Big plans for clean power at Levi’s Plaza

Transition to net zero carbon in step with S.F.’s environmental goals

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A good pair of Levi’s jeans may stand the test of time. But San Francisco’s Levi’s Plaza will soon get an update, which includes leaving archaic, fossil fuels in the past.

The 930,000-square-foot property on the Embarcadero will transition to net zero carbon operations by 2025, according to the property’s owner Jamestown LP. This means increasing energy efficiency, replacing gas boilers with electric heat pumps, generating solar energy onsite, and purchasing 100 percent carbon-free electricity from CleanPowerSF.

The initiative is part of a $50 million investment by Jamestown to retrofit the property, and will require support from Levi’s Plaza’s independent businesses.

“Companies are leaning in together with a common goal,” Dominic Sarica, chief operating officer of BCCI Construction, one of the campus’ larger tenants, told me. “Behavior has to change and behavior changes based on beliefs. We have to believe our environment is changing.”

Strong market signals from policymakers help, too. San Francisco has found that eliminating gas from buildings has health, safety, resilience and climate benefits. For these reasons, The City set a goal to electrify all buildings by 2050 and Mayor London Breed has said “gas has no place in San Francisco.” The hope is that The City’s clear, unambiguous signals will encourage large commercial buildings to use their resources to cut fossil fuels 15 years earlier than the 2050 goal.

They certainly helped inspire improvements at Levi’s Plaza, which may decarbonize in only four years. Jamestown acquired the property in 2019, and much of the equipment, which was installed in the 1980s, was due for repair. The City’s electrification push encouraged the real estate company to spend money replacing its gas-dependent systems instead and install solar panels.

“Most of the money goes into infrastructure on roofs people don’t really see,” Joshua Callahan, the company’s West Coast director of asset management, told me. “But this is what you have to figure out and get right.”

Some improvements will extend beyond the roof. Levi’s Plaza will soon have bike and shower facilities, which may encourage some of the campus’ workforce to leave their cars at home. And Jamestown is installing a new system to protect against sea-level rise along the Embarcadero.

“At the same time we’re installing heat pumps on the roof, we’re working under the building to prepare,” Callahan told me.

These improvements could attract new tenants and appeal to investors, who are increasingly prioritizing sustainability. They will also promote the health and safety of San Franciscans. In that way, it’s similar to public-private efforts to flatten the COVID curve. When The City clearly articulates its goals, businesses have direction and can choose a response that maximizes their bottom lines.

“San Francisco has met its emissions milestones ahead of schedule thanks to innovