21 Mar Chilean Energy Company Revitalizes Coastal Community
Chilean Energy Company Revitalizes Coastal Community
In coastal Vina del Mar, the fuel and energy company COPEC SA is working with the community to turn a brownfield site into Chile’s first LEED for Neighborhood Development Community.
Winter 2018 PDF Written by Calvin Hennick
Alongside a busy roadway in Viña del Mar, Chile, native plantings are beginning to bloom. Behind the vegetation, a 40-acre parcel used for industry for more than 100 years sits vacant, still undergoing brownfield remediation to clean up a century’s worth of chemicals. But alongside the road, birds are already nesting and hatching their eggs.
Even in this pre-development phase, the Las Salinas project has come to life.
On a typical development, landscaping might be the final task undertaken, rather than the first. But Las Salinas isn’t a typical project. The developer of the site, which has already earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development (ND) Gold for its master plan, is not a sustainability-focused builder but rather the Chilean energy giant COPEC SA, which is owned by Empresas COPEC. The company used the site for fuel distribution for decades, and when COPEC SA approached the Viña del Mar city government with detailed plans for redeveloping the land several years ago, company leaders considered their gesture a “contribution”—until they faced backlash from community groups who were fearful of exacerbating the congestion that has plagued the area in recent years. Instead of selling the land or letting it sit dormant, COPEC SA brought its opponents into the planning process, resulting in a master plan that company leaders now hope will revitalize civic life in Viña del Mar and spark a restoration of the city’s degraded landscape.
The plantings at the edge of the site are a promise of what’s to come, but they’re also a reflection of how the planning process has unfolded so far. The vegetation is not, in fact, the final landscaping for the project, but rather an experimental nursery that will help developers determine which plants are most likely to survive and thrive at the site.
“It’s not about selecting some random native planting,” says Ricardo Labarca Alcaíno, head coordinator for the Las Salinas project at Inmobiliaria Las Salinas, the development arm of COPEC SA.
“We’re trying to figure out which plant relationship works on the site,” explains Esteban Undurraga, development manager at Inmobiliaria Las Salinas and LEED project administrator, who is managing the LEED process for Las Salinas. “We’re showing people that we don’t have all the answers, and that we’re working to find them.”
In other words, the Las Salinas team is listening to the land, gathering feedback, and altering their approach—the same way they changed course with their design process after community groups pushed back on the initial design. They know they made some missteps early on. Now, they’re determined to get things right.
Victor Eskinazi (center) is a senior associate at Sasaki.
A Downward Spiral
In Spanish, Viña del Mar means “Vineyard of the Sea,” and the city’s formerly lush landscapes earned it a reputation as Chile’s “Garden City,” used as a seaside retreat for residents of Santiago, which sits less than two hours away by car. In recent years, though, the city has failed to live up to either its name or its nickname, with views and access to the sea blocked by towering skyscrapers, and erosion and other factors degrading the vibrant ecosystems that helped turn Viña del Mar into a tourist magnet in decades past.
“You drive in, and you can see that something’s not working here,” says Bill Reed, president at Regenesis Group, a Boston-area firm specializing in regenerative development, and an advisor to the Las Salinas development team. “And everybody knows it. The trend lines are going downward: tourism, quality of life, agricultural productivity. The whole city is on a downward spiral.”
“When we went to Viña del Mar, we saw that a lot of the development today has turned its back to the public realm,” says Victor Eskinazi, a senior associate at Sasaki, another Boston-area firm that is consulting on the project. “The city had become a very car-dominated environment, and that was really affecting people’s quality of life. Developers come in, they maximize their built-up area, and they completely neglect the ecological system.”
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that community groups initially viewed Las Salinas as a threat, rather than the “contribution” that project leaders wanted it to be. For years, residents watched their city’s coastline be gobbled up by development, and now here was an energy company proposing to redevelop its own parcel across from the sea.
“It’s a strange fit,” Labarca acknowledges. “I don’t know if there is another kind of company that has part of its holdings related to petroleum that is doing this kind of project around the world. When we started speaking to other companies in the industry in Chile, they said, “You’re crazy, going for this level of [LEED] certification.”
