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Green companies' marketers miss the point

The Spectrum Condominium in downtown Falls Church markets itself as "a vibrant new eco-friendly condominium." They tout the benefits of living in a walkable downtown with good bus service and near Metro:

Living in the center of the city between East and West Falls Church Metro stops and along GEORGE, the clean diesel local bus line, will make getting around a breeze預ll while reducing traffic, emissions and pollution. ... So come home to Spectrum where you will find a greener, healthier and more exciting way to live.
The site also touts the building's green roof and eco-friendly appliances. Someone in their marketing department didn't get the memo, however. An ad in the Post offers not a free month's rent, or a free Metro/GEORGE pass or Zipcar membership, but extra free parking. We're not just talking about one free space but a second one for a two-bedroom.

Now that green living is trendy, developers are touting environmentally friendly features in many new buildings. That's great. But if the marketers then just default to the same gas-guzzling promotions that assume that more cars and more driving is always a draw, it undermines not only their message but the purpose behind it. Many of those two-bedrooms will go to couples who want a spare room, or families with babies, and they don't necessarily need two cars even in Falls Church.

The same car-centric marketing blindness underlay Safeway's recent "free gas" promotion. Despite a strong commitment to purchasing renewable energy, Safeway teamed up with BP to give free gas cards earlier this year. Even in stores like the one on 17th Street in Dupont Circle, which has no parking and to which a very small percentage of shoppers drive, cashiers would always ask "do you want free gas?" upon checkout, large "free gas" banners hung around the store, and at one point the cashiers even all wore "free gas" t-shirts. Sorry, my folding grocery cart doesn't need a fill-up, and neither does the bike ridden by the shopper next to me. Free food might have been nice, though, to help power those shoppers on their walk or ride home.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Or maybe it's just that most people who will pay over 425k for a two bedroom condo (or equivalent rent) in a place like Fall's Church are DINK types that need two cars. The developer is clearly having issues selling this condo, or else they wouldn't be doing the rent-to-own thing, so it's not shocking that they offer what their prospective customers WANT, rather then what the "urbanists" want for them.

by local on Aug 10, 2009 2:46 pm • linkreport

The majority of residents of the DC Metro Area aren't like you. I know it's tough to imagine, but most residents would indeed prefer to have a gas card or a second parking spot. It's perhaps the greatest weakness among the anti-car brigades on this website: the near impossibility of recognizing that not everyone wants to walk or bike as their main mode of transportation.

by Fritz on Aug 10, 2009 2:48 pm • linkreport

@Fritz and local: David's not criticizing the companies for providing what they think the market wants (gas or 2nd parking spaces). He's pointing out the mixed messages of "Hey, we're green!" and "Free gas/parking for your second car!"

Good catch, David!

by Ward 1 Guy on Aug 10, 2009 3:00 pm • linkreport

@Fritz, I think you're mischaracterizing David's point, at least the one in this particular post. Here, regarding the condo building, he's arguing that it's disingenuous to tout the project as eco-friendly and yet offer so much free parking. The issue isn't the parking alone -- it's that the building is advertising itself as eco-friendly, somewhat misleadingly, if so much parking is being given away for free.

by Joey on Aug 10, 2009 3:02 pm • linkreport

Besides, the whole "developers know exactly what the market wants so the simple fact that they are offering it is proof that the market wants it" argument has about five states full of empty homes arguing against it.

by Reid on Aug 10, 2009 3:08 pm • linkreport

Other than the mixed message problem, I think the take-away is that these promotions not only reflect the current market realities, but they further entrench them. Obviously companies want to make money, but they could just as easily do a creative promotion which is less auto-centric. How about a free bicycle, a free membership in the Better World Club, a free Zipcar membership, a free SmartBike member, a free SmarTrip card, a free CSA membership, a free membership at a local fitness center...

by Gavin Baker on Aug 10, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

Who got to decide that being "green" meant that you had to take an anti-car oath of allegiance? Why can't a building be green - or even super green, like a LEED Platinum building - and still offer its residents/tenants parking spots? If a building offers 2 parking spots for residents, has bike racks, and offers Smart car parking onsite, does that make it's greeny-ness questionable?

