The EPA's Unsustainable Green Building Blunder

The stupid decision to relocate a regional EPA headquarters to an Applebee's office across from a wheatfield in the middle of nowhere

640px-Kansas_City_Kansas_aerial_view_wide.jpg

Aerial view of Kansas City, Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

In defiance of the environmental values it supposedly stands for, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is moving its regional headquarters from a walkable, transit-rich, downtown Kansas City (Kansas) neighborhood to one of the worst examples of suburban sprawl it could have possibly found, some 20 miles from downtown. The result could nearly triple transportation carbon emissions associated with the facility.

In addition, around 600 federal and associated civilian employees will abandon a central city at a time when the agency's own staff is writing reports suggesting that central cities in the U.S. are making a comeback.  Kansas City, Kansas (population 145,786) is much smaller than neighboring Kansas City, Missouri; the loss of 600 downtown jobs is a major blow to the city's efforts to strengthen its core.

This decision is horrible in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start. How the hell did EPA administrator Lisa Jackson sign off on this?

  location of current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Google Earth) 

Let's look at the facts. The satellite image above shows the location of the current Region 7 headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. It's not perfect when viewed through a smart growth and sustainable communities lens, but it's not bad.

  location of new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Google Earth)

Now consider the new location (just above), a low-rise "landscraper" of a building fronted by large parking lots outside of a suburb called Lenexa, Kansas, and across the road from, among other things, a wheat field.

Let's look at some analytical maps and data:

  amenities near current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Walk Score) 

  Abogo map of current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Abogo)

I ran the addresses for the current and new facilities through Walk Score, a site that calculates walkability, and Abogo, the calculator developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology that estimates carbon emissions (and household costs) from transportation by location. Above, EPA's current headquarters location gets a Walk Score of 62, better than 81 percent of Kansas City as a whole (see top map of the two just above). You can see the locations of nearby amenities on the Walk Score map, which also identifies six bus transit lines within a quarter-mile walk of the facility.

Abogo (the second map, just above) calculates that an average resident in the vicinity of the current EPA Region 7 headquarters emits 0.39 metric tons of carbon dioxide per month, slightly more than half the regional average of 0.74 tons per month. Symbolically, it's a great location for an agency that is attempting to address global warming. All that yellow and green on the map indicates that the average transportation costs associated with residences in the area are below the regional average. 

(Abogo doesn't directly calculate emissions and costs associated with commercial and civic facilities, but one can extrapolate that the differences between good- and poor-performing locations would be even greater because of the number of visitors associated with commercial and civic locations.)

  amenities near new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Walk Score) 

  Abogo map of new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Abogo)

Now let's compare the same calculations and maps for the sprawl site to which EPA intends to move. The Walk Score is only a "car-dependent" 28. That is not only far below that of the downtown location and the average for Kansas City sites; it is also far below the average even for the fringe suburb of Lenexa, 86 percent of whose residents are said to have a higher score. You could see all the nearby amenities on the Walk Score map if there were any.  Sheesh. 

But, wait, it gets worse. See all that orange and red on the Abogo map? Abogo calculates that the transportation carbon emissions associated with the new location are a whopping 1.08 metric tons per person per month. That's nearly three times the average associated with the current location and one and a half times the regional average. This is not just some random corporation making a crappy location decision: This is the agency charged with protecting the environment for the United States of America.

(Ironically, EPA's new regional headquarters did, in fact, recently belong to a corporation. The agency apparently decided that, if the site was once good enough for Applebee's corporate honchos, it's good enough for us.)

Well, here's what the building looks like from the "street", such as it is:

  view of EPA's new Region 7 headquarters from the road (via Google Earth)

I think the parking lot between the road and the building has been enlarged since that photo was taken.

When EPA joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation in the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, I applauded them. When the partnership issued its first-year report of achievement amidst an impressive array of actions to support local sustainability efforts, I applauded them again. Here's one of the six core "livability principles" that EPA pledged to uphold as a participant in the partnership:

"Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities--through strategies like transit oriented, mixed-use development, and land recycling--to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes."

How's that promise to support transit-oriented, mixed-use development, and community revitalization looking now, Administrator Jackson?

As for the commitment to "safeguard rural landscapes," the area of sprawling office space where EPA will be locating is, in fact, rapidly converting agricultural land to pavement. Directly across the road from the EPA facility is another low-rise office park whose building footprint is dwarfed by the size of surface parking built to accommodate it.  But adjacent to that property (and in the lower left quadrant of the satellite image above in this post) is this farmland:

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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