Real Estate Development and Environmental Consciousness

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Category: Environmental Law, Legal Scholarship
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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.

Playa Vista and Wetlands

Playa Vista and 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.

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8 Responses to “Real Estate Development and Environmental Consciousness”

  1. California real estate developers are not altruists, let’s make that clear. What has occurred over the past 25 years is a growing awareness by Angelinos that the natural beauty and functional utility of wetlands was being undermined by excessive development. Protection of wetlands has now become a societal norm, and developers are wise to recognize that fact if they want their projects approved.

  2. I think that it is true that developers are becoming more aware of environmental concerns … but I think that most of them are doing it in response the consumers trend towards being “green.” Most developers use it as a selling point rather than having actual concern for the environment.

  3. I think you are correct that developers are not creating new green developments because they suddenly became altruistic environmentalists. With energy costs spiking over this last summer and the media attention that “green” is receiving there is consumer pressure on developers. Developers know that buyers are presented with a multitude of home choices today. Green design elements may be the variable that causes one developer’s homes sell over another. Anything to get a leg up on what is now a highly competitive market. Even real estate agents can now attend classes to receive “green” designations as an added credential to their licenses.

  4. I remember when that land was originally purchased by Steven Spielberg and a studio to build another location for movie production. Then all of a sudden it is being developed for housing. Several of my friends were and are fighting to protect the remaining wetlands but I have heard there will be more development on, or near them. The West Side needs more housing but that is the only wetlands I know of in the L.A. area and is home to many species of birds not found anywhere else in So Cal. The “Green State of Mind” is a hip thing now and I can see how developers, in order to get more public approval, adopt that label.

  5. I think that the bigger countries should look towards some of the smaller countries without so much wealth or resources to see how they build their homes. There are many lessons to be learnt.

  6. I think you have a point here…Naturally, I believe people would take an extra step to be environmentally conscious. However, people in the U.S. (not all) seem to care more about money than the environment. Once something effects their wallets directly, then the concern about the environment goes out the window. Sad, but generally true.

  7. Some developers may be altruistic with their motivations but the majority are probably going green due to outside pressure; either from organizations and the community at large and in some cases specific requirements need to be met according to local/state laws.

  8. I agree with the main sentiment – although some developers may be incorporating ‘green’ practices in their overall plans, it is more due to more progressive zoning/regulations and public support for those, rather than by completely selfless, altruistic motives. In Maui we have been seeing more community involvement in projects, with some concessions by developers in designating ‘community’ areas (i.e. parks, trails) within the overall project.

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