Living City Block


Llewellyn Wells stands next to solar panels on the roof of the Alliance Center downtown

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

Green. Sustainability. Collaboration. The first two are buzzwords we are familiar with in today’s new developments, but collaboration? That is something Living City Block is bringing to the table.

Living City Block (LCB) is taking the goal of sustainability a bit further, by attempting to convert existing buildings with various owners into a fully sustainable community.

LCB is focusing on creating this energy producing community on just one block in Denver (specifically the square block between 15th and 16th Streets and Wynkoop to Blake Streets in Lower Downtown). Its goal is to retrofit this block, so that by 2014 the buildings and businesses on the block will be creating their own energy with no waste, and two years later will be creating more energy than they use.

How? That is what LCB is currently trying to find out.

“One of the reasons we took this on [is] because we saw there was a need for people to pay attention to the retrofitting of small-to-medium-size commercial buildings,” said Llewellyn Wells, president and founder of LCB. “There are a lot of people out doing the great big buildings, and there’s a pretty solid business case… for doing those. The payback periods are really short and reasonable … we saw that [in trying to energy retrofit] smaller to medium sized commercial buildings, the payback periods are not as attractive.

“But what if we brought all of the building owners together in a certain defined area in an urban environment…so you [have] the producing power advantages that a large building has on its own,” Wells said.

That is what LCB would like to coordinate. A block of buildings, working together and investing in energy conserving changes that will help save money and the environment.

The first step for Wells was to get funding for the project and the stakeholders on the block on board. The latter goal has been achieved, a pretty challenging feat considering the variety of owners on the block.

“[Most of the property owners] have agreed that if we can show there is a good, solid investment business reason to do the retrofits, they will do them. If we can’t show that, then they aren’t committed to do a thing,” Wells said.

The funding is another story.

A mixture of corporate sponsors, government contracts, foundation and individual donors pays for LCB’s budget, and though it has enough to start the LoDo project, Wells said more is needed. “We’re incredibly underfunded in LoDo. We need [the] Denver community to step up, but we’re still waiting,” he said. “We need to find out if people want it badly enough to pay for it.”

The lack of funding has forced LCB to drop its initial plans to expand the project into “sister neighborhoods” in Denver, including Five Points and Westwood’s Morrison Road. Wells wouldn’t reveal the LCB budget, but he said LCB needs at least a year’s worth of staffing covered to begin work in a new community.

With the funding it has, LCB has begun its initial assessments, which are being executed by Xcel Energy and Portland-based Green Building Services. Each building will be assessed for its current energy efficiency and with the help of the experts, LCB will make recommendations for each building and the block as a whole.

Changes could be as small as changing the windows or as large as a geothermal heating and cooling system, which involves a block-wide investment in a system that would require digging down into the earth to utilize the relatively consistent earth temperature to heat or cool a building. The LCB vision also includes a community gathering place along the wide alley between Dixon’s Downtown Grill and Tattered Cover Book Store on the 16th Street Mall.

“We won’t just look at energy efficiency in and of itself, because you can’t just deal with energy efficiency with electrical use without understanding water use, because water use uses electricity and vice versa,” Wells said. “You can’t talk about sustainability just in terms of resource use without understanding transportation needs and usages; can’t drive down people’s need for a car … without there being reasons for them not to use a car.”

LCB was originally started as a smaller project at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research and educational foundation focused on sustainability. RMI initially wanted to concentrate on just one block. “It has to be a manageable amount of space and manageable number of owners … when we’re proving the model in a particular kind of community,” explained Wells. “Another reason to have a smaller model area is because you can really make some serious, deep changes because it’s a controllable area.”

LoDo was chosen for its visibility, the challenge in working with historic buildings and, according to Wells, LoDo’s reputation for accepting change. “There is a history of innovation in Lower Downtown, people being on [the] cutting edge of what’s next, and so this group of building owners tends to think that way,” Wells said.

The visibility was important for future expansion plans as well.

Although the plan to create Denver sister neighborhoods has temporarily been dropped, plans for a sister city in another part of the country could begin developing this month.

 “We already have people from various parts of the country and even someone from another foreign country wanting us to do these, but we need to concentrate on this one and get it right,” said Wells. “This has to be far enough along in its development to be solid, for us to be able to take some of our resources and put it elsewhere.”

Beyond LCB’s active expansion into “sister” cities and neighborhoods, Wells believes the project will naturally expand on its own.

