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Wetland Services: Aesthetics, Floods, and Endangered Species

 800px-Northern_Map_Turtle,_closeupWe’ve been talking about wetlands for the last couple of weeks, and continue this week with the next three functions and values defined by the Vermont Wetlands Program

Open Space and Aesthetics: In Vermont, we very much appreciate the value beautiful, open spaces bring to the state. They are a major tourist draw, and tourism is a major element of the Vermont economy. Total tourist spending in the state totals $2.2 billion and generates 23% of employment in the state. In parts of the state with more development, the open space provided by wetlands is more valuable.

Storm and Flood Water Storage: In the wake of Hurricane Irene, we may consider the flood-mitigating effects of wetlands to be their most important asset. During snow melt, rain storms, or hurricanes, wetlands can temporarily store excess water, keeping it from wl_flood3bflooding developed land or lessening the severity of a flood. After the storm, the wetlands slowly release the stored water, lessening the likelihood of downstream flooding.

Endangered and Rare Species: According to the Vermont Wetlands Program, up to 43% of the nation’s endangered and threatened species rely on wetlands in some way for survival. These species are dwindling, largely because of human development. Without fully understanding how these species interact with each other and what they contribute to the ecology of a place, we cannot understand what might be lost with their extinction.

 

Photos:

Top: Map Turtle, Wikimedia Commons User Dger, CC license

Bottom: Wetland during/after a rain event, Vermont Wetlands Program

Wetland Services: Habitat and Recreation

Moose
Moose. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

We spend a lot of time in this office figuring out how to work around and protect wetlands during construction projects, for good reason: wetlands provide a host of services that are valuable to both animals and humans.

The Vermont Wetlands Program recognizes 10 functions and values for wetlands. This blog looks at the first three: Wildlife Habitat, Fish Habitat, and Recreation and Economics.

Wildlife Habitat: Wetlands provide habitat (a place to live and food to eat) for many species of plants and animals. According to the Vermont Wetlands Program, wetlands have a very high rate of plant productivity, meaning they are very good at turning energy from the sun into food for animals to eat. These plants also provide good hiding spots for many animals, especially migratory birds. Why is all of this important? We as humans depend on a robust ecosystem to provide the resources we need to survive. Without it, our needs – from clean air and water to timber and food – would not be met.

View_of_stream_and_forest
Streams can have wetlands around them, or connect wetlands to larger lakes. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fish Habitat: In addition to plants, birds, and other animals living in the wetlands, fish live and breed there. The Northern Pike spawns in wetlands off Lake Champlain, for example; a healthy population of these fish is required for commercial and recreational fishing to continue. Not all wetlands provide fish habitat, but the ones that do are linked to our ability to continue to catch and eat fish.

Recreation and Economics: Wetlands are not only beautiful, they are full of species that people like to hunt, catch, and photograph. According to the Vermont Wetlands Program, the photography of wetland-dependent bird species entire almost 50 million people to spend $10 billion annually, nationwide. And waterfowl hunters spend over $600 million annually nationwide. That’s big business, especially in a tourism-dependent state like Vermont. Wetlands also provide timber, fish and shellfish, blueberries, cranberries, and wild rice (not all of these are harvested in Vermont, of course).

 

(Photos: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Why Care About Wetlands?

Cattail (Photograph from Wikimedia Commons user Diane 9247)

One of the first things we do when we start designing a site (whether for a building, parking lot, or green space) is determine if there are wetlands on the property. If we think there might be, we hire a wetlands consultant to tell us exactly where the wetlands are and what kind they are.

Why? Well, it’s the law. But we’re doing more than just meeting a legal requirement. We’re trying to ensure that the wetlands in our state are preserved so they can continue serving valuable functions for wildlife and humans.

The Vermont Wetlands Program recognizes 10 functions and values for wetlands:

  • Wildlife Habitat
  • Fish Habitat
  • Recreation and Economics
  • Open Space and Aesthetics
  • Storm and Flood Water Storage
  • Endangered and Rare Species
  • Exemplary Communities
  • Education and Research
  • Erosion Control
  • Water Quality Protection
Marsh Marigold (Photograph from Wikimedia Commons user Plismo)

We will tackle each of these functions over the next several weeks, but the short version is this: wetlands are valuable not only in ecological terms, but also in economic terms. They save our buildings and communities from flood damage and mitigate the flood damage we do get. They filter water before it gets to our rivers and wells. They provide habitat for animals and plants, and draw tourists to the state.

So how can you tell if you have a wetland on your property? The Wildlife Program has a great guide  for landowners. You want to look for three things: water, wetland plants, and wetland soil. If there’s a wet, marshy spot or a pond or just a spot where trees and plants often fall over, you might have a wetland. If there are cattails, sedges, or other wetland plants, or if trees have shallow roots, you might have a wetland. If you dig a hole and it fills with water, or if the soil is especially dark or streaked with red, or smells like rotten eggs, you might have a wetland.

