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An urban high-rise makes green dollars and sense

May 1, 2008
by Richard L. Peck Peck, Editor-in-Chief
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Interview with Richard M. Mazza and Jeff Los

At first glance you wouldn't take the building to be: (1) a senior living community or (2) an exemplar of “green” construction. The building, a towering 30-story high-rise in the heart of urban Portland, Oregon, is called Mirabella at South Waterfront. Not only is it attracting seniors to its 224 independent living, 16 residential living, 20 dementia care, and 21 skilled nursing beds, with its comfortable, safe, stimulating, “five-minute walk anywhere” lifestyle, but it features the latest in energy-efficient, conservation-oriented design. Even more strikingly, its “green design” has gained the respect of a hard-nosed accountant who, after initial skepticism, now sees it as a smart move. In fact, he surprised an audience of similarly hard-nosed financiers at the recent Western Regional Conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care Industries (NIC) by, after reviewing the numbers involved, saying flatly “I'm convinced.” Recently that accountant—and business development and planning director for Pacific Retirement Services—Richard M. Mazza, along with project architect Jeff Los of Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, offered an overview of this anomalous but pioneering new facility in an interview with Long-Term Living Editor-in-Chief Richard L. Peck.

Peck: How did the idea of building a downtown high-rise senior living community originate?

Mazza: Pacific Retirement Services (PRS) built the first Mirabella in Seattle in 2004. Even though that market was somewhat less “green” than Portland at that time, it was obvious that our customers were becoming very interested in environmentally friendly design. PRS CEO Tom Becker saw this and, in visionary fashion, committed to developing the second Mirabella this way from the start. We ended up acquiring block 31, site-waterfront, in Portland and decided to integrate this into the design and development program from the start.

Interestingly, PRS operates in nine of the top 25 green cities in America, which are located on the West Coast, encompassing Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area and Sacramento, down to southern California. For public agencies in these areas it has become an expected part of the entitlement process to aim for LEED certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed by the United States Green Building Council 10 years ago to provide a points-scoring process for certification of commercial, industrial and, more recently, healthcare construction for incorporating various sustainable features. Silver is the second level and, as I mentioned, is viewed in some areas as the minimum now. Next level of certification is Gold, followed by Platinum, and in fact, the Mirabella is currently determining whether the Platinum level of certification is within reach.

Peck: You mentioned at the NIC conference that you were initially highly skeptical about this from a financial standpoint.

Mazza: The sustainable features looked as though they were going to be expensive and would probably go through a value elimination process to make the budget work. But after going through the process, which included an eco-charrette with Green Building Services, Inc., and working with our long-time architectural partners Ankrom Moisan Architects, I began to see that this really wasn't cost-prohibitive and created opportunities for payback and many other advantages in a short period of time.

Peck: What were some of the highlights of that design development process?

Los: We knew, for starters, that PRS builds high-quality buildings and has a vested interest in keeping costs low. We also knew, as Rick says, that LEED Silver rating was an expected part of the entitlement process. So we started the design process with a good platform of energy-efficient systems, water conservation, indoor air quality improvement, and wastewater management. For example, we use Energy Star appliances, low-water use plumbing, solar water heating and a storm water runoff system that directs water from the roof to bioswales, treats it, and redistributes to ground water without ever touching the public system. As we developed our plans, we were surprised to discover that seniors were highly interested in environmental issues. Usually this is something you associate with young people, but the seniors in our marketplace really wanted us to have the LEED-certification aspects drive the process.

Mazza: Among other features, we provided for a reduction in automobile traffic and need for parking by offering residents a “flex-car” program allowing them to rent cars, as needed, at very affordable rates with highly flexible scheduling ranging from hourly to weekly. This program in itself has greatly reduced the need for very expensive below-grade parking spaces. We have also provided bicycle parking for employees, as well as transit passes for public transportation. This costs PRS upwards of $100,000 year, but the payback is that it expands our employment zone—we have much greater access to potential employees.

Los: It's worth mentioning that this type of design benefits human health and very much strengthens the organization's marketing program. And, as Rick will tell you, the tax incentives, such as business energy tax credits, are very helpful to the bottom line.

Peck: Yes, Rick, at the NIC conference you ran through a set of figures that made a strong financial case for sustainable design and ended up by saying that you're “convinced.” Would you elaborate on that?