Isn't Safeway also doing lots of giveaways with the curly lightbulbs, in addition to purchasing more expensive renewable energy? By offering gas cards to customers in order to increase its sales (which is the essential point of running an actual business, after all), does that mean it can't claim to be green by self-appointed purists?

by Fritz on Aug 10, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

Do you really think that the free gas is the best thing to increase Safeway's sales at its urban stores? Even 17th Street? Safeway might think it knows what its median customer in its median store wants, but that doesn't make it an intelligent promotion for all its stores.

Many companies, especially many housing developers, don't so much know what the market wants as what the market wanted n years ago. The more agile companies have a lower n than others, but all tend to look at what worked in the past. Giving away parking may be what some want and what worked in the past, but they probably didn't conduct a detailed market research study to know if there are other, more attractive alternatives.

by David Alpert on Aug 10, 2009 3:44 pm • linkreport

David, you're such a saint. You're like an economic Johnny Appleseed - you go from place to place giving free, unsolicited business advice. If you ever started up a business, I'd be the first to invest, given your vast amount of entrepreneurial cunning.

by MPC on Aug 10, 2009 3:51 pm • linkreport

The problem is that saying something is green, doesn't make it so. It is a common problem with current marketing. The message is immediately denied by limiting conditions.
FREE!, with the purchase of...
Unlimited! But not more than ...
GREEN!, with a Hummer...

It doesn't matter whether it's due to market conditions, smart businessmanship, it's still not true. The truth does not depend on statements, opinions nor slogans, but on facts.

by Jasper on Aug 10, 2009 4:11 pm • linkreport

@David: Perhaps Safeway knows that the promotion will draw in the median customers shopping at all their stores, rather than an offer that will attract only a relatively small number of customers at only a few of its stores. I'm guessing that a simple cost-benefit analysis by Safeway shows that a free gas card gets the company more bang for the customer buck than would, say, a free linen grocery bag.

So are you now shifting your argument from being a complaint that the green buildings aren't really green if they offer residents parking spaces, to a complaint that developers don't know their customers' market demands? If so, then what does that have to do with the availability of parking somehow conflicting with a building's energy and water efficiency, and meeting other green standards?

by Fritz on Aug 10, 2009 4:11 pm • linkreport

I think it's a little bit of a fantasy that a luxury condo buyer in a location like downtown Falls Church-- which is "near" two Metro stations but not walking distance to either-- isn't going to want two cars for two adults in a household. It's theoretically possible that somebody in this building is going to commute to work by taking GEORGE to Metro. But somebody with the means to buy an upscale condo like this has the means to buy themselves a faster commute with a one-seat ride-- whether that means a parking space and a car, or a different condo actually located on the Orange Line.

So, I think David's right that the green marketing is disingenuous here. But I also think it's naive to expect a condo building in this location to have residents who are anything but auto-dependent.

by Josh B on Aug 10, 2009 4:11 pm • linkreport

Or, put more simply, David-- I think this criticism was more apt when you lodged it against developments in locations like the U Street Corridor.

by Josh B on Aug 10, 2009 4:15 pm • linkreport

Hi David
Iテや冦 the marketing genius at The Spectrum in Falls Church who approved the テや彳co-friendlyテや campaign as well as the incentive to purchase of a free 2nd parking space.

Just thought I would pass on a couple of things.

My job is to get units sold/rented. Having green features to tout has been my good fortune. It sure beats trying to convince someone that we have the most architecturally significant building in the entire world. But, in todayテや冱 economy, dollar/square foot and builder incentives are what purchasers and renters alike care about. If I have the cheapest price, the rest is gravy. We donテや冲 have the cheapest price. Being even テや廰ite-Greenテや is expensive. So is being the most architecturally significant building.

