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Building Green To Get Push -- But How? 

The large number of environmentally friendly buildings in Pittsburgh has garnered the city plenty of national publicity. But the city Planning Commission remains locked in a debate on how to encourage even more "green" construction -- without simply throwing greenbacks at developers.

Since December, commission members have mulled a City Council bill to allow up to 20 percent more square footage of construction on a site than zoning regulations permit -- if a building is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, a building industry nonprofit. Such buildings meet energy efficiency standards in construction and operations, from air-conditioning to lighting. After Seattle and Portland, Ore., Pittsburgh has the greatest number of certified structures -- 17 and counting.

However, under the proposed bill, developers would not be able to use the bonus to build structures taller than the surrounding buildings in a residential district, preventing homes from being dwarfed by commercial ventures. The law also would hold a building's occupancy permit until certification is complete, a process that can take months.

"It's not an incentive. ... This is so limiting," said planning commissioner Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, one of Pittsburgh's major developers. The commission recommended disapproval, although the next move is up to City Council.

In the meantime, the commission asked that city planning department Director Pat Ford examine the possibility of expediting green building permits -- another possible incentive for green builders. Fast-growing cities such as Chicago, Santa Monica, Calif., and Gainesville and Sarasota, Fla., already offer this enticement.

However, getting a building permit within two months or less is not necessarily a problem here. "I thought the permitting process is pretty expeditious" already, says Ernie Sota, an Avalon-based developer who favors the Council proposal.

Rebecca Flora, executive director of Downtown's Green Building Alliance, says her group spent more than three years helping the city craft the original legislation. But still she feels encouraged that the commission is looking for new ways to push for green buildings.

"Without some proactive city leadership, it'll undermine Pittsburgh's position as a green city," Flora says.

"We don't want a symbolic gesture. We'd like to have something meaningful," argues Kyra Straussman, the commission's vice chairwoman, in favor of offering expedited building permits. "Time is money in development. Anything you can do to make it go faster would be meaningful."

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