An assembly of the nation's premier green architects, engineers, academics, and policy makers was gathered Sept. 28 in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, patiently awaiting a keynote address from Mayor Gavin Newsom. The speech was supposed to inaugurate this year's West Coast Green, the largest residential green building conference in the country.
But the anticipation of the crowd quickly turned to ill humor when it was announced that the mayor had decided to attend another event instead — the grand opening of the biggest Bloomingdale's west of the Continental Divide.
"I knew it!" one woman at West Coast Green lamented. "I knew he wouldn't come."
"He's at Bloomingdale's," another chided.
Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone said the mayor believed he was scheduled to speak at the conference Sept. 30, and he did. But that was a day for the general public to come and learn about the frontiers of green building. By then, many of the disgruntled architects and planners had already left.
"I have to say that we are all full of contradictions, and we would not be here today unless we were," said Jim Chace, the director of Pacific Gas and Electric's Pacific Energy Center, who spoke in the mayor's slot Sept. 28.
"I promised I wouldn't take any shots [at Newsom], but this should not be so easy," Chace continued cheerily. "The fact is that there's a contradiction here, and contradictions are just a sign in our lives that it is time to look at change."
Newsom has regularly touted San Francisco as a leader in the emerging field of green building. But the conference and the mayor's speech snafu raise the question of where the city really stands when it comes to building — not just talking about — green structures.
Green architecture starts with common sense. It's about properly orienting buildings to the sun and the wind, making sure that insulation actually insulates, and using recycled material instead of finite or environmentally harmful ones.
But in the eyes of industry and government professionals, a building isn't officially considered green until it passes a national rating system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Buildings that earn enough credits get one of four LEED ratings: certified, silver, gold, or best of all, putf8um.
When it comes to LEED certified buildings, San Francisco can claim just seven, three of which belong to green architecture firms. That puts the city in fifth place, behind Pittsburgh, Pa. (8); Atlanta (10); Portland, Ore. (11); and Seattle (14).
"There really isn't much," Fred Stitt, founder and director of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, told the Guardian. "About three years ago, I wanted to organize a tour of green buildings in San Francisco, and I couldn't find any."
That was before the work had begun on the LEED gold Federal Building and the LEED putf8um Academy of Sciences, which Stitt called "a masterpiece." Nonetheless, he said San Francisco's reputation as a driver of the green building movement was undeserved.
"Everyone thinks that Berkeley is a liberal bastion," Stitt said. "But if you live here, it's just a Midwestern town with a bunch of homeless people.... San Francisco's reputation is manufactured the same way."
Certainly some other cities are doing as much, if not more than San Francisco. This city's most important green building ordinance requires all new municipal buildings larger than 5,000 square feet to meet LEED silver standards. Yet there are no requirements or incentives for the private sector to build green in San Francisco.
Santa Monica also requires government buildings to be green, but it offers grants up to $35,000 for LEED certified buildings, including those in the private sector.