

“I think it will be necessary to reorient our thinking about what progress and community development looks like and really means,” Biber said.


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