If you visit the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma, Washington on a typical workday, it will be obvious that the building is humming with activity to detect, treat, and prevent pollution from stormwater runoff. Slightly less obvious are the many green features of this LEED Platinum building, including geothermal energy, stormwater reuse, and native habitat. And not detectable is that prior to development of the facility, the site was a brownfield adjacent to the Thea Foss Waterway, a Superfund site that has undergone cleanup.
The location of the Center for Urban Waters underscores its place in the history of water pollution: it sits at a turning point of environmental success from prohibiting and cleaning up point-source pollution, to current and future challenges of preventing non-point source pollution. The Center houses three entities that work to protect water quality in Puget Sound: 1) scientists from the University of Washington Tacoma; 2) the City of Tacoma’s Department of Environmental Services; and 3) the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency. As described recently in The New York Times, collaboration within the Center for Urban Waters features a data-driven approach for detecting stormwater pollution to enhance cleanup, enforcement and prevention. Using data from seven outlets that flow into the Foss Waterway and 30 sediment traps all over the city, the Department of Environmental Services can pinpoint chemical pollutants and their sources.
Throughout the development of the Center for Urban Waters facility, there was a determination to ensure that the building does not contribute to environmental problems that face Puget Sound. Today, this LEED Platinum building is a prominent symbol of the City of Tacoma’s commitment to sustainability. The building has a long list of green features, including:
Using 34% less energy than a standard building because of geothermal and radiant heating and cooling, solar orientation and natural ventilation
Using 46% less water than a standard building through water reuse and efficient plumbing fixtures
A rain garden filled with native vegetation that captures runoff from the parking lot
Use of pervious pavers to infiltrate rainwater and mimic a natural landscape
Tree snags relocated to the site for wildlife habitat.
The Center for Urban Waters did not rise up from one person or one organization’s vision. Starting in 2002, potential partners, including the City of Tacoma, the University of Washington Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, and business leaders coalesced around a common vision for the Center. Early on, the three organizations in the Center agreed that sharing a building would be advantageous to all. In 2007, the City of Tacoma purchased the brownfields site on the Foss Waterway, in the heart of the industrial part of the city.
The building was constructed using an alternative development process that involved creating a nonprofit corporation that acted as the developer. Through this "63-20" process (named after the Internal Revenue Code that allows it), the nonprofit - called Tacoma Environmental Services Properties - sold tax-exempt bonds to fund design and construction of the facility. The building’s substantial completion and grand opening was in 2010. At first, the City leases the facility from the nonprofit. At the end of the lease, the facility will be turned over to the City at no cost.
From its conception, the Center for Urban Waters was envisioned as a center for innovation, with expanding influence. In the future, the collaborators will work toward an expanded campus for more extensive research and outreach. The expectation is that the Center’s research will spur the creation of related businesses and the expansion of existing businesses, making the Center a job creation hub for a clean economy for Tacoma.
For more information about the Center for Urban Waters, click here.