Eco-Friendly Smart Growth Takes Root in Dallas

Eco-Leadership

Eco-Friendly Smart Growth Takes Root in Dallas

Savvy developers are capitalizing on growing demand in Dallas for eco-friendly urban alternatives.

Can a city known for its conspicuous consumption really be the next green frontier? Several prominent real estate pioneers and a pro-sustainability mayor think so.

Dallas remains a popular relocation destination for the simple fact that, here in Big D, living well costs less. But with suburban sprawl extending up to 40 miles from the urban core, many are left wondering how "living well" jibes with a long and costly commute and, let's face it, bad design. This shift in thinking is spurring demand for urban alternatives. Several trailblazers are ensuring that eco-friendly construction figures prominently in the new cityscape.

One of the developers breaking new ground in the green market is Enpact Group, a full-service real estate firm dedicated to designing, building and investing in eco-sensitive projects. Enpact Group was launched in early 2008 by managing partner Bryan Korba, along with a team with over 30 years of collective experience. "With fluctuating gasoline prices, falling real estate prices, high energy costs and a growing desire among Dallas/Fort Worth residents to live closer to work and entertainment venues, I felt this was the right time to aggressively launch our company. Our clients demand sophisticated design, energy efficiency, livable spaces and attractive pricing, and our properties meet these demands," said Korba.

Enpact Group operates according to what Korba terms a "comprehensive and intelligent sustainability philosophy." The firm pays close attention to aspects of green living such as a healthier indoor environment, creative design using recycled and locally sourced materials, and access to public transportation.

Enpact Group recently completed construction on a multi-family property featuring LEED-certified exterior wood, R-20 foam insulation in walls and ceiling, strategic use of natural light through window and skylight placement, roof material created from recycled plastics, rapidly renewable bamboo wood floors, ENERGY STAR GE Profile stainless steel appliances, soy-based low-VOC stain and sealants on interior cabinets, concrete floors and exterior wood, dual-flush toilets and a SEER 21 multi-speed HVAC system with fresh air intake.

The exterior features maintained trees on property, a permeable shared driving surface to minimize paved areas and native Texas landscaping to lower water consumption. The property is powered by a mixture of 100 percent renewable energy from Texas-based Green Mountain Energy Company.

Enpact Group's condominiums were built within the same price range as similar "non-sustainable" construction, which may come as a surprise to buyers who still think that being green comes at a cost. In fact, for the same money as regular new construction in the area, buyers can actually save money on energy while enjoying the benefit of living an "eco-chic" lifestyle. "We think this will appeal to a buyer who wants to add an extra element of style to urban living. Greener design has an aesthetic quality that extends beyond the usual," says Korba.

Construction on Enpact Group's next project is under way several blocks over in the Historic Munger district. During our tour, Bryan points to an old loft building. "Our partner Taylor Allday is renovating that building. A PR firm will occupy the top floor." The intersection is an artful juxtaposition of past and future, and not just in terms of the buildings. By drawing young professionals to live and work in an old neighborhood just minutes from downtown, Enpact Group is injecting a forgotten street with vigor while increasing the land value.

With the market at a standstill, real estate developers all over town are scratching their heads. But not Korba. Capitalized through Y Street Ventures and operating with a clear advantage, Enpact Group is relatively protected from the market downturn. "We're in an acquisition mode right now," says Korba.

Enpact Group is continuing the work that Zad Roumaya, another pioneer in urban development, initiated in 2006 with the Buzz lofts. Located just a block south of downtown, the Buzz condos' four-story residential building has an industrial look with metal trim, bright graphics and modern sculpture. Roumaya's company Change Chamber Development calls Buzz "a sensibly sustainable community of 49 condominiums geared to those seeking socioeconomic balance."

"We love the challenge of developing in the 'Core,' " said Roumaya. "The urban centers of most major cities are the epicenters of change, culture, the arts and business. They are the incubators of new ideas. By its very nature, the city attracts people who are not afraid to push the limits and who thrive on stimulation. Our team has experienced this first hand in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and we believe it is Dallas' turn for such an experience."