The only way to know for sure, though, is to contact a wetland scientist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Retreat Farm: Playing With Conceptual Design

When the Windham Foundation approached Stevens & Associates about coming up with concepts for redeveloping the Retreat Farm property out on Route 30, we knew if would be a fun project. At this stage of design, which you could call the “dream” stage, there are few limits to what you can explore. We keep budgets in mind, but we also encourage our clients to dream big. Sometimes, a design that seems impossibly expensive will come to fruition through creativity and innovation.

On to the details: for the Windham Foundation, we looked at repurposing existing farm buildings to create a retail and manufacturing cluster to add to Grafton Village Cheese’s existing facility. We looked at adding parking to the site and making it easier for pedestrians to enter and explore the site and access the Retreat Trails toward the back of the property.

Most exciting for us is the possibility of turning Route 30 into a boulevard, with a bike and walking path separated from the road by a planted strip. A planted strip would also separate the traffic lanes. Both of these things lead to better pedestrian and cyclist safety, since they visually cue drivers to slow down and watch for traffic. Such a boulevard could become a grand entrance to Brattleboro from Route 30.

It’s important to note that this is just a first pass at a conceptual design, and there is a lot of hard work before any of it would become reality. Further study will tell us where the wetlands are on the property and what effect development would have on them. It will also tell us if there are archaeological resources that need to be protected, and how best to control stormwater. We will look more closely at the buildings and what it would take to renovate them and adapt them to new uses. And then we will look at how much all of these ideas will cost.

 

 

 

Pedestrian Safety is Good for Business

Smart Growth American and the National Complete Streets Coalition have issued a report, entitled “Dangerous By Design 2014,” looking at the causes and frequency of pedestrian deaths and injuries on the nation’s roadways. It’s worth a look, especially in light of recent pedestrian accidents in the Brattleboro area.

Many of the hallmarks of “dangerous design” are present in our region, including state highways and thoroughfares with pedestrians and cyclists sharing roads designed for high vehicle speeds. (Think Route 9 between Marlboro and Brattleboro, or Route 30 coming into town.)

There’s a ton of data in the report, but what struck us was a small case study about West Jefferson, North Carolina. Apparently, the main street of the town is also a state highway, which had been designed for large trucks and high vehicle speeds.

Working with the state, the town eliminated traffic signals and replaced them with four-way stop signs, painted high-visibility crosswalks, increased on-street parking, and extending curbs to lessen the length of pedestrian crossings. Traffic slowed and people started walking again.

Within a few years, new stores opened up in previously vacant storefronts (dropping vacancies from 33 to 5). The downtown renewal prompted $500,000 in renovations and investment, the opening of 10 new businesses , creation of 55 new jobs, and a 19% increase in tourist visits.

The point is this: pedestrian safety is good for business, good for downtowns, good for the grand list, good for just about everyone and everything. There are several plans for the Brattleboro area that incorporate these measures; let’s work to get them built.

 

(Photos from visitwestjefferson.org)

 

 

Welcoming Ham Hodgman

We’d like to welcome Ham Hodgman to the team here at Stevens & Associates. Ham worked for us quite some time ago, and then moved away down South. But now he’s back, bringing his civil engineering expertise with him.

To quote his resume:

“Hamilton (Ham) Hodgman has worked as a civil engineer in Vermont, North Carolina, and South Carolina for over a decade. His work has included schematic design, design development, state and local permitting, and construction phases for residential and commercial construction. He is well-versed in public presentations and client relations.

In addition to his civil engineering and design work, Ham has extensive experience providing construction services, including technical review, geotechnical engineering, inspections, and materials testing on projects for industrial, institutional, and commercial facilities clients.”

 

 

 

Historic Preservation is Green

While the greenest building may be the one that’s never built, the next greenest may be the historic one that’s being rehabbed.

A couple of years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a study quantifying the environmental benefits of rehabilitating old buildings instead of construction new ones. The study concluded that it can take “between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.”

Renovation of historic buildings has environmental costs, too—the materials used in renovation take energy to make and put in the building. But the environmental costs are 4%-46% less than those incurred by new construction.

The study offers some caveats. Renovation needs to improve the energy performance of the building to pay off, and you need to be careful about the types of materials you use. Turning warehouses into apartments, for example, requires many new materials and may not offer any environmental benefits over building new.

Making an older building meet the demands of the twenty-first century isn’t a simple process. In the Brooks House, for example, we had to add framing to increase the available space for insulation. Many of the windows were replaced, and others (the ones that were especially important historically) were rehabilitated to make them more energy efficient.