1. We donテや冲 offer one month free rent. We offer a competitive rent/sales price. Why mark up to mark down?
2. The HOA purchases 100 free George passes. This was part of the proffer agreements with Falls Church City. The HOA canテや冲 give them away. Fewer than 10 of our present residents have taken us up on the passes. But the HOA has to pay for 100.
3. Most prospects come to our building because of its environmentally friendly features which allows the HOA to have lower water and sewer costs, etc. But, getting a 2nd parking space is the number one requested incentive/requirement for prospective purchasers of 2-bedroom units. (feel free to call any salesperson selling any condominium if you donテや冲 believe that) Purchasers look at the 3-5 year re-sale window and believe テや rightly or wrongly テや that a 2-bedroom unit must have 2 parking spaces. While I agree that not everyone uses a 2nd parking space, most of our 2-bedroom occupants have two cars, or use the space for guest parking or for a roommate.
Thanks for taking the time to read this e-mail.

PS I love the idea of a free bike. We have had only one occupant request a bike rack space, so I doubt if it will work as an incentive to rent/purchase. But it might work as a traffic generator. I will give it some thought!
Catherine A. Baum, MIRM
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Waterford Development LLC

by Catherine Baum on Aug 10, 2009 4:26 pm • linkreport

Cathy, thanks for your frank and open response. I appreciate the need to work within the constraints of current reality, and I'm cautious not to let perfect be the enemy of good -- a little "green" is still better than nothing. I'm curious about something, though, and wonder if you have any experience which could help answer my question. How do tenants react to the prospect of paying market rate for a parking space if they want one, in exchange for lower rent? At least, can your tenants sell their extra spot to someone else if they don't want it?

by Gavin Baker on Aug 10, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

@MPC: Considering David is a relatively young guy who lives in Dupont and seems to have ample time to think about ways to improve the Greater Greater DC area, I would venture to guess that he has made some sound entrepreneurial decisions in his life.

@Subway: Thanks for the free gas cards, but your sandwiches already give me plenty of free gas.

by anonymous on Aug 10, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

Not sure I fully understand your question. Parking spaces can't be "sold" by tenants as they have no "ownership" rights in the unit they are renting. Tenants only get the right to use.

by Catherine Baum on Aug 10, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

Okay, then can they sublet their parking spot(s)?

Bottom line: If I live there and I don't want a parking spot, do I have to pay for it?

by Gavin Baker on Aug 10, 2009 5:48 pm • linkreport

I live in a similar apartment complex that, to my surprise, actually won LEED-Silver certification. My brother-in-law, an engineer, explained to me that while those of us who try to live without cars might find this surprising, LEED gives points to developers who put parking spaces underneath the building, on the presumption that this is a better option than asphalt plains that thwart proper drainage. Of course, the fact that LEED assumes cars at all is interesting, especially given that it also gives points for being near transit (as my building is). I guess you have to realize that most of the green changes happening are incremental rather than fundamental.

The last time I checked the basement, however, there were still a lot of empty parking spaces, while the bike racks are overflowing. We also have about 5 Zipcars a block away from the front door. So take heart: just because the spot is there doesn't mean tenants will use it.

I've fantasized about setting up an underground composting center where the empty spaces are...

by Anderkoo on Aug 10, 2009 7:29 pm • linkreport

I am a LEED Accredited Professional and a designer, and it seems like a few important details have been left out, overlooked, or misunderstood.

The property is not claiming LEED rating but it appears to be registered with USGBC. It could mean that they are not awarded any LEED level but more likely the paperwork isn't finalized yet. All LEED registered and awarded projects are listed online on the USGBC's website for anyone to look at. Still, the rating system is by far the most comprehensive and effective tool for measuring the environmental effects of the developed environment, and far more developments use it as a guideline than ever pay the money to register their name with USGBC.

The USGBC which created and oversees the LEED rating system holds that:
--it is impossible to be 100% green
--being somewhat green is better than not being green at all.
--'green' means different things depending on where in the world you live and how a building/development/property/complex is used. The same methods for being green in Miami for example would be terribly un-green in Boston. Likewise, green building methods used for an office building applied to a hospital would not achieve the same environmental outcomes.
--practically speaking, rewarding only the most strenuous efforts to be green has no traction in the marketplace and will ultimately be unhelpful to the environment, thus the certification levels: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.
--some environmentally friendly building methods contradict other environmentally friendly building methods. For example, providing bike racks and showers near building entrances reduces car usage but also consumes more water.

