What’s the story behind Ecological?
Anthony Sblendorio: Gov. Pataki, Joe Grano, and I got together two years ago and talked about what was happening in real estate, finance, and sustainability. We realized that those three sectors were not effectively working together and there is an interesting opportunity to move beyond LEED certification, providing new services to commercial building owners, looking at the world of development and land development, and implementing a regenerative approach, which requires a more creative way of financing and requires a new way of looking at regulation and approval processes. That’s why the partnership made so much sense.
Pataki is a leader in the world of sustainability as it relates to regulation—he created the first tax incentive for green building in the country and his work at Battery Park City was revolutionary and stimulating, becoming the first green residential high-rise on the planet. And Joe, having run one of the largest financial institutions on the planet, has a great understanding of finance and developing business. I was a leader in regenerative development, doing some of the first green projects in New Jersey, and having a proven record of cooperating and helping communities understand sustainability and getting those projects through the approval process.
How did you three meet?
Joe Grano: I hired Anthony’s company, Back to Nature, to be my land planner for a home I constructed four years ago. I wanted it to be as green as possible, and his company is a cutting-edge model in getting that done—Anthony’s house even has geothermal heating.
I’m always looking for gaps in the marketplace and it became apparent that the environmental movement was gaining momentum and was probably a long-term trend, so I decided to open a company that would facilitate going green. I brought in Anthony and Gov. Pataki, as well as Pat Molloy, chairman of Goodrich Petroleum Corp., as an investor, and we became the founders of what is now Ecological.
What does Ecological do?
Grano: We have three lines of business. We can come into your buildings and monitor your carbon footprints and your energy usage and give you some high-level recommendations. You can unplug a Coke machine for three hours in the afternoon and save $750 a year, for example. Mayor Bloomberg has just passed legislation that says all buildings 50,000 square feet and larger have to understand their footprint and have a baseline—that’s what our monitoring business is about.
Our second line of business is giving recommendations on how to retrofit your building to make it green. Take that 30-year-old boiler out, put a state-of-the-art boiler in and you’ll save so much energy, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint, etc.
Our third line of business is development planning—the building as well as the land footprint. Our mantra is: the land you’ll build on will be in a better state environmentally after the project than before. It could be residential or commercial. I don’t think you’ll have another corporate headquarters built in this country that isn’t green.
Tell us about Ecological’s innovative residential development.
Sblendorio: We’re working on projects [in northern New Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut] that are fully approved, conventional, cookie-cutter [repurposing of] “McMansion” developments that haven’t been built. We’re looking to come into those, option or purchase them, work with the community to cluster the density, and build something that looks like it’s been there for hundreds of years; then on the remaining 75 or 80 percent of the property grow organic food, preserve open space, and incorporate environmental education, whether it’s trails or programs with local schools around Habitat for Humanity projects or food. We think that’s where development is going. Eco/agro communities will be what golf course communities were in the ’80s.
The American consumer has said what’s important is energy efficiency, renewable energy, local food, and green building products. So it doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that a consumer would want to move into a community that represents those values.
What is regenerative development?
Sblendorio: It’s about improving the natural resources of the site. Development can actually heal our natural resources as opposed to what we’ve had for decades: a consumptive force on natural resources. A lot of our time [at Ecological] is spent helping communities recognize that their zoning has been about trying to reduce a consumption-based development model. We’re saying, “No, you can actually have a regenerative development model that improves natural resources, but that does not necessarily comply with your current zoning.” A lot of times we’re working on creating new regulatory processes so that we can give communities what they want, and something that helps them express their core values and master plans.
Ten years ago people didn’t know what green or sustainable building entailed. Now they do, but regenerative development isn’t widely understood.
Gov. Pataki: Regenerative development is the future of green development. Just as people didn’t understand green 10 years ago, they don’t understand that this will be the next major breakthrough. When we went to green—and I was proud to have done so much for New York to lead the way—it was about reducing the impact on the environment by using such things as on-site generators, solar and wind power, recycling of water, recycled building materials, and things of that nature to limit the environmental impact of development. With regenerative development, what we’re looking to do is actually use development to enhance the total environmental picture of a site. It’s a very exciting concept. It’s restoring land to protect productive agricultural use; it’s generating energy; it’s raising food—things that are not just going to limit the environmental consequences of development, but in fact will make a property more environmentally friendly after development than it was before. As it becomes more understood, I think communities and people are going to become very excited about [it].
What do you find most rewarding about green development?
Sblendorio: Let me tell you about our most recent project, Mine Brook. It’s a 90-acre site in Basking Ridge, in Somerset County, NJ, that was destined to be sold for conventional McMansion development. We worked with the community to help them understand their zoning; we wanted to create a model that looked like it had been there for a long time so it respected and honored an agrarian community. It’ll look like a farm complex when fully built.
The zoning and ordinance allowed us to build common barns and amenities so people will have an organic food garden that delivers food right to their front door. When people want to entertain, they can use these barns, which will also be used as an outdoor lab for children. If they want to create holiday decorations from pine cones and things out in the woodlands, we have programs for them as well.
This project allows for single-family detached homes, but with condo-style living built all around sustainability. You have access to local food, common buildings, and a sense of community; there’s an extensive network of nature trails and open space. We provide everything from a green hybrid car service, to organic dry cleaners, to full concierge service with full amenities, but it’s all-around sustainability. We’re finding that it’s appealing to people who want to downsize. Their taxes are high, their energy costs are high, and the concept of still having your own single-family home, but having everything taken care of for you, including firewood on your front porch, is appealing.
What will real estate and development be like in 10 years?
Gov. Pataki: We’re going to see new communities arising that have a magnificent quality of life where you have on-site power generation, on-site food being grown, where you can harvest timber in a sustainable way, restore wetlands and have enhanced wildlife and biodiversity options, post-development and pre-development, and do it in a way that is not just environmentally friendly and quality-of-life friendly, but that is also economically effective and efficient.
Grano: Number one, environmental consciousness—particularly with this BP spill—is spreading. It’s just going to accelerate the consciousness of environment. Second, you’ve got legislation being passed. New York City is a great example. By the end of 2012, Bloomberg wants all cabs in New York to be hybrids. The Kyoto Protocol, of which we are not a member, wants carbon emissions in automobiles to go from 330 grams per kilometer down to 130. We will pass similar legislation as a nation. And third, since it is a growing industry, it has an economic reality to the nation because we have to get employment back up. Sustainability and alternative energy will be the fastest-growing segments of employment. That’s going to receive a lot of government subsidy and a lot of focus, I think, in the next decade. I think you have a growing green client base. There’s still a gap in the marketplace that requires a solution. And that’s what we’re here for: to provide the solution to fill a gap.