“Once we begin to prove [that sustainably can be reached with a reasonable payback] then … like in most social experiments when you are trying to change neighborhoods, they tend, when they work well, to spread on their own,” Wells explained.

Another perk to focusing on the particular LoDo block is that one of the businesses there is already focused on implementing big and small energy saving initiatives. The Alliance Center at 1536 Wynkoop Street is a nonprofit building that houses office, meeting and collaborative space for about 30 nonprofits, including the LCB staff. The Center has already cut its water use by 84 percent and has cut its energy use by about 20 percent. Its investment in water conservation has totaled about $22,000, and its payback is anticipated to be four and a half years.

“It’s exactly what we’ve been doing anyway, so it’s great to have a partner working on the same outcome,” said John Powers, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, which owns the Alliance Center. “Basically we’re going to try to get to zero [energy use]. Our target is the greatest reduction we can possibly receive. LCB is going to help us achieve our goals because they have the technical expertise.”

The LCB project is unique in a few ways.

Certainly one is the collaboration aspect. For LCB to succeed, about 200 residents and the employees of dozens of businesses have to agree to change their practices. More importantly, a variety of property owners (about 36 in LoDo), including owners of buildings, commercial office space and condominiums, will have to agree to contribute substantial financial investments. Although, of course, they will only do this if it makes business sense to them.

“[LCB] is not a charity. We’re not expecting [property owners] to suffer for the sake of us proving a point. It needs to work within their business planning and in their cost structures,” Wells said. “That’s our job to prove that it works on paper and then prove that it gets implemented properly.”

To make it worth their while, LCB wants the payback on investments to be around five years, which property owners agree is a good timeframe. “The whole thing boils down to what the recommendations are and if they make sense,” said Terry Hershey, one of the board members for the property owners of the Hardware Block Building at 15th and Wazee Streets. Hershey, along with the rest of the five-member board, will decide whether to invest in LCB’s suggestions. Hershey is an environmentalist herself and is opening an environmental education center for children with her husband, Al Hershey, in Park County. She said, “There needs to be a reasonable payback period, and not in 20 or 25 years, because people don’t think in that time span. They are more likely to have support if the payback is less than five years.”

Not everyone is confident that even short-term savings would be worth the investment.

Scott Peterson, one of the owners of Players, the men’s clothing store at 15th and Wazee Streets, is skeptical that the project will actually wield results he can use. When the recession hit, Players had just opened a second location, which didn’t work out and put Peterson and co-owner Jim Harder further into debt. They have weathered the storm, Peterson said, but he doesn’t see Players taking on more debt, even if it leads to savings down the line.

“I’ve been doing retail for over 40 years,” Peterson said, “and it’s never been harder than it is right now. On one hand you think [Living City Block] could be great for business, great for [cutting] our expenses … but it’s just tough to figure out how to pay for it at this point. From a practical sense, it’s just hard to image us able to do it unless things change very dramatically in the retail industry.”

Another aspect that makes LCB’s efforts unique is that it is attempting to convert existing buildings into a small, environmentally sustainable mecca. Converting existing buildings, rather than new development, is a challenge in itself, but complicating the project is the fact that most of the buildings were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as warehouses and other retail space, without a glimmer of residential and office use in the developers’ eyes. 

“To show that you can [create a sustainable environment] in an existing built environment is a really ambitious project; if they can prove this business model, it’s a game changer,” said Jack Sinclair, the city’s sustainability coordinator for community planning and development and the liaison between LCB and city.

Sinclair said that around the country there are plenty of energy retrofit projects taking place. Most are new developments and are being done with the aid of federal funds or the promise of a tax rebate serving as the carrot on the stick.

“The majority of the energy retrofit projects are tackling the first 10-20 percent savings through basic improvements such as improving lighting, caulking or replacing windows, adding insulation, adding solar PV and/or updating their mechanical systems,” Sinclair said. “These are all good projects, but they aren’t demonstrating the business case that will get building owners to make the major energy efficiency investments that need to get us to the targets that have been set for the country.”

By the fall, Wells and LCB anticipate having assessments complete to present to the property owners for consideration. Of course, as mentioned, the property owners are not required to take part in any of this, but for now, the interest is there.

When Hershey heard about the project, she thought, “What a great idea, because it’s something that needs to be done. Now the questions is, can it be done.”

That’s what LCB wants to know, too.•