Blueprints greener in Chapel Hill by Jesse James DeConto, Staff Writer, News & Observer

CHAPEL HILL – A local architect is proposing one of the most ambitious green projects in the United States.

Ironically, the town’s own environmental protection rules could derail the plan.

Local designer and developer Phil Szostak, who is building the Durham Performing Arts Center, has proposed what would be one of the nation’s first zero-carbon developments at Chapel Hill’s southern gateway.

Located at the intersection of N.C. 54 and South Columbia Street across from Merritt’s Store, the six-story “Columbia Street Annex” would have 32 apartments and 12,000 square feet of shops and offices. Szostak’s “zero-carbon” complex would use exclusively local, nonpolluting and renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal or wind.

The mixed-use development would out-green Greenbridge, a pair of eco-friendly condominium towers being built in downtown Chapel Hill.

Bill Zoeller, a Connecticut architect leading the U.S. Consortium for Advanced Residential Buildings, said zero-carbon buildings are rare and extremely ambitious. He has heard of a few single-family homes producing all the energy they use, but only in places with less extreme climates, such as coastal California. Across the Atlantic, the British government has decreed that all new homes will reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2016.

“It’s still pretty hard to do,” Zoeller said. “You’ve got to pull out every possible stop.”

Szostak concedes that eliminating carbon emissions will be tough, but he still promised it as part of his proposal to the town.

“Everybody told me, ‘Don’t write it down,’ ” he said. “There’s no way that we could proceed with the big vision without setting that kind of a standard. It’s a matter of money. It’s not a matter of the technology.”

By comparison, Greenbridge Developments, designed by international eco-architectural star Bill McDonough, anticipates cutting carbon emissions in half compared to a typical building.

Like the Greenbridge partners, Szostak is proposing solar power and rooftop gardens. With nearly three times as much land to work with, Szostak is also planning a geothermal system that would use stable underground temperatures to draw heat in the winter and expel heat in the summer, a technology that Greenbridge found incompatible with its underground parking garage. Plus, Szostak wants to power his ventilation system with wind.

“It really does look greener than Greenbridge,” said George Cianciolo, the town Planning Board’s liaison to the Community Design Commission, which reviewed Szostak’s concept plan last week. “Everything you could possibly want in a green building is there.”

Added Zoeller: “It sounds like they’re pushing it as far as they can go.”

But Cianciolo said the Town Council will face a tough decision when it reviews the project in February. Szostak wants to build within about 60 feet of a stream, but the town requires buffers so that foliage can filter rainwater before it reaches a stream.

Szostak says the stream is sometimes dry. Such intermittent streams require only a 50-foot buffer, but the state currently classifies it as a year-round stream, requiring 150 feet of protection. The stream also flows through a 15-inch pipe, and Szostak said he plans to remove the pipe and reestablish a free-flowing stream with a filtration system so the water is cleaner than it is now.

But Cianciolo said the council might not want to bend the rules, especially with UNC-Chapel Hill also proposing to reclaim a stream as part of the Carolina North project.

“That’s why I think this is a real tricky one,” he said. “You like the idea of encouraging green building, but … the council could set a precedent that they might not like later.”

Szostak is also relying on the state Department of Transportation, which this summer approved a plan to add sidewalks and bike lanes to both sides of South Columbia Street from N.C. 54 to Manning Drive. Currently, bicycle and pedestrian access to Szostak’s 4.6-acre site is perilous, but the N.C. DOT plan will enable residents to walk and bike to the UNC-CH campus and downtown Chapel Hill.

“We probably couldn’t start construction without that work being done,” said Szostak.