Built to Last
It’s a university town of about 210,000 people with a history of strong social activism and grassroots activity. Sound familiar? It’s actually Freiburg, Germany, which also happens to be Madison’s sister city, a partnership now twenty-three years strong. Although Madison is one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 25 Green Cities, Freiburg has a significant leg up when it comes to renewable energy and sustainable living—one that Capitol East District planners are using as a model moving forward.
Freiburg citizens became heavily invested in renewable energy in the 1970s, after banding together in opposition to a proposed nuclear power plant. They won that battle but needed to find a viable energy alternative. Over the next several decades they green- built their way into the sustainability mecca they are today: 2010 winners of the German Environmental Aid competition featured at the Shanghai World Expo this past summer for its environmental initiatives, and a hotspot for global green tourism, business and education.
Perhaps the most impressive example of Freiburg’s energy initiatives is the Solar Info Center, a 150,000-square-foot mixed-use commercial space sheltering fifty-three different green-focused businesses and powered entirely by solar energy. It’s also been 100 percent leased for years, and it’s the model for a proposed development on East Washington Avenue—the Madison Sustainability Commerce Center.
“In Freiburg in the ’70s they essentially had the perfect storm of motivated municipal leaders, heavy support from the citizenry and a business community willing to step in because they saw opportunities,” says Madison-based consultant Ted Petith. “Right now east Madison is in a very similar situation.”
Petith, a dual national with many family members still living in Germany, has always been inspired by Freiburg’s green living prowess. In addition to the existing cultural exchanges between the sister cities, Petith began orchestrating additional exchanges a few years back based on renewable energy and sustainable project development. In 2008 he organized a weeklong trip to Freiburg with Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, as well as representatives from Madison College, UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation.
“Once Mayor Dave saw it he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me how cool this was?’” laughs Petith. “I told him, ‘I’ve been telling you for years!’ But it’s really something you have to see for yourself.”
Petith’s work continued, as did the various green-focused initiatives for which Cieslewicz’s office has become known. As plans for the Capitol East District began to unfold, Freiburg’s example proved an inspirational model for a catalyst project. In September 2010, two dozen representatives from renewable energy and sustainable living initiatives came together roundtable-style, including Energy Center of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation, Project Home, Common Wealth Development, Thrive, Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence, UW–Madison and the city of Madison, along with a handful of consultants and leadership from nine for-profit companies. The result was essentially a blueprint for what is slated to become the Madison Sustainability Commerce Center—modeled directly after Freiburg’s Solar Info Center and its adjacent expo hall.
According to Petith and these collaborators, the Madison Sustainability Commerce Center will be a near net-zero, energy-efficient, LEED-certified Gold, 75,000- to 125,000-square-foot stunner (part remodel, part new build) spanning from East Washington to Main Street. Space will include a mixture of office, light manufacturing, conference and training, and retail—all with a sustainable energy focus and a singular purpose of connecting green businesses and their customers. Proposed amenities include green space inside and out, exhibition space, food concessions, a fitness center and environmentally friendly transportation hubs. Dozens of tenants will share conference and office equipment, service loading docks and green utilities, and an on-site restaurant will provide catering and meals with a locally harvested bent.
In short, the center is a sustainable living champion’s dream, an economic smorgasbord, a catalyst and the perfect showcase for Madison’s green commitment. The project is most recently bolstered by a $300,000 Department of Housing and Urban Development grant and was mentioned by Cieslewicz in his announcement to purchase the Don Miller land.
“This is where you’ll get a lot of people under the same roof who are driving the same direction,” says Petith. “They’ll collaborate, sometimes they’ll compete, and mostly they’ll help expand and drive that market penetration for renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. It’ll be a one-stop shop and help position Madison as a leader in sustainability worldwide.”
– Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz