My colleague Matt Parlow has a new article suggesting that real estate developers are becoming more sensitive to environmental concerns. The article, “Greenwashed: Developers, Environmental Consciousness, and the Case of Playa Vista,” appeared as part of a terrific symposium issue of the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review on “The Greening of the Corporation.” (The entire issue is available here.) Matt’s article centers on a fascinating case study of Playa Vista, an enormous (and enormously controversial) mixed-use development project in Los Angeles near environmentally sensitive wetlands.
As Matt relates in the abstract to his article, he finds the Playa Vista saga to be a hopeful one:
While many businesses are becoming greener, development corporations may have the greatest incentive to integrate environmental values into their everyday business practices. With the effects of urbanization, suburbanization, and sprawl, cities are increasingly requiring environmental mitigation measures for approval of new development. In response, some development corporations may become greenwashed to obtain discretionary land use approvals to build their proposed developments. Others may build greener developments to meet the market demand from environmentally conscious buyers. An increasing number of developers, however, adopt environmentally responsible business practices for, at least in significant part, altruistic reasons. A prime example of this phenomenon is Playa Vista, the more than 1000-acre development in Los Angeles that is currently the largest urban infill project in the country. Playa Vista serves as a useful case study for exploring how developers’ inclusion of various stakeholders–particularly environmentalists–may signal a paradigm shift in how development occurs.
By Matt’s description, Playa Vista does indeed seem a model of environmentally sensitive development, but I’m not so convinced by the characterization of the developers’ motives as altruistic. As Matt describes, a series of developers at Playa Vista were subject to considerable political pressure and hounded by lawsuits from environmental groups for many years before the project took on its present environmentally friendly form. While the current developers have exceeded minimal legal requirements, they have also used environmental consciousness as a marketing tool. This makes me wonder whether there really has been some underlying change in attitude among the developers toward environmental impacts, or whether modifications to the project have instead been motivated by a desire to respond to current, pro-environmental market preferences. There may not be much practical difference today between the two possibilities, but I do wonder how long consumers’ environmental consciousness will survive continued economic hard times. For instance, public resistance to new oil drilling in U.S. coastal areas seems to be melting away in the face of high gas prices. If the environmentalism of consumers is just a passing fad, I suspect that the environmentalism of corporations will prove to be the same.