Editorial: Small steps in the right direction

May 23, 2018 : Newburyport Daily News

As the state moves toward more “smart growth” transit-oriented housing and works to cut greenhouse gas emissions, one project unveiled last week could set a benchmark for how to do it in a comprehensive, sustainable way.

What could be comprehensive about a 48-unit housing plan? Cleaning up a former dump site, for starters; hauling in 2.5 million pounds of granite from the Whittier Bridge project to be used for retaining walls; and creating a development that will produce more energy than its residents consume, if everything works out.

David Hall held a groundbreaking in Newburyport last week for his Hillside Center for Sustainable Living, a 48-unit (with 10 units planned as affordable) development next to Route 1.

Hall took a four-acre former salvage yard, cleaned it up with a $500,000 MassDevelopment loan, and laid out a plan for a community that takes the best green-living practices and puts them in one place. He looked at the three largest activities that emit carbon dioxide — a major contributor to global warming — housing, food and transportation, and he mapped out a comprehensive plan.

When it’s done, the project will have an edible landscape (some areas planted with herbs, fruit trees and the like), permeable road surfaces, LED lighting, areas for gardening, solar panels, solar hot water heaters, shared electric vehicles (with a car-charging station), residential recycling and composting, a community-supported agriculture share program, bike storage and an 83 percent walking score. And the location is within easy walking distance to the commuter rail stop and a walkable mile from downtown Newburyport.

In September 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order laying out a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and start building a more resilient state to cope with the impacts of rising seas and climate change.

In line with that, in February, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center announced more than $1 million in grants for 14 “microgrid” projects, which are communities designed to operate on, or off, the larger electric grid with their own solar arrays, generators, batteries, etc. Those grants of $75,000 each, to communities from Chelsea to Pittsfield, will fund feasibility studies aimed at lowering energy costs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Stephen Pike, CEO of the Clean Energy Center, “While increasing resilience and lowering the cost of energy in these communities, we expect these projects will help to identify market barriers and provide models that can be replicated in cities and towns across the state.”

The microgrids will serve affordable housing facilities, hospitals, fire and police departments, gas stations, schools, emergency shelters, grocery stores and water and wastewater treatment plants, the center’s website says.

Development that is matched with public transit and community infrastructure also encourages sustainable growth. Though it doesn’t specifically embrace a green community concept like the Hillside Center plan in Newburyport, a proposed affordable housing project at Sohier and Tozer roads in Beverly would make 65 of 75 apartments available to families making 60 percent of the median income, with 15 units for families who were formerly homeless. And, in line with transit-oriented housing, the children who eventually live there will be able to walk to the middle school and high school, and their parents can take the nearby commuter rail to work.

There are big things happening in housing, albeit in small pockets in the region. But innovation by individual entrepreneurs like Hall in Newburyport, funding from the state to help identify and encourage best practices in energy use, and planning that puts quality affordable housing near transportation hubs move us all further along the road to better communities.