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(This is the second of a three-part series on sustainable development.)

Go to the Stapleton, CO website and the first image you see is a pooch, a floppy-eared dog. Look a little closer and you’ll see a couple of pets, some on leashes, some roaming free, all within the implied safety of some brick-facade residences. But flashback a few decades and the pictures you’d see would be of hangars and runways sprawled over 4,700 less-than-environmentally friendly acres. In 2001 Forest City Enterprises purchased the first 270 acres of the then-closed airport for what would become a master-planned infill community. At the time of the purchase, the project was expected to take 25 years and cost $5 billion. Jonathan Ratner, director of sustainability initiatives for Forest City, is overseeing the development of the sustainable community. He was also convention chair of the recent green conference, Developing Green: Integrating Sustainability With Success, held in Pittsburgh by the Urban Land Institute. We caught up with Ratner the day after the conference to talk about Forest City’s commitment to sustainability–in Stapleton, and beyond.

GlobeSt.com: How long has there been a director of sustainability at Forest City?

Ratner: The position was officially announced in January of 2006 and I took the position in February of last year.

GlobeSt.com: What’s the genealogy of Stapleton? Was there a Forest City in Denver prior?

Ratner: Forest City had a project in Denver a couple of decades ago, but nothing of consequence, so when we were awarded the Stapleton project, we set up the infrastructure here to run it. The office began really in 2000. We now have close to 70 employees.

GlobeSt.com: You bought 270 acres in 2001. Where does the project stand now?

Ratner: We have roughly 3,000 homes and apartments completed. We have 7,500 residents and over two million sf of retail open and operating. We’ve put into the ground $1.5 billion in horizontal and vertical improvements.

GlobeSt.com: How much more commercial does the master plan call for?

Ratner: The master plan calls for almost three million sf of retail, so we’re two-thirds of the way there, but it also calls for 10 million sf of office. To date, between us and parcels we’ve sold to third parties, we’re probably at–and this is a guess–300,000 sf. So we have a long way to go.

GlobeSt.com: Is all commercial preleased or is there spec?

Ratner: We build on spec in retail. Typically, in office we tend to build when we’re 50% preleased.

GlobeSt.com: Doesn’t spec impact on the degree of green you might want?

Ratner: It could. If you have the opportunity to do a build-to-suit you have more opportunities because the uncertainty is removed. But one of the advantages with the LEED Green Building Rating System is the opportunity to make sure you’re covering the basics, if you will, and doing the fundamentals of green building. It’s low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t have a lot of costs associated with it but it makes fundamental differences to the way the building is constructed and operated. And it does have a big environmental impact. These would be things like how you site your building to take advantage of solar efficiencies or how you protect your site to make sure the heat island isn’t as prominent as it might be.

GlobeSt.com: Heat island?

Ratner: It’s referred to as the urban heat island. Our urban areas are heating up faster than rural areas, mostly because of the dark surfaces on rooftops and parking lots. Green roofs can actually keep a city cooler. In Chicago, tests were conducted in which they put a green roof on half of the City Hall building and the temperature was measured at, let’s say, 160 or 180 degrees on the dark side and maybe 110 on the green side. Spread that over the millions of square feet of commercial and residential space.

So there’s site, the use of recycled material, water-efficient plumbing, all these things you can do whether it’s spec or build-to-suit and gain LEED rewards. But more important, they generate a safer, healthier, better-quality building that avoids the potential for obsolescence.

GlobeSt.com: How does Stapleton rate in terms of green-ness?

Ratner: It depends on who’s doing the rating. Overall, it’s considered the largest infill property in the country. By that very nature, it’s considered to be very sustainable because it takes advantage of existing infrastructure, it works into an existing city grid and it brings community where there wasn’t one before. All of those are inherently sustainable ideas. The master plan created by the city and community of Denver provides a new-urbanist concept of connecting parks and open space to housing and retail and education. When it comes down to sustainability manifest specifically through green building, the project is also held in very high regard, largely because of the successes of our homebuilding program.

GlobeSt.com: What’s happening there?

