Chicago's Green Light for Permits

The Second City looks to be first in environmentally friendly building with a year-old program that expedites permits for green projects

When it is completed in early 2009, 60-story 300 North LaSalle will be one of Chicago’s taller structures. But local real estate players may take closer note that developer Hines Interests snatched a building permit faster than average, too, in a speedy 30 days.

The 1.3-million-square-foot office tower is one of a growing number of buildings participating in Chicago’s year-old Green Permit Program, which expedites permitting for sustainable buildings. Designed by architecture firm Pickard Chilton, the building will have a 50-percent green roof and will use condenser water supplied by the Chicago River, thus eliminating cooling towers. Hines’ Vice President of Construction Scott Pimcoe says the company decided to apply to the program because “there is a huge construction boom in Chicago—sometimes getting a permit can be really laborious.”

With the support of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city’s Department of Construction and Permits initiated the program in April 2005 to “encourage the use of green incentives, especially in private development, and to make sure that they’re doing it well,” says Erik Olsen, who has been the program’s chief administrator since its launch.

Projects fall into one of three tiers, and greener projects gain greater benefits. The owners of Tier I commercial and other non-residential projects, including 300 North LaSalle, promise that they will be LEED-certified. These buildings also feature one item from a “menu” of sustainable building strategies that include, among others, a green roof, extra affordability, and transit-oriented development. Owners who accomplish LEED Silver building with one menu item advance to Tier II, which waives the consultant review fee in addition to 30-day permitting. Tier III projects must earn LEED Gold and feature two menu items, for which the consultant fee is waived and a permit issued within 15 days. Olsen explains that LEED status verifies an application (residential projects must conform to the Chicago Green Homes rating system), while the menu items act as billboards for sustainability.

Olsen first sits down with project teams several months before they make permit submittals. Applicants view this extra attention as an added benefit: “We received good advice from Erik and his department, which found its way into the design of the building,” says Roark Frankel, senior vice president of U.S. Equities, project managers for the Spurdis Institute for Jewish Studies, a Tier II building currently under construction.

Granting incentives at such an early stage in a building’s development can be problematic. Besides submitting a LEED project registration number as part of a permit review, developers must file a proof of submission for LEED certification within 180 days of completion. They are also required to sign contracts binding them to their sustainability plans, and there are considerable consequences—fee reimbursement or permit revocation, for example—for not following through.

And yet, by the end of the 2005 calendar year, 19 green permits were issued for projects, and 36 permits have been issued so far this year, which puts the program well on track to meet its goal of 40. Olsen says that nonprofit and university owners took to the program the quickest, but that it now spans a fuller range of building types.

Although there are no other cities with a program as comprehensive as Chicago’s, Olsen has received inquiries from cities as far as Seattle and Toronto. In Washington, D.C., the organization GreenHome is pushing for local legislation for a green permitting system because, as Executive Director Patty Rose says, “Erik is running a program that is moving green building faster through permits, and I'm convinced that he's actually helping make better green buildings.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.