SouthWorks Green Vision Has Opportunity to Do More

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Tompkins Weekly     1-11-23

By Dan Antonioli

At long last the SouthWorks site is moving forward with a sensible development plan to transform a massive, toxic eyesore into a creative mixed-use property that will serve the community in multiple ways.

With all of the recent news about this project I have one basic question: how green will it be?

Articles published by both the Ithaca Times and the Tompkins Weekly don’t mention any green features other than the sustainability consultants that are assembled and “nature aspects.” The SouthWorks website mentions heat pumps, geothermal and solar, which hardly constitutes a sustainability plan, let alone fitting into the robust green visions that have put Ithaca in the international sustainability spotlight. If Ithaca is going to “achieve carbon-neutrality community-wide by 2030” (city website) then it seems that SouthWorks can offer an opportunity to see just how much carbon and greenhouse gases can be reduced in such a project.

A rendering of part of the upcoming SouthWorks project, a mixed-use neighborhood set to include housing, commercial space and industrial areas, led by a variety of partners and is planned for the former Chain Works District. Photo provided.

Ithaca’s decarbonization goals have been sensationalized by the city’s former sustainability director, Luis Torres, and community leaders embracing a “carbon neutral” future. A 11/4/21 article in the Ithaca Voice notes that Ithaca is so spectacular in its green decarbonization initiatives that none other than Barack Obama, Kamala Harris and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm “will be watching Ithaca as a testbed.” And the same article quotes Robert Watson (creator of the LEED green certification system) saying “this is one of those things that could literally change the world.”

That’s a tall order.

Here are some suggestions for how SouthWorks can be a model of sustainable community development.

Transparency and inclusiveness 

Make the project as transparent as possible. Work with the broader sustainability community and be inclusive. For example, in addition to green engineers on the sustainability team why not include local permaculture designers who can help create an integrated eco-social environment? Or someone from the Ithaca Ecovillage who can share real life experience with the various kinds of community designs work.

Engage all of our local academies and allow students to do research from many angles (design, urban planning, material study, energy, greenhouse gases, etc.) Hundreds of interesting papers are waiting to be written. Incorporate an easy-to-use format on the project website for anyone interested in how the South Works project is going with a list of green features. And make things like “carbon offset” data available to everyone. Get students from local grammar schools to contribute their visions for the site.

Green certifications and beyond

While various green certifications can be employed, a common mistake is the belief that working with a checklist of specifications is good enough. A green stamp followed by photo ops with the mayor and strategic partners, with soundbites for “green” and “sustainable” usually means they did a few green things and ignored the rest. And with Barack Obama watching you certainly don’t want to disappoint.

The Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (that I’ve written about: Green Energy Times, Issue 68, Oct-Dec, P. 31) is a step in the right direction but falls short of achieving a true measure of sustainability. A comprehensive green plan should incorporate standards for materials, accessing as many as possible from local supply chains (sustainably harvest wood, for example). And collaborations with organizations like Material ConneXion, which has an extraordinary database of building material chemistry.

Make sure the contractors are green certified and offer green collar workforce training so that incoming tradespeople can be part of the green wave. Provide mandatory green orientations for everyone who steps foot on the project, including the bankers! (It would be pretty easy to create a basic guide to the project that can be handed to anyone visiting the site.) A basic “green orientation” would also be easy, especially with all of local students who could come on board as sustainability interns.

Let’s have spirited debates as to what “green” is and use the project as an opportunity for diverse members of the community to chime in, including social justice activists. A lot of what constitutes “green” is behind the scenes, underneath the hood, and not in the sparkling displays of heat pumps and solar panels, let alone the graphs and charts and various “carbon offsets” displayed in PowerPoint presentations.

Zero Waste

A zero-waste policy should be mandatory on all Ithaca construction projects and SouthWorks could be the first to demonstrate how this is done, with information about it posted on the project website. This means diverting construction waste, as well as waste from the day-to-day operations, with clear signage showing how this is done.

Document the waste diversions. Create easy green waste pathways with a drop-off site just like the many that are around Tompkins County. This simple, affordable thing to do is rarely on most construction sites. (Yo, Ithaca!)

Six percent of global CO2 emissions come from green waste going to landfills, so how many tons of CO2 can the SouthWorks project reduce? Just how “green” is a project that has heat pumps but throws green waste into landfill?


A great start would be to come up with a good working definition of “carbon” and in what forms. You can’t “decarbonize a building” as is often touted in the press and SouthWorks could be an opportunity to increase scientific literacy with regards to the role carbon plays on the planet. (Trust me, we don’t want to be “carbon free!”) Demonstrate how SouthWorks is helping to fulfill the city’s celebrated goal of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2030.

The opportunity is now and we should seize the time.

Carbon negative and carbon sinks

What would be truly fantastic would be to turn SouthWorks into a carbon sink and go beyond “carbon neutral.” Most of the focus on “Net Zero” is on the operation of a building; specifically in terms of the amount of energy in (in the form of electricity and natural gas), and the amount of energy that the building produces (or accesses from a nearby solar farm). But this is only one side of the coin – the building itself has embodied energy in the form of materials, mining, processing, and transportation that unless factored into the equation any talk of “Net Zero” falls short of truly establishing this now widely used metric. This is like saying that an EV is a “clean emission vehicle” while ignoring everything that went into making that vehicle. What comes out of the tailpipe, or not, does not tell the whole story.


Instead of engineering language and technical jargon (reinforced with graphs and charts) why not weave in biological metaphors and work with local artists to create an environment that’s soothing to the nervous system and exciting to the imagination!

Such an environment should be intuitively interesting, not technically oppressive. South Works could generate a vibrant and dynamic forward-thinking live-work culture that surpasses its own expectations, where the sum is greater than the parts. Include numerous information kiosks that illustrate the project in realistic visual renderings and that have information on global warming, where carbon is stored in buildings, and why projects like South Works are necessary.


SouthWorks could be a stellar eco-visionary model of the future. Get all of the community involved and let’s do this.

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