The LEED rating system rewards preferred building methods but they do NOT award points for burying parking garages. They do encourage reduced developed footprint. But this can be achieved by several means;
-- by making a building footprint smaller and making the overall building taller.
--by leaving unused portions of the property in its natural state rather than landscaping it.

They also encourage more environmentally-friendly transportation by awarding points for providing sufficient bike racks and showers, for prioritizing parking for fuel-efficient vehicles, and for building near mass transit options.

The reward-rather-than-punish approach is taken for several reasons:
--there are jurisdictional requirements that must be met. Some cities and counties require more parking by law than others. Punishing a developer for matters that are out of their control, such as lawmaking and transit funding, would discourage participation in green building.
--not all parking spaces are equal. Compare two hypothetical properties, each with 10 spaces. One is a blacktop parking lot, which provides parking for 10 Hummers which are driven 100 miles per day. Compare that two another property which has 10 parking spaces on a light colored surface, 20% of the parking spaces are reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles, the property is located near mass transit options so owners are driving those fuel-efficient vehicles for only 100 miles per month, elsewhere the property has provided bike storage and showers, and has installed a method to collect the stormwater runoff from the parking lot to reuse for watering landscaping. Both have the same number of parking spots, but one is clearly better for the environment than the other. The NUMBER of parking spots is not the problem.

Another thing I think it is very important to understand is that the majority of environmental impact comes from hidden sources--electrical and mechanical energy, which are mostly hidden to the consumer.

by ogden on Aug 11, 2009 12:49 am • linkreport

@ogden, that's all fine and dandy (and I don't disagree on a number of the points), but you're not arguing that the number of spaces is irrelevant, are you? For a hypothetical building in a dense area (say, U Street), wouldn't building 20 spaces, versus 10 spaces be more harmful for the environment? It would be providing 10 more parking spaces in the neighborhood that wouldn't otherwise exist, allowing 10 more cars to park there which wouldn't otherwise be able to, enabling 10 more cars to drive in, using more gas and producing more pollution.

On another point, I feel like this lot-coverage talk assumes a suburban arrangement where there has to be a parking lot. Isn't it better for the community as a whole to have a building lot to have 100% coverage (with density, not parking), to produce a walkable area? If every building preserves 25% of its land, doesn't that create a less walkable area, encouraging more driving? Perhaps the better solution is to bank those 25% into larger blocks at parks or outside urban cores.

by Joey on Aug 11, 2009 1:22 am • linkreport

Joey, I'm not saying the number of parking spaces is TOTALLY irrelevant. But yes, I'm saying, the way a parking space is made and how it is used is more impactful than the quantity.

Using your scenario:

Property #1, U Street Corridor, 20 parking spaces:
--submerged below a mid-rise condo, thus occupying the same pervious footprint rather than adding to it, roof of condo has high Solar Refectance Index surface (such as white gravel)
--provides preferred parking spaces to fuel-efficient vehicles
--controls stormwater runoff from the roof, sidewalks and landscaped areas, recaptures it for watering landscaping.
--management offers discounts to car owners who live in the building and work in the area, meaning the vehicles are mostly used for short trips rather than long commutes. low clearance devices installed to prevent SUVs from utilizing parking garage.
--management works with district to provide bike-sharing station adjacent to property


Property #2, U Street Corridor, 10 parking spots
--surface parking lot with low solar reflectance index (blacktop)
--no stormwater runoff management, everything just runs to a storm drain or into the street
--parking spots laid out for easy maneouvering of large vehicles, attracts SUV owners to use lot
--no hybrid fuel parking or electric car hookups
--no bike sharing

The sum total of the environmental impact of the 10 parking spaces in Property #2 will exceed the environmental impact of the 20 parking spaces at Property #1. It is not the quantity that has determined the environmental impact but the way in which they are built and how they are used.

by ogden on Aug 11, 2009 2:55 am • linkreport

Dear all,

please buy all the condo's and see for yourselves which options you prefer.


