Written by: Ray A. Smith - Wall Street Journal
Green is getting red-hot among apartment developers.
A brochure for the Solaire, a stylish apartment building in downtown New York -- just minutes away from the World Trade Center site --boasts "fresher water, cleaner air, natural material and more light," and bills the building as "America's first environmentally advancedresidential tower."
An ad for Blair Towns, a 78-unit townhouse-style apartment complex in Silver Spring, Md., describes it as a "residence built with theplanet in mind," with apartments that feature "energy efficiency and superior indoor air quality."
A Web site for CambridgePark Place, a luxury apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass., highlights benefits such as "high-quality,energy-efficient lighting in every apartment" and "building materials selected for their healthful qualities."
For years, green architecture has colored office buildings, malls, houses and churches. But it's just now taking hold in market-rateapartment buildings, whose developers -- many with financial incentives from city, state and municipal governments -- are hoping todifferentiate themselves amid one of the worst rental-market slumps in recent years.
The vacancy rate in the nation's top 50 markets rose to 6.8% in the second quarter, the highest level since 1989, from 5.9% a yearearlier, according to Reis Inc., a New York research firm.
Worth the Extra Green?
The move toward green apartments comes amid what developers and architects claim is a growing trend in the U.S. of renewedenvironmental concern. "The environmental consciousness of American society has risen dramatically over the past few decades," saysDaniel Kammen, a professor in the energy and resources group at the University of California-Berkeley.
Apartment owners are hoping that if people shop at health-food supermarkets -- and pay more -- because they're convinced it's better forthem, they'll think the same way when apartment hunting. And, of course, pay more in rent for the privilege.
Indeed, rents at the Solaire in downtown Manhattan, a 27-story, 293-unit tower, range from around $2,300 a month for a studio to $5,500for a two bedroom, "about 4% to 5% more than a typical market rental," says Russell C. Albanese, president of Albanese OrganizationInc., Garden City, N.Y., Solaire's developer. The building features windows with a special coating that preserves air conditioning insummer and heat in winter and refrigerators that dispense filtered water.
But some are skeptical that apartment hunters will plunk down more money for environmentally friendly apartments. "If a regularapartment is $700 a month and a [green] apartment is $800, the $700 one is going to win out, all else being equal," says Rod Petrik, anapartment-industry analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., in Baltimore.
Adds Jamie Gallo, chief operating officer of ApartmentGuide.com, an online apartment-search site: "Price and location are the two mostcritical things in the decision. I don't think [green features] would supercede those two things."
Location, in fact, was one of Ken Carr's primary reasons for moving his family into Blair Towns, in Silver Spring, last month. Though theapartment complex, developed by Tower Cos. of Bethesda, Md., offers such features as an on-site water-filtering system,energy-efficient appliances and use of recycled materials, "we moved here because it's close to the Metro," says the 40-year-oldsatellite-communications contractor.
Benefits Still Anecdotal
Green architecture has demonstrated an ability to lower utility bills. But when it comes to determining the health benefits, greenbuildings face the same problems as bottled water, organic food and herbal medicines: a shortage of scientific data showing a direct linkto better health. Even architects concede that much -- some say too much -- of the evidence about green architecture's benefits tohealth is anecdotal.
"What we really need are good controlled case studies where we have two buildings -- one green, one not," says Anne Steinemann,associate professor in the city and regional planning program in the College of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
But Susan Hess isn't waiting for scientific evidence. She says the Solaire's green features were the primary reason for her moving herfamily there. "My husband and I both went to Berkeley," she says. "My mom said, 'It seems so Berkeley of you to choose a greenbuilding.' I said I'd rather contribute to the solution than add to the problem."
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