When online travel giant Expedia Group inaugurated its $900 million Seattle headquarters in 2019, the 100-acre waterfront campus featured numerous amenities: a bike path, a soccer field, and a driftwood-strewn beach to sit amid the surf.
It also has some well-curated smut.
Landscape architects from Surfacedesign in San Francisco focused on the comprehensive restoration of natural habitats for the project, a former industrial site that at one point was two garbage-filled piers in Elliott Bay. That meant replacing the soil several meters deep to facilitate planting native plants, grasses and a coastal meadow.
The overhaul required months of work, a soil scientist to help create a microbiome and nine separate soil profiles, and the use of “compost tea mixes,” a type of liquid organic fertilizer that restores nutrients to the soil without chemical fertilizers.
The idea was to avoid a “groomed, mulched-to-death look,” said Josh Khanna, Expedia’s director of real estate services. The new headquarters is anything but a “small company concrete bunker,” she added.
“Suddenly, there’s a big shift for clients hungry for big vision,” said James A. Lord, one of Surfacedesign’s founding partners. “You know intuitively that there’s more work to be done, that it’s a move away from being just a convenience.”
Developers have long used open spaces and nature as selling points for their projects, such as planned communities around golf courses, developments in and around nature reserves, and a new trend known as agrihoods, which integrate subdivisions with working farms.
More and more developers aim not only to preserve nature, but also promote its role in restoration. This shift speaks to changing attitudes about connecting to nature, perceptions about being a sustainable corporate citizen, and the contradiction of portraying real estate as a vehicle for restoration.
“People don’t have to use the word ‘sustainability’ anymore because it’s expected,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an education and advocacy group. “People expect a certain level of performance from their landscapes. There is a power of place waiting to be unlocked.”
Prominent projects in the works include visions of restoring or restoring natural habitats. For example, River Ring, two high-rise residential buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and James Corner Field Operations, will include tidal pools and salt marshes that provide a foraging spot for black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets.
Across town in the Rockaways, Arverne East will include a 35-acre restored beach and wildlife sanctuary on the site of a long-abandoned parking lot. A developer in Utah has proposed dredging a lake to create a chain of 34 islands totaling 18,000 acres, including some earmarked for animal habitat.
A number of trends have made these projects more valuable, said Matt Norris, director of the Building Healthy Places Initiative at the Urban Land Institute. For residents, the health benefits of outdoor access are more evident, especially in the pandemic. For developers, offices and homes alongside parks can add up to 20 percent more value, and additional green space can help projects garner support from the community and even unlock zoning incentives.
The park and wetland at the River Ring is an attempt to create a “desirable, world-class site” that has helped during a contentious permitting and claims process, said Bonnie Campbell, a director at Two Trees, the Brooklyn developer behind the project stands . New York has invested significant resources in providing public access to the East River over the past decade.
But there are unquantifiable benefits to creating a tidal marsh where you can touch the water, she said.
“One thing we heard over and over again when we reached out to advocacy groups with neighbors was the value of getting back to nature, of feeling like you’re somewhere other than New York City, and feeling connected to the water to be,” she said.
For cities, restored nature helps improve equitable access to parks, something they cannot tackle as aggressively as they would like without private support. Coastal parks help make waterfront areas less vulnerable to rising water and storm surges.
“More of it is better in terms of habitat restoration because we have a long way to go to conserve habitats and manage stormwater,” said Sean Dixon, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a Seattle-based conservation nonprofit. “I see a lot of developments with splashy waterfront packages doing this.”
But assessing restoration efforts focused on a system as complex as nature can be difficult, said Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Society for Ecological Restoration, a nonprofit global alliance.
The organization’s tool for measuring recovery efforts, called the Ecological recreation bikeconsiders a wide range of benefits, including animal population recovery and resilience, but works in holistic, general terms without quantifiable detail.
“Not everything is greenwashing, and not everything is restoration,” she said. “We have to think about it on a case-by-case basis. We have to figure out how to live with nature and not destroy nature.”
Restored or abandoned commercial or industrial sites, such as the Arverne East project in the Rockaways, attempt to advocate for developments with an ecological mission. The 116-hectare oceanfront property being developed by L+M Development Partners, the Bluestone Organization and Triangle Equities will include 1,650 apartments, townhouses and bungalows; commercial space; and solar and geothermal power generation.
The development team, which included certified arborists, gardeners and ecologists, worked with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group to carefully evaluate and replant the site. A stubborn scrub of plants that initially had to be explored machete in hand, the new reserve will soon bloom with native trees and other plants.
“I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s a wilderness,” said Laura Starr, the project’s lead landscape architect and director of Starr Whitehouse. “But the idea of a nature reserve is that it’s there to preserve natural habitats or flora and fauna.”
Developers may not be able to accurately measure how these new landscapes will benefit the wider environment, but they will quickly get a sense of just how much such green bona fides cost in terms of maintenance. Many are required by law to include natural elements in projects and care for them as if they were overseeing a city park. But part of the long-term value of restoration projects, which often go above and beyond, is their lower maintenance costs: native plants in a more natural setting require less costly care, while more resilient landscapes suffer less long-term damage.
For example, River Ring developers believe that more natural shorelines filled with vegetation and natural beaches, rather than concrete bulkheads, will better resist water and wave damage.
“We hope to create a waterfront that relies on ecology itself, rather than this man-made bulkhead infrastructure that we have to constantly maintain,” said Ms. Campbell of Two Trees.
The same change is expected on the Expedia campus. As perennials and beehives slowly become established, the environment will begin to stabilize and much of the campus will become, if not self sustaining.
“That doesn’t mean that life will flourish as quickly as you wish and as you expect,” said Mr. Dixon of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “That’s hard to say for places that have been industrially denuded for 100 years. But there is immense value to these large facilities that are rehabilitating properties to go big or go home and provide community facilities like this.”