“We saw the chance to learn from the latest global trends in urban development and implement them in Viña del Mar, a city with which we have a historical relationship,” says COPEC SA CEO Arturo Natho, explaining why the company decided to tackle the project. “It was never an alternative to leave the land as it was, or to develop a project without added value. We felt that aiming for a LEED certification would allow us to obtain solid standards from an independent, relevant third party to guide the initiative.”
The problem, says Labarca, is that the company initially approached the community with a final design already in hand. “We were saying, ‘We want to give this gift to you,’” he explains. “And they said, ‘Why is this street here, why is this plaza here, why are these buildings in these shapes?’”
Rather than go on the defensive, Labarca says, company leaders took a step back to rethink the project, and how they could better approach the Viña del Mar community. “It was about the fact that we were suggesting a gift for the city, without making the city a participant in defining what the gift should be,” he says.
The initial design did not incorporate LEED, and was focused on maximizing the development allowed by local regulations. The design also neglected the hillside at the back of the site, and did little to integrate with the citywide transit systems.
“We realized that, if we really wanted to give a contribution, we should work with the community and with the city to understand the potential of this place, and the role of the site to get [the city] to that potential,” Labarca adds. “That’s the contribution.”
Your Project Is Not the Project
Over the course of two weeks, Las Salinas representatives met with 18 activist groups that were initially opposed to development at the site. After the meetings, says Reed, virtually all of the groups “flipped 180 degrees.”
The development team got buy-in from the community by shifting its focus away from the development site itself, and onto the city as a whole. For example, the project team is working with community groups on projects such as the formation of a cultural foundation, the recovery of “natural beach formation dynamics” at a local beach, and improved ocean access from communities neighboring the project. Reed contrasts this approach with what he calls a “transactional” relationship, where developers agree to certain concessions in exchange for permission to build their projects. Instead, he says, the Las Salinas team treated community members as partners with common goals.
“We helped people to see that all of us are in this together,” Reed says. “What we found out is that almost everybody was interested in the health of the city. And so the surrounding ecosystem became the project.”
The shift speaks to one of Reed’s fundamental beliefs about sustainable development: that green buildings shouldn’t be islands of sustainability, but should rather promote the health of communities and the planet on a larger scale. “I tell architects, ‘Your project is not the project. Your project is the health of the ecosystem,’” Reed says. “Why else do we do green buildings? People couldn’t care less about your project. What they want to see is how it impacts them, and that’s the quality of life in the city.”
During conversations with community groups, Reed says, residents frequently expressed nostalgia for the city’s past. “People would talk about the gentility of life, or the wonderful seasonal variation of the pulsing tourism and then the quiet season. The quality of the air and the foliage, the jobs that were there,” Reed recalls. “It was about a way of living in a ‘Vineyard of the Sea’—Viña del Mar. They kept asking, ‘Why did that disappear?’ The streets have become a bit mean. And before, it was this genteel city. The way that’s going to be recovered isn’t because we come in with a lot of resources and building projects, but because we come in and we’re able to show people that, if we work together, we can get somewhere.”
By bringing community members into the planning process, Reed says, the Las Salinas team didn’t merely quell the uprising against the development but also created a powerful ally. “They were going to spend all this time and money fighting the development,” Reed says. “Now their resources can go to something positive. You’re tapping into their energy. It’s pretty amazing.”
Still, certain obstacles remained. While the Las Salinas team now wanted to have an impact on the city as a whole, they still only controlled one 40-acre parcel. And while community members now felt that their voices were being heard, and were on board with the idea of working together to improve Viña del Mar, it wasn’t yet clear whether they all agreed on what, exactly, that would mean.
“What energized people was not the project itself or any specific element of the project,” says Eskinazi. “It was how to improve the health of the city. For us, the key question was, ‘How do you translate that into the site?’”
Building a Bridge
The Las Salinas team began implementing their new vision of a community—an ecosystem-regenerating project—with small steps. They put in the plantings. They learned that the site had become a draw for skateboarders during the years it had sat vacant, and they began having conversations about how to incorporate skating elements into the project. They tore down an opaque wall around the site—which was covered with fliers and ads, and which residents considered a blight—and replaced it with a transparent fence.