Many of the features of historic buildings are inherently energy-efficient. Large, operable windows allow daylighting and ventilation, meaning you can turn lights and air-conditioning off more often. Massive brick walls take a long time to heat up and cool down, which means that interior spaces stay comfortable longer without air conditioning or heat.

Many historic buildings are located in neighborhoods and downtowns that were built before the automobile was invented. Historic buildings make up Main Street, the icon of mixed-use walkability in this country. Kaid Benfield noted recently that “Main Street is a terrific model worth preserving and emulating…It has a human scale, neither skyscrapers nor sprawl, but something in between.”

 

 

What We’re Reading, May Edition

Want to read what we’ve been reading? Read on…

“In Cape Town, Urban Design Reduces Violence”

From the American Society of Landscape Architects comes a blog entry about an urban design project in Cape Town, South Africa, that has reduced murders (an insight into overall violence) in one of the city’s townships by 22% overall. How? A group of planners, landscape architects, and architects created four “safe nodes” throughout the township. These nodes provide well-lit pedestrian malls, wide walkways, and other elements that promote safe walking routes. New public facilities, including community buildings, parks, and a sports complex provide spaces for community events, get-togethers, and play.

“Search for Ash Borers Turns Up Termites in Vermont”

Termites in Vermont? Well, maybe. WCAX reports that traps set for invasive ash borers have found one infestation of subterranean termites near the town of Wells.

“Do We Need Affordable Housing or Affordable Living?”

Housing is getting more expensive, here in Brattleboro and everywhere else. Blogger Dan Zack at Better! Cities and Town offers the opinion that housing itself is only part of the problem, and argues that we should be focused not on affordable housing alone, but on affordable living. He breaks the issue down into two parts, talking first about the combined cost of housing and transportation, which is approaching roughly 50% of average household income. This is largely because to get to cheaper housing, you need to go further away from the city, where the jobs are, making commutes longer and transportation costs higher.
There’s a tool from the Center for Neighborhood Technology called the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index. There’s not enough data for Brattleboro specifically, but the surrounding towns all hit that 50% mark or higher for costs. We live in a rural area, and most people drive for work, groceries, and other things.
The second part of Zack’s article talks about the size of living spaces. He points out that smaller living spaces cost less, and that an investment in public spaces would make smaller private spaces more palatable.

(Capetown Photos found here.)

 

How Do You Decide to Save a Building?

Next month, we are going to a walk-through of 14 Mill Street in Bellows Falls. The Town is looking for someone to redevelop two buildings on the site, which is down a back street downtown. A developer would enter into a partnership with the Town, which would assist with grant funding and redevelopment, then sell the property to the developer for $1. So what does a developer consider in a situation like this? How do you decide to save a building?

First you look at the building itself. Will the building and its spaces work for your proposed use? Does it have enough parking or access for your needs? What are the floor-to-floor heights? How big are the rooms? What condition is the building in? Is it structurally sound?

The 14 Mill Street property has some lovely details, including brick work and large windows. Most of it is likely still sound, structurally, but some has deteriorated and is no longer safe. The building would not likely be suitable for retail purposes, since it has no street presence on the main square of the village, and vehicular access is a little tricky.

Next you think about the financing for the project. What sources of funding are available to you? Does the project qualify for tax credits? What about grants and loans? What can you count on for project “hard” costs (materials and construction expenses)? What about “soft” costs (designers, lawyers, etc.)?  What is the market like in the area, and what can you get for rents?

Although you would need a lot more detail on the building to know for sure, from first glance, we can tell that 14 Mill Street is in a New Market Tax Credit zone and is likely eligible for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. It may also be eligible for a Community Block Development Grant for Slums and Blight Development. You can assume somewhere around $200/ft2 for hard costs and another $50 or $60/ft2 for soft costs. We have a rough idea of square footage from previous work on the building, which means that we can guess that you would need to get $25/ft2 in rent to support those redevelopment costs if you didn’t have subsidies and tax credits. To make the project viable, you need to get the rental figure down to what the market will bear, somewhere in the $10-$12/ft2 range.

(Let’s take a minute here to remind ourselves that this is ALL guesswork, and that a full feasibility study would be required to make any of these numbers even close to accurate. We’d also like to note that we will be taking a deeper look at each of these funding sources in the future.)

So what’s the next step? A developer would go back after a walk-through and try to firm up the numbers above and analyze the building and its location. A call to an architect might be in order (that’s why we go to the walk-through) to talk about what’s needed for the building, and a rough budget for the project needs to be developed. Then the developer would submit a proposal, with budgets and maybe even rough design sketches, to the Town.  If they are awarded the building, they move on to a more complete look at the feasibility of the project, called a “feasibility study.” And then to design and construction.