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IIndustrial Development District (Aka Eco-Industrial District)

Duwamish River and Industrial District, 1999

A partnership involving the City of Seattle, King County, the Port, and the State of Washington will soon issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to seek innovative proposals for industrial development ideas that have been challenging to implement due to regulatory, policy, or financial issues.  This is the first step in a project for adding new vitality to Seattle’s industrial sector that we are calling the Industrial Development District.

Two years ago, my office began working on creating what we then called an Eco-industrial District in Seattle.  Eco-Industrial Districts, which have been pioneered in perhaps a dozen areas around the world, are designed to foster the growth of mutually dependent industries that integrate economic development and environmental stewardship.  The classic example is Kalundborg, Denmark, where a set of businesses maximize energy efficiency and minimize solid waste by using one firm’s waste energy and by-products as inputs to another process.  Since the mid-1990’s this example as been cited as a model. 

The experience of the last decade has shown that, while the concept of integrating environmental and economic factors in industrial development makes eminent sense, there are a number of important factors that need to be taken into account.  First, the Kalundborg district grew organically – it was a set of decisions by businesses, not a government led initiative.  Second, even Kalundborg is not self-sufficient – there are internal and external transactions – and the volatility of the business environment suggests that a balance over time is difficult to maintain.  Third, there are many ways in which environment and economy can be brought together besides the exchange of energy and waste products.  And fourth, the experience of other cities suggests that creating a new eco-industrial district works best when there is a significant amount of unused land that can be assembled and dedicated to the purpose.

Taking all of those factors into account, Seattle is taking a broader approach, renaming the concept as an Industrial Development District (IDD), and setting out three guidelines within which we want to foster development:

  • Provide positive economic benefit;
  • Result in equal to or better measurable environmental performance than would result from current regulations; and
  • Be located on currently industrially zoned land.

So, rather than trying to bootstrap a new set of companies focused on the relatively narrow goal of sharing energy and waste exchange, we are looking for new development and innovation that will lead to better environmental results – which could cover a wide range of environmental benefits.

We are doing this because it has become increasingly clear that prescriptive regulations tend to be very good at stopping bad things, but we need to promote good things – and government regulations do not have the nimbleness or flexibility to encourage innovation.  So we are setting broad parameters to foster creativity around the goal of providing jobs and economic activity while enhancing the environment.

So, what could this mean in practical terms?  Some examples:

  • Redevelopment of an existing industrial facility to increase efficiency and capacity
  • Allowing an industrial/commercial mixed facility not currently permitted if it increases industrial jobs
  • Innovative ways to manage stormwater or salmon mitigation that will deliver a better environmental result
  • Renewable energy systems or reuse of waste energy
  • Shared resource use by a group of companies

The IDD is an exciting concept that can create jobs and enhance the environment.  It has special promise in the Duwamish, where the environmental cleanup can be leveraged for economic development.  As the concept develops, the City will also look for ways to leverage our investments, such as providing stormwater treatment for an area and allowing businesses to buy into the project instead of having to do their own stormwater projects.  Managing this work will be challenging, and will require great care and skill to navigate possible pitfalls – but, if we can make it happen, we will reap great benefits.  This is why not only the involved governments, but business, labor, and environmental organizations have come together to support getting this work underway.

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