CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett (left) listens to panelist and Silver Ventures Managing Director Bill Shown (center). Photo by Iris Dimmick.
CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett (left) listens to panelist and Silver Ventures Managing Director Bill Shown (center). Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Engineers, architects, developers, investors, urban planners, and community leaders gathered at the Pearl Stables Tuesday to find out more about EcoDistricts, described as a “convening, advocacy, technical assistance and research platform,” straight from the nonprofit’s CEO Robert Bennett. Many expressed serious interest in establishing San Antonio as an EcoDistrict Target City.

Bennett is the CEO of EcoDistricts, a Portland-based non-profit that seeks to transform neighborhoods and districts into sustainable communities. His appearance here was jointly sponsored by the San Antonio chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute.

Following Bennett’s overview, he moderated a panel of local community builders who discussed the actual implementation of EcoDistricts and the complexities of “urban regeneration.” Bennett asked panelists: Could San Antonio benefit from EcoDistricts?

“To answer your question, yes,” said Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for Silver Ventures, which owns the 22-acre Pearl Brewery property. “We are (already) a part of this and we want to continue to be part of it.”

From left: CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett, Silver Ventures Managing Director Bill Shown, City of Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, and Pape-Dawson Engineers' Vice President Tom Carter on stage at the AIA San Antonio and ULI San Antonio luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
From left: CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett, Silver Ventures Managing Director Bill Shown, City of Austin’s Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, and Pape-Dawson Engineers’ Vice President Tom Carter on stage at the AIA San Antonio and ULI San Antonio luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Societal trends are in our favor,” Shown said earlier in the discussion. “We are often behind the curve, but now we have this great opportunity (for urban development) in front of us.”

Bennett used the Pearl as an example of what can be achieved on an even larger scale through EcoDistricts’ guidance.

Shown was joined on stage by Pape-Dawson Engineers’ Vice President Tom Carter and the City of Austin’s Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens.

“(EcoDistricts) really brings the social equity piece into (the conversation) and the health and wellness piece front and center,” Athens said. “What we’re really talking about is creating the opportunity for health, wellness, and happiness in our neighborhoods. There are a lot of environmental benefits that come out of having a walkable neighborhood … (but it’s really about) providing the same access to the same quality of life.”

Target Cities is a North American pilot project of EcoDistrict that, so far, involves 10 cities. Austin City Council authorized participation in the project about two weeks ago for a downtown district along Lady Bird Lake, surrounded by the new Central Library and the old Seaholm Power Plant. If the idea gets enough local support, San Antonio could be the next EcoDistrict Target City.

Bennett began his presentation with a quote from architect and writer Sam Jacob:

Cities are not about the perfect vision, they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demand.

Economic trade-offs, opposing stakeholders, activism, complacency – cities are messy places by nature, the panelists agreed. Everyone comes to the table with a different set of values.

“The development of the suburbs is incredibly important, but what central city living offers is – in my opinion – a different value proposition. It may cost more, but it results in more value and a higher quality of life,” Shown said.

Bennett and his team in Portland take a “neighborhood up” approach to building sustainable communities, a holistic philosophy that connects and calibrates – perhaps accelerates – all the disparate efforts and initiatives that occur in cities engaged in “urban regeneration” and progressive 21st century community building.

CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett at the AIA San Antonio and ULI San Antonio luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett at the AIA San Antonio and ULI San Antonio luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

San Antonio is preparing to spend millions of dollars of public funds, time and energy on a long-term Comprehensive Master Plan that includes transportation, water, and energy infrastructure analysis.

“(U.S. cities) really need to have higher density development in order for government and utilities to be able to pay the long term costs of maintaining infrastructure,” Athens added. The more sprawl, the more expense, so dense urban development is simply more practical for cities to invest in the long run.”

The EcoDistricts name may be a bit misleading, Bennett said. It’s not all about preventing climate change with completely green buildings.

Sustainable development means “we take a much more comprehensive view,” he said. “Urban regeneration really requires high levels of collaboration … this is beyond public-private partnership. It require a new delivery model to make sure other forms of capital and other partners that arrive join in the development of these projects. It’s driven by collaboration, but it’s tempered by metrics.

“It’s not a place, but it’s a verb,” Bennett said of an EcoDistrict. “It’s a way to describe, very broadly, urban development professionals, municipal leaders, those in finance and real estate, (and) community organizations …. trying to rehabilitate our neighborhoods.

“The way we build our cities is fundamental to our economic opportunities,” he added.

This is the decade of downtown, right? Millennials want walkable neighborhoods, transportation choices, and high-density, urban housing. So then, asked Bennett, why is it hard for San Antonio and other U.S. cities to catch onto these urban regeneration principles?

“One of the reasons it’s hard is because it’s so complex you typically have forgotten, long-gone areas that you’re taking a risk on, you typically have many, many owners, the land is often more expensive than it is for greenfield development, you have environmental issues, you often are encumbered by regulation … it’s tricky and hard,” Shown said.

A more in-depth EcoDistricts training workshop and seminar will take place Wednesday morning at the local American Institute for Architects chapter’s office at 1344 S. Flores St.

*Featured/top image: CEO of EcoDistricts Robert Bennett (left) listens to panelist and Silver Ventures Managing Director Bill Shown (center).  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org