Over time, and with significant input from community activists, the team devised the LEED ND master plan. The mixed-use development calls for underground parking, green roofs, and hardscape materials designed to reduce the heat island effect; at least one recycling station, hazardous waste dropoff point, and compost station available for all occupants; bike storage, bus stops, and space for a potential light rail line; and rainwater capture features and requirements for efficient water systems in buildings. The intent is to also recycle and reuse at least half of the nonhazardous construction debris during the building phase.
While these features will reduce the environmental impact of development, the Las Salinas team has its eyes on a bigger goal: turning the project into a “bridge” that connects residents to civic life and ties together disparate ecosystems. The master plan calls for a community center, a cultural center, public open space, the preservation of seascape views, and an elevator to take people down from the hillside to the level of the sea—all of which will contribute to the sense that the project is meant for the entire city. The plan also calls for increased soil depth to accommodate a tree canopy that will create a “biological corridor” between the hillside and the ocean.
“A lot of projects are very insular, very inward focused,” says Eskinazi. “They’ll create a park, but only for the residents. This project is very outward looking. A more aggressive developer might put the tallest buildings closest to the sea. At Las Salinas, that’s where a park will sit.”
Undurraga says the development will be a “stepping stone” between the ecologically rich (but currently degraded) hillside and the ocean. “We have these two starring systems, and they’re not connected,” he says. “The project becomes the bridge.”
The project team hopes that what they start at Las Salinas will become contagious, sparking ecological restoration throughout the city. “We want Las Salinas to be a catalyst,” says Labarca, noting that the development team is working to support external projects like water basin recovery and scientific advancements in remediation for contaminated sites. “We need other companies, community groups, and residents to feel a sense of ownership of what’s happening at Las Salinas. If not, it’s just going to be a very cool project. If we want to create an impact on the health of the city, we need to create this sense of ownership.”
For as far as the Las Salinas team has come, the project still has a long way to go. The site is still undergoing remediation, and although the master plan has been precertified, it won’t be formally approved by the city until the cleanup process is complete. A skeptic might wonder whether the goodwill the team has built up in the community might dissipate once shovels are in the ground, and once economic or other factors lead to one community group or another not getting what they want from the project.
But the team members say they’re confident that the collaborative atmosphere they established during the planning process will carry over into the construction—and beyond. “What we’re building is an energy field, and a field of energy is contagious,” says Reed. “It’s not us doing it. What we’re doing is organizing the community and building their capacity to work together.”
The idea that this capacity building will be able to spark transformation in Viña del Mar, Reed insists, isn’t fanciful or overly idealistic. “I think it’s actually a lot more ‘woo woo’ to think that a green building alone is going to work all this magic,” he says. “It doesn’t. It’s not the building. It’s how we engage the context, the people, the ecosystem.”
Similarly, Undurraga balks at the notion that the relationship between the development team and community groups will deteriorate as the project moves forward. “I’m very confident it’s going to go the opposite way,” he says. “It’s going to flourish. We made the mistakes already, and we’re correcting them.”
The LEED certification, Undurraga says, does not represent a finish line, but rather a starting point for Las Salinas. “Some people may be afraid that that sets the project in stone,” he says. “It’s the opposite. This sets the baseline. It’s the lowest we can achieve. Now, we’re only going to move forward.”
Labarca says he expects community input to continue to shape the project through its completion. “We’ve learned that we can’t just shut the doors and shut our ears in the process and not communicate and engage with the community,” he says. “If we freeze right now the project; in three more years, it’s going to be obsolete. It has to keep evolving.”
GREEN CHILE, BY THE NUMBERS
“Chile was one of the first countries in Latin America to start using LEED,” says María Fernanda Aguirre, a manager at Chile Green Building Council. “At first, most of the projects were commercial buildings, but during the last [few] years, many different types of buildings have joined this movement, choosing LEED as the tool not only for certification but also to improve the way buildings are designed and constructed.”
Among all countries in Latin America, Chile is the third most active green building market, with its number of LEED-registered and LEED-certified projects ranking behind only Brazil and Mexico:
- Total Projects: 410
- Total Gross Square Footage: 63.4 million
- Certified Projects: 177
- Certified Gross Square Footage: 23.5 million
- Total Residential Units: 3,292
- Certified Residential Units: 967
- LEED Professionals: 85
Data as of February 2018