Ratner: We mandated that all of our homebuilders build to the local homebuilders association green building program. We then raised the bar to Energy Star level in 2005 or 2006. We’re also working with LEED on their LEED for Homes program and have opened the first LEED-H-certified homes. Not only do we mandate green, but we also backfill that mandate with technical support, education and outreach to help our homebuilders integrate these ideas and philosophies into their plan. We pay for evaluations at the conclusion of construction to ensure that they’ve complied, not only on paper but in reality. And then we help them generate marketing and outreach programs for their buyers, which is probably the most important piece. The buyer needs to know and understand the advantages of getting a home like this.

GlobeSt.com: And on the commercial side?

Ratner: I think we’re doing as well. We opened Northfield at Stapleton in October of last year and that received a LEED Silver certification for the Main Street component. We have a 50,0000-sf medical facility that we’ll be submitting shortly for LEED Silver on core and shell.

GlobeSt.com: What kept coming back to me in Pittsburgh was the need not just to install but to instill if you will–to train people on the systems at their disposal.

Ratner: Part of the prerequisites in the LEED system, which is great for the industry, is that you have to put together a commissioning plan. That’s done through a third party contracted directly to the owner so they don’t report to the contractor or subcontractor. They work for us and make sure the systems being put in meet certain standards and are put in right. After it’s completed, they do an evaluation and training, so our maintenance staff has all of that information available to them. LEED also has a program called EB (for exiting buildings), and Forest City is looking at the viability of overlaying the EB rating system on our managed portfolio–which would include both commercial and multifamily. Part of that is a well-established documenting-and-training program for our onsite personnel.

GlobeSt.com: What about costs and returns?Ratner: Within the context of Stapleton, it’s hard to say because the overall return horizon is long-term, and you can’t get involved in these large-scale master-plan communities unless you have that appetite and opportunity. We do. In Northfield for example, we realized a LEED Silver certification for right around 1% of construction costs. So, thus far, it hasn’t had a huge impact on the returns. Corporately, we’ve said we’re willing to absorb this to accommodate our own learning curve and understand these issues that will become required as we do business around the country.

GlobeSt.com: Speak to me about sustainability as it pertains to social issues.

Ratner: Obviously it’s a huge question and some of it gets lost in translation. There’s the technical green-building side, and that’s one way into the conversation; we have to improve the performance of our built environment. No doubt about it.

But Peter Calthorpe, our master planner, made this point well to me. We can make a building as efficient as we need it to be, but if people still have to drive 40 miles to get to it, we’re missing the larger point. The broader concept of sustainability has to do with the triple bottom line–the management of the profit, the people and the plan for environmental sustainability.

Forest City has always responded to two of the three legs of that stool. If there’s no margin there’s no mission. We’re a for-profit enterprise and we need to continue to make money to the best of our ability. From a social perspective we’ve done that and have a rich history of that. We’re 80 years old and do a lot of urban and economic redevelopment. We look at ourselves–as John Knott said–not as a real estate developer but as a community developer. We’ve taken areas not meeting their highest potential and put in catalysts that generate taxable income and a lot of positives for that community. John just takes it 20 steps further. He’s a great model for that, and we haven’t achieved what he has achieved. But at Stapleton we do have a progressive work force-housing program, and the housing is integrated into the community. We also have a robust public-education system.

GlobeSt.com: So dealing with the social aspect isn’t that much of a stretch. If you looking at sustainability as a continuum, you have to.

Ratner: If you want your property to be successful you do. The educational component is a big piece of social sustainability. In traditional sprawl development you simply don’t pay attention to that. For us, it’s a good business decision.

The challenge for us going forward is how to deal with third-party builders coming in to make sure they understand the community’s desires and their own responsibility to provide sustainable product that fits within the social fabric we’ve established.

GlobeSt.com: To what extent does sustainability at Forest City reach beyond Colorado?

Ratner: This is a portfolio wide, organization-wide initiative. It starts in Denver, and Denver is the leading edge, but it’s something that we’re working aggressively to ensure pervades all facets of the company.

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