Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Within eight years, an organization aims to turn two square blocks surrounding the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW into a national model of environmental sustainability.

Living City Block (LCB), a Denver-based nonprofit, seeks eventually to develop block-wide energy and water systems to cut a 2-block area’s use of energy and water, and its output of solid waste, by 75%.

Half of this will come from conservation and the other half from clean energy generation using existing low-cost methods such as cogeneration, which uses the heat generated from producing electricity to also heat rooms or water.

The zone in question is the two square blocks bounded by 13th Street NW on the east, 15th Street on the west, U Street on the south and V Street on the north. This parcel contains a microcosm of the city: a large city government building (the Reeves Center), two public housing high-rises, a small park and playground, several townhomes, two luxury apartment buildings, and a thriving commercial corridor of bars, restaurants and shops.

LCB’s first step will be to compile a detailed statistical snapshot of the two square blocks as they exist. This will provide a baseline to which to compare future measurements after transformations begin.

Three area universities (AU, UDC and Howard) were contracted for this work, which will include demographics, building-by-building energy and water use analyses, descriptions of green spaces and street life, studying the flow of money into and out of local businesses, and attitudinal and behavioral surveys of residents, business employees and others who frequent the zone.

Before LCB even approached any DC business owners, seven businesses had already signed an agreement to begin compacting all of their solid waste: landfill trash, recyclables and compost, each compacted separately.

Instead of having to pay for trucks to haul their waste away every other day, the businesses, as a unit, will only have to have one truck every other week collect the compacted waste. Not only will the businesses save money, but the neighborhood will benefit from reduced noise and pollution from truck activity. Compacting dumpsters will be installed in March.

Founder Llewellyn (“Llew”) Wells spun LCB off from the Denver-based green think tank The Rocky Mountain Institute, where he had served as Vice President for Communications for two and a half years after deciding to leave Los Angeles and the entertainment business.

Wells developed many connections in DC and the federal government through his work as one of the original producers of the West Wing TV series. His main residence is near Denver, but he now calls DC a second home and shares a Columbia Heights apartment with a friend.

LCB’s first project, a section of downtown Denver occupied by late 19th-century warehouse buildings, has received technological assistance funds from the US Department of Energy. LCB’s DC project has gained buy-in from the DC government, community groups, local businesses and universities. A small staff is expected to be in place this summer.

Among Wells’ initial partners are Scott Pomeroy, Sustainability Manager at the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID) who has lived near 14th and U for 20 years, and Sheldon Scott, manager of the Marvin Restaurant at 2007 14th St NW.

14th & U’s transformation from 1995, top left, to 2005, bottom right.

Photo by sandcastlematt on Flickr.

Wells expects all of LCB’s work to take six to eight years. LCB is close to being able to announce the receipt of grants from several major corporations; AT&T has already pitched in. This will enable the nonprofit to hire a small staff of DC residents, who will to use the baseline data in formulating the most cost-effective ways of reducing the zone’s overall environmental impact while maintaining a healthy mix of housing, retail and office space, and public space.

The District Department of the Environment and the Energy and Real Estate Divisions of the DC government have worked closely with LCB, which is now working to engage DDOT and the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.  The U Street Neighborhood Association, Shaw Civic Association, and ANC 1B have also been supportive, but the area lacks a BID or Community Development Corporation. This, along with the difficulty in translating long-term energy savings into a viable investment, makes organizing the business community more of a challenge.

Wells stresses the long-term nature of what Living City Block seeks to do at 14th & U. But if it is successful in eight years, the demonstrated cost savings and ecological improvement it generates should make the case for spreading the idea across the city.

With that — piece by piece, block by block — Washington will put itself in a position to thrive within the resource-constrained and altered-climate realities that will mark the 21st century while offering a high quality of life.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.