The City Council is moving forward with ambitious environmental goals for the new City Services building, despite vocal opposition to the scope and cost of the project.

At an often-contentious City Council meeting, City Manager Rick Cole was forced to defend the proposed 52,000 square foot building which is now in it’s fourth year planning.

“Whenever you do something on the cutting edge…there are challenges,” Cole said to open the discussion about a citizen’s appeal to halt progress on the building.

The controversy surrounds some innovative features that limit water use. City leaders want the building to achieve certification by the Living Building Challenge, an international sustainability program. It is a step above the strictest environmental guidelines typically used by developers in the United States, LEED Platinum. To meet the challenge, the building must be completely self-sufficient by producing it’s own energy and treating water on site.

“Living buildings give more than they take,” according to the website for the Living Building Challenge.

But the heads of four neighborhood organizations worry the ambitious building will take too much from the City’s budget. The City plans to pay for the $75 million building over thirty years through lease revenue bonds.

Tuesday night’s Council meeting concerned an extensive appeal by Santa Monica activist David Garden, who has several issues with the building’s permit. One major concern: composting toilets required to conserve Santa Monica’s limited local water supply.

“I could understand this is in small pilot project, but for this grand of scale, it’s not right,” Gardner said in an interview Wednesday. Garden is worried about the potential for airborne pathogens that could sicken employees and the public if there are design or implementation problems with the innovative system.

Similar toilets are already being used at a few other buildings in the United States, including the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which is the same size as the City’s proposed building. A typical “flush” uses a few tablespoons of water mixed with biodegradable soap. The waste flows down pipes into aerobic composters in the basement. The bio-waste is regularly trucked to a treatment site to make Grade A compost that can be used for gardening.

“There’s nothing really that complicated or scary about (the system) and the water savings are really dramatic,” said Brad Kahn, communications director for the Bullitt Center in a phone interview from Seattle. “I think this is a real solution that folks should keep an open mind about.”

Kahn says the manufacturer of the toilets have only done general maintenance on the system since the building opened in 2013. Giant air vents in the basement pull air down through the pipes, preventing the sewage smell from wafting up through the bowls and, incidentally, creating a nice breeze when someone sits down.

“If you like to poop outdoors I think you’re going to like the feeling,” Kahn said, who added he’s used the compostable toilets at the Bullitt Center “many times.”

By saving water with every flush, the Bullitt Center uses 95 percent less water than normal commercial buildings of similar size.

“People often focus on the initial cost of a building, but the City of Santa Monica is going to own and operate this building for a hundred plus years,” Kubani told the City Council.

“The lifecycle cost of this building is going to reduce our costs overall.”

At the meeting, the appellant expressed concerns the system is illegal under California law, and Cole admitted the City may face some hurdles.

California state law requires buildings connect to the sewage system. Both Kubani and Cole say the building will fulfill those requirements as a backup to the composting system, both for safety and to stay in accordance with the law. State law allows alternate materials and methods for sewage systems with approval by regulators.

“We’re working with the regulatory agencies that would permit these sorts of things to demonstrate to them that what we’re proposing is going to be safe for the public and for the environment,” Kubani said. To Kubani, it is a trail worth blazing in the hopes that other, private projects will one day be just as water efficient.

But critics who lined up to give public comment at the meeting repeatedly complained it’s an example of redundancy and wasted taxpayer money in the quest for a plaque on the building. The City received more than fifty emails supporting the appeal of the project’s permit.

“It has the potential to be dangerously experimental, aesthetically disappointing and short-sited in terms of the future water table levels,” said Northeast Neighbors president Tricia Crane.

To City Council members, the complaints came too far along into the process. The Council voted to pursue the Living Building Challenge back in 2015.

To Council Member Kevin McKeown, the City must purse aggressive sustainability initiatives during the current presidential administration. In fact, the night of the council meeting, Reuters reported President Donald Trump’s administration had requested the Environmental Protection Agency remove the climate change page from its website. At best, the president has viewed Climate Change as an open-ended question. Many scientists agree drastic, immediate efforts are needed to thwart global warming.

“I’ve been asked by almost everybody I meet, what are we going to do locally in the face of what is happening nationally,” McKeown said, who moved to deny the appeal and move the project forward. All six other council members voted in step with McKeown, vowing to press on with the ambitious project.

kate@smdp.com

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