LEED leaders in Michigan: Hotels, museums

Before George Heartwell’s 2004 election as mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., he was a preacher for the United Church of Christ. Evangelizing continues, but the focus has shifted.

The mayor is out to paint his city of 200,000 green, as in eco-friendly. That’s a fashionable color and crowded bandwagon these days, but Grand Rapids has added depth to the effort.

No other metro area, per capita, has more square footage that meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. So says the U.S. Green Building Council, which issues LEED certification when conditions are met in building design, construction and operation.

The momentum continues and seems contagious in Grand Rapids. The Green Chauffeur taxis people around town in a hybrid Toyota Prius. Ellen Markel, general manager of the downtown Days Hotel (part of the Days Inn chain, but a step up in amenities/service), talks of adding an ozone laundry system and to-go food containers made from corn, potatoes.

People call Patricia Pennell the “queen of rain gardens” because in 2000 she snagged the www.raingardens.org address for her employer, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. So today she fields questions about rain gardens from as far away as India, and even the roof of her agency’s office is alive – covered with low-growing sedum plants.

The area’s most excessively ambitious goal is LEED certification of Grand Valley State University’s entire Allendale campus, suburban Grand Rapids. Nine campus buildings already are on their way.

Then there are LEED projects of interest to the average tourist.

The new Grand Rapids Art Museum this summer became the nation’s first art museum to achieve a gold level of LEED certification. Renaissance to modern art comprises the permanent collection.

Rainwater goes from roof to underground cistern, for use in lawn watering to dish washing. Visitors linger outdoors, near a reflecting pool that will turn into a winter skating rink, or under the shade of a roof canopy in summer.

Skylights in galleries and other sources of filtered but natural lighting lessen the need for artificial light. This element was not an easy feat: Too much exposure to sunshine tends to damage artwork.

The $75 million museum project was anchored with a $20 million donation from local philanthropist/environmentalist Peter Wege’s foundation. For more: www.gramonline.org, 616-831-1000. The art museum is at 101 Monroe Center, downtown.

Open for one year is The Green Well, a classy-casual restaurant that earns silver certification from LEED. The business features locally made furniture, locally produced artwork and reclaimed local materials.

The cherrywood bar top comes from a tree that fell onto the owner’s property. Fake slate (recycled plastic) tops patio tables outdoors.

The menu veers toward locally grown food when convenient. A specialty is mac and cheese like you’ve never had it: a four-cheese sauce in corkscrew pasta, plus ham, bacon, caramelized onions and other veggies.

For more: www.thegreenwell.com, 616-808-3566. The restaurant is at 924 Cherry St., in the Grand Rapids’ Uptown district.

One-half hour southwest of Grand Rapids, in Holland, sits CityFlats Hotel, expected to be among the first U.S. hotels to earn a silver rating from LEED. It opened in May.

Two dozen seats from a closed IMAX theater furnish a conference room. Polished concrete floors replace carpeting. Countertops are IceStone (a mix of recycled glass and concrete) or a blend of concrete and crushed beer bottles. Hallways are Plynel, vinyl-rubber that looks like fabric but is laid like tile.

Other unusual elements: cork flooring, linens with bamboo threading, only a wood-fired oven in the restaurant, CityVu. No deep frying here.

Flatbread pizzas are a specialty. So is carrot cake, made in mini loaves and served warm, with a side of cream cheese frosting.

Rates at the 56-room hotel are $159-199 for a room, up to $349 for a suite. For more: www.cityflatshotel.com, 866-609-2489. The hotel is at 61 E. Seventh St.

Long-term projects include Millennium Park, 1,500 acres of former gravel and sand mines that are being converted into a recreational area that is twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park.

“We’re taking an (environmentally) exhausted area and reclaiming it,” says Roger Sabine, landscape architect.

The 20-year project involves multiple property owners, mining operations and municipalities. The Grand River runs through the area and eventually will feed 14 little lakes that are linked as one, for canoeing or kayaking. These former mining pits are four to 28 feet deep.

Already finished is a sandy beach, boathouse, “splash bed” play area, playground and fishing area. This has cost $25 million, and now work proceeds on 20 miles of hiking/biking trails, a $5 million network.

Will the project be LEED certified? “That’s the goal,” says Roger, although the reality will depend upon the willingness of municipal governments and private donors to fund work at thist level.

A higher investment upfront is typical with LEED projects; payback comes when energy efficiency brings lower operational and maintenance costs.

On the drawing board, but awaiting funds, are plans for a 12,000-seat amphitheater, a visitor center and nature/sustainability center.

For more: www.millennium-park.org. The park is at 1415 Maynard Ave., off of Hwy. 196, between John Ball Zoo and Johnson Park.

This press trip to western Michigan was at the invitation of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau. For more: www.visitgrandrapids.org, 800-678-9859.

Grand Rapids is west of Milwaukee, a 270-mile drive around the bottom of Lake Michigan, or a one-hour drive after a 2.5-hour ride on the Lake Express ferry (www.lake-express.com, 866-914-1010.

The highest level of LEED certification is platinum, achieved in Wisconsin by the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, which opened in 2007 near Baraboo. For more: www.aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279.