Case Studies

Smart Growth

How do you get rid of traffic and save the environment? You build smarter

When Christopher Porto describes his ideal Oakland, California, he envisions a city almost devoid of cars.

But that’s not all he envisions.

Through his real estate development company, Smart Growth, he imagines developing the area into tightknit communities that are closer to transit corridors, reducing the need for cars and increasing a sense of place; and using existing buildings instead of building new ones.

Smart Growth

The idea behind this approach is to curb climate change and create heathier, more vibrant communities.

“[Our developments] nurture a culture of people that value alternative forms of transportation,” Porto says. “People that want to live, work and play in the same place, or at least a distance where they don’t have to be dependent on their car.”

Porto named his company after the “smart growth” movement, in which real estate developers work alongside city officials to achieve these goals.

“It’s a fundamental belief that we need to be more efficient with the land that has already been dedicated to urban lifestyle and not sprawl out,” says Porto. This philosophy also goes hand-in-hand with urban infill development, a similar movement to smart growth, which promotes the development of empty city lots for new construction instead of creating new lots.

Location, location, location

Porto says Oakland is a prime location for this kind of development because of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a public metro rail that connects San Francisco with stops as far north as San Mateo County.

There are seven BART stations in Oakland, and Smart Growth focuses on developments that are within a half-mile radius of each station, promoting walking and a healthier lifestyle.

“As a developer it kind of goes without saying that we believe that location is [at the] frontlines in determining whether the project will be sustainable or not, so selecting the right site is arguably the most important thing in our minds,” says Porto.

When Porto founded Smart Growth in 2014, the company focused on redeveloping single-family homes in the Bay Area, often using the GreenPoint Rated system, a certification program in California that is used to prove a home is resource efficient.

Today, Porto says his company is shifting focus to include multi-family and mixed-use developments, in particular ground floor retail.

The MacArthur Project is one such example.

Smart Growth partnered with BuildZig, an investor based in Oakland, to secure the entitlements to build the 46,000-square-foot, ground-up development with retail on the base level and five floors of apartments above.

Porto says his company is interested in these kinds of developments because they increase the amount of people living in a single area and are easily accessible to the train, which are some of the hallmarks of the smart growth movement.

“We want to take properties that are underutilized, build up instead of out, so we can create a more vibrant community,” says Porto.

Smart Growth is also developing new construction projects to be as close to net zero energy as possible, meaning the amount of energy used by the building is nearly equal to the amount of energy created onsite, through solar systems.

The company is looking into incorporating amenities like electrical vehicle charging stations that are powered by solar; rainwater collection; and one-to-one bike parking, which would give every tenant a place to put their bike.

‘Holistic’ real estate

Porto’s career has been focused on sustainability.

Before starting Smart Growth, Porto worked as a senior analyst for SunPower Corporation, a vertically integrated company that designs and manufactures high-performance solar electric systems. As a member of its project finance group, Porto helped the company raise hundreds of millions of dollars for solar projects throughout the country.

But Porto says he came to a realization that solar was just one way to address climate change and that real estate seemed like a more “holistic” solution if sustainability were kept in mind.

“Solar could be integrated into the building,” he says, “but ultimately the efficiency of the building and its location are the most important thing when it comes to sustainability.”

Real estate was also an opportunity for Porto to contribute to the community he lives in.

One project he’s excited about is the West Oakland Co-Living Project. For the project, Smart Growth partnered with Urban Homestead, a local developer, and Mainspring Property Group. The three organizations then engaged OpenDoor, an organization that manages and promotes co-living, to develop the 6,000-square-foot lot into three condos with 14 bedrooms.

Instead of living in isolation, the residents will rent out individual bedrooms and share communal spaces like the kitchen, living room and dining room. The living arrangement is called co-living, and Porto says it is very popular for people with mobile lifestyles, like those just moved to the state.

“It’s very common here in California to have a lot of people who are transplants from the East Coast, or other places, and community is not something you immediately get because oftentimes you’ve left your family and friends network,” he says.

The building will generate most of its energy through solar systems, which will also power on-site electric vehicle charging stations.

Porto says the West Oakland Co-Living Project will give people the opportunity of living in an environment with like-minded people who value sustainability.

“As a small scale developer I do realize that I have to go through a certain trajectory to establish a track record, but I really do believe that, even on the smaller scale, you can still do really innovative [projects],” Porto says.

Porto says he anticipates working on larger and more creative projects as the firm grows.

“There is a huge housing shortage in the Bay Area,” he says. “So with our ability to understand the city’s process for getting [projects] approved, and being very familiar with the zoning of this city, we really see [ourselves] as the developer on the ground to attract other development partners.”

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Spring 2018



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