by snifsnuf on Aug 11, 2009 3:27 am • linkreport

I've seen a proposed office building targeting a LEED platinum in a dense urban neighborhood with lots of transit options make a big selling point of its 'suburban parking ratios' in an urban setting.

by jon on Aug 11, 2009 3:40 am • linkreport

To Gavin Baker: Frankly, I havenテや冲 had anyone ask. But there is nothing in the documents that would prevent them from doing so except that the spaces are for residents and guests only. So, they would have to sublet to someone in the building.

by Catherine Baum on Aug 11, 2009 8:32 am • linkreport

Punishing a developer for matters that are out of their control, such as lawmaking and transit funding, would discourage participation in green building.

So, if a town set high parking minimums, required 100% of every developed lot to be paved over, and forbade energy-efficient HVAC and electrical systems in its building code, every building in the town would get LEED Platinum certification?

by tt on Aug 11, 2009 8:33 am • linkreport

Based on the comments thus far, it sounds like reducing VMT will be less an issue of developers reducing parking spaces right now. You'll naturally find higher concentrations of people that value having the perceived freedom of a car over being able to walk/take transit as you move away from the city and away from transit concentration. As transit options get better and the infrastructure and land use policies in a community become more walk, bike, and transit-friendly, we'll see less demand for parking b/c the type of resident changes or the same resident changes their views based on day-to-day experiences in a better community.

We should keep pushing, but there are certain market realities for an individual developer (as evidenced by Catherine's comments about demand for parking). They have little power to change the built environment unless it's a very large scale project. The planning dept. has to regulate to get disparate developers to form a new type of community. There's a major balance to strike between land use policies, market demands, and developer cost/revenue. With one-at-a-time projects, you have to move more slowly or you'll leave a developer out to dry and you hurt the future of the whole municipality. I'm sure this is not true 100% of the time.

by Nick P on Aug 11, 2009 10:13 am • linkreport


No, a project would get ONE POINT for not exceeding the jurisdictional requirements for parking provisions in the scenario you described. LEED "Platinum" is the highest ranking available.

The LEED achievements are as follows:
Certified: 26-32 points
Silver: 33-38 points
Gold: 39-51 points
Platinum: 52-69 points

In addition, all projects must satisfy a number of prerequisites which accrue no points but which must be met in order to qualify for any points. The prerequisites are as follows:

--Construction activity pollution prevention (minimizing construction vehicle and staging areas primarily and protecting exposed areas from runoff via nets, mesh, bales, etc.)
--Building systems 'commissioning' (auditing the electrical and HVAC after they are constructed to ensure they are performing as intended by design)
--Minimum energy performance (based on model energy code, it's complicated)
--Refrigerant management (no halon suppression systems or other destructive methods)
--storage and collection of recyclables (minimum 5 kinds of materials, project must demonstrate pervasive participation in the program to satisfy requirement)
--Minimum Indoor Air Quality Management (based on model mechanical code)
--Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control (no indoor smoking, designated smoking areas must be substantial distance from any public entrance, air intake, or operable window)

After these prerequisites are met, the project has 69 credits in categories such of Sustainable Sites (14 points possible), Water Efficiency (5 points possible), Energy and Atmosphere (17 points possible), Materials and Resources (13 points possible), and Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points possible). Each project has unique circumstances that make some points easy to achieve, others difficult, some costly, and some completely impossible.

For example, under the Energy and Atmosphere category, a residential building might receive credit (that is ONE POINT) for "Green Power" buy buying renewable energy from the utility provider, but receive no credit for "On-Site Renewable Energy" because the climate and the site are not amenable to producing enough solar or wind energy to satisfy the requirement.

Likewise, a project team might decide the "Certified Wood" category is less desirable for this project's circumstances than the "Recycled Content" credit, and decide to use as little wood as possible, replacing them with other materials such as steel, concrete, and composites with a high percentage of recycled content.

Accumulating all of the decisions and points satisfied across the various categories, a project receives a LEED designation of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. Every point is determined by a measurable means--usually by percentage of total cost or percentage of total volume.

by ogden on Aug 11, 2009 5:17 pm • linkreport

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