Green Building:

Real estate developer discusses U.S.'s first solar-powered, smart-grid, green-building city

As sustainable design projects throughout the country begin seeing stimulus money, how far can cities go in implementing new green-build technologies? During today's OnPoint, Syd Kitson, CEO of Kitson & Partners, a real estate investment and development company, discusses plans for the United States' first 100 percent solar-powered, smart-grid, green-building city in southwest Florida. He addresses some of the challenges posed by the current slump in the housing market. He also discusses what action needs to be taken legislatively in order to make green-build developments a reality throughout the country.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson and Partners, a real estate investment and development company based out of Florida. Syd, thanks for coming on the show.

Syd Kitson: Great to be here thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Syd, you were the developer behind Babcock Ranch, a city in Southwest Florida that boasts being the first of its kind, 100 percent solar powered, all Smart Grid, green building city. Is Babcock Ranch a city of the future? Is it sort of a lofty idea or is it something that provides a real solution for the present that can be implemented throughout the U.S.?

Syd Kitson: We think what we're doing here is really giving a blueprint as to how it can be done now and today. You know, it's a very interesting story because we started out with 91,000 acres and sold 73,000 back to the state of Florida, which really at the time was the largest preservation in the history of the state of Florida. And all along we talked about how great it will be for us to then create the most environmentally responsible, sustainable community that really has ever been built and developed. And we've had a lot of support from a lot of people, from the local citizens, politicians and all the environmental groups. So, yes, it is something we can do today and we're out to prove that it can be done today.

Monica Trauzzi: How did the concept for this all come about and what are some of the elements of this city that makes it different from other cities throughout the U.S. that have taken steps to be greener?

Syd Kitson: Well, first of all, we want to prove that this can be done right. The way that Florida has been developing over the years, it just has been wrong. Our roads are clogged. Our educational systems aren't what they can be. There's just a lot of issues the way we are developing and taking land that doesn't necessarily need to be taken. What we wanted to prove was that preservation and good environmental responsibility can work hand in hand with development. And so when we started to take a look at what we could do we started with energy and, as you just mentioned, we have signed an agreement with Florida Power and Light. They're going to build a $300 million, 75 megawatt power generating facility, solar power generating facility on Babcock Ranch, making it the first solar city in the world and we're very, very excited about this. And so that's step one. Now, within the community itself is how do you make that different? How do you work in the walkability and the environmental stewardship and all those things? And everything we're doing at Babcock Ranch, every element of how we're planning is doing just that. And also Florida Power and Light is implementing their Smart Grid technology. And, again, this is something that has only been done kind of in pieces throughout the country. This is the first time they're able to do it from the ground up. Remember, we have a blank sheet of paper, so there are a lot of great things that we can do here because of that and when you do it right from the beginning it's not nearly as expensive as having to retrofit something. So Smart Grid technology that's never been done before. Having great walking paths, make it a very walkable community. Having it so that the kids can walk to school, that people can ride their bike or take their electric vehicles to their businesses, all those types of things, we think, are going to make a big difference.

Monica Trauzzi: How much does it cost to make this happen?

Syd Kitson: Well, you know, it's interesting, but it's not nearly as expensive as trying to retrofit. When you do it right from the beginning it's not as expensive as you think it is great and, again, if you're creating an atmosphere where people don't have to drive offsite, where they can live, learn, work, and play right within their community, the use of the car, the automobile is going to become much less. So the impact on surrounding roads isn't going to be there and, therefore, in theory you don't have to then build more roads outside of the community. Instead, you're concentrating everything within what we're doing at Babcock Ranch.

Monica Trauzzi: How has the housing slump impacted your plans for development?

Syd Kitson: Well, the key to what we're doing right now is bringing in jobs, bringing in clean companies that are looking to take their technologies, take the innovations that they want to do and use Babcock Ranch as a living laboratory. So for us, the key to working our way out of this slump, not only here in Florida, but throughout the United States, is jobs. And we really believe that right now we have an opportunity at Babcock Ranch to track those types of companies to make America the leader in the research and development of these sustainable technologies. And we really believe that now we have that opportunity and we have the venue so that those companies, again, that want a laboratory where they can take those technologies and actually put them into use, Babcock Ranch will be the place that they can do that.

Monica Trauzzi: But have things slowed? Have you seen perhaps less interest or less of a push to forge ahead with this kind of development because of the economic downturn?

Syd Kitson: I think certainly it has an impact, but what we're finding is that there's always an interest in new and different types of technologies, new and different types of ideas. If, in fact, this was a community that was just a regular subdivision and the same thing that everybody else is doing, I would say that would be a problem. But it's not. It's completely different and we think that we'll be able to attract those companies; we're already in discussions with the number of them to move in, bring in the jobs and really get things kicked off and started. And I think then that will have an impact on the surrounding area. Again, we want to prove here that environmental stewardship and preservation can work hand in hand with development and that's what we're out to prove.

Monica Trauzzi: There are lots of new fresh ideas here in this project. How are average citizens reacting to the idea of Babcock Ranch?

Syd Kitson: You know, that's a great question because one of the things that we did early on was we had a series of sharettes where we literally had hundreds and hundreds of people participate in telling us what their ideas are, what their thoughts were, what they would really like in a new city. And one of the things that we found is everybody was saying, you know, I'd really like it to be the way it used to be, but with all the modern technologies and all the advances and to have the kinds of products and things that we like to have. And that's really what we're trying to create. So the reaction has been very positive as to what we're doing and we believe that there's going to be a change. We believe that people, moralistically as well as financially, want the opportunity to really implement those ideas of energy efficiency and the types of things that we're talking about in Smart Grid technology and not drive their cars as much and do those types of things. We think there's a real demand for that, for people to come in and want to live that type of lifestyle.

Monica Trauzzi: Legislatively, what do you think needs to happen in order to make a project like this transferable throughout the nation?

Syd Kitson: I think it's starting to happen. On the federal level, on the state levels, and even the local levels you can see that renewable energy and the current administration, Obama administration, is really reaching out and saying renewable energy, clean jobs, these are the nonexportable jobs. These are the types of things we need in the United States. So the reaction and the reception has been very, very positive. And, again, this is something that can help lead us out of the recession and right now what we need is jobs. We need to create jobs and this is a great way for us to do that.

Monica Trauzzi: And when are people going to start living at Babcock Ranch?

Syd Kitson: Well, the solar plant that we're talking about is going to start hopefully by the end of this year. We're going to start construction on our part of it hopefully in 2010 and we can start to see things coming out of the ground in 2011.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show.

Syd Kitson: Thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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