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Environmental responsibility is the basis of green construction, but conscientious developers understand that accessible pricing is another important tenet of sustainability.

At the Buzz building, 49 condominiums sold for between $125,000 and $240,000. Enpact Group's new condominiums are priced in the low $300,000s. These prices appeal not only to upwardly mobile professionals, but also artists, the self-employed, young couples and empty nesters.

The New Urbanism

Greener urban development is an extension of the New Urbanism movement that began in the late 1970s as a reaction to suburban sprawl. The heart of the New Urbanism is in the design of neighborhoods, which can be defined by 13 separate elements. According to town planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an authentic neighborhood contains most of these elements:

  1. A discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk from the center.
  3. A variety of dwelling types are allowed, which promotes socio-economic diversity.
  4. Shops and offices of sufficiently varied types are nearby to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building is permitted within the backyard of each house, which may be used as a rental unit or place to work.
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their homes.
  7. Small playgrounds are accessible to every dwelling.
  8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
  9. Streets are relatively narrow and are shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well defined outdoor room.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education and religious or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

While the properties of Enpact Group and Change Chamber Development hit many of New Urbanism's criteria, there is still much work to be done before Dallas can turn these pockets of development into sustainable communities. A fundamental aspect of creating a thriving neighborhood is attracting families with children. Dallas ISD does offer a few gems, such as the new charter school Peak Preparatory with standards as rigorous as the most demanding private schools. But many schools in the district simply don't measure up to the standards of professional families. The only way to get these people invested in their communities for the long haul is to situate them near a high-performing school.

Green Living Goes Beyond the Building

There are families that prize the authenticity of urban living enough to pay for private school. Still others are choosing to keep their neighborhood but teach their children themselves.

Rod Dreher, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and author of the book "Crunchy Cons," thrives on city life. When he and his wife Julie moved to Dallas from New York City, they chose to live in a historic Junius Heights bungalow not far from Korba's projects. Schools are not a concern because Rod and Julie are advocates of home schooling. The Drehers are Orthodox Christians, but their choice of schooling is really about quality of education. Julie, who holds an MBA, decided that it was worth sacrificing the second income so she could better manage her boys' educations. Without even trying to be green, the Drehers are living a sustainable lifestyle, right down to buying local produce at the Dallas Farmer's Market.

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"Sustainability is as much about how we live as where we live," says Bryan Korba. "Enpact Group's properties give buyers a chance to be heard, to vote with their dollars and to become an agent of change in our city. While they are making a difference, they are getting to live in a well designed building with a healthier indoor environment. That is what we call the best of both worlds."

Forward thinking developers like Korba are wise to take advantage of a clear niche in the marketplace. But these pioneers won't be going it alone for long. As with other industries, green building is being spurred not only by demand, but also by changing regulations. Dallas recently approved its first green building ordinance, which will be implemented in two phases beginning in 2009. By 2011, all new homes must comply with LEED or Green Built North Texas standards.

Heightened interest in green development in Dallas is being spurred by projects such as Urban Re:Vision, a revolutionary initiative to create the prototype for an innovative, sustainable urban community. As GreenerBuildings reported in its December article on sustainable communities, the Urban Re:Vision project and others recently convened a design charrette in Dallas to create what organizers say will be the first fully sustainable urban square block in the U.S.

The site targeted for redevelopment is a two-square-block area that Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has called a "forgotten landscape" -- an unused parking lot across the street from City Hall. The goal is to devote one square block to green space and design the other square block as an eco-friendly, economically viable area serving the needs of the urban community around it.

With the commitment from the city and the savvy of sustainable developers, Dallas could very well achieve its goal of becoming the "greenest city in America" by 2030. The only variables left in this equation are the buyers.

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, LLC, a Dallas-based sustainability consulting group. EarthPeople works with organizations across industries, ranging from real estate and automotive to publishing and the municipal sector. EarthPeople has helped clients like FORTUNE, TIGI Linea, Enpact Group, the city of Thousands Oaks and the city of Austin implement practical sustainability solutions to save money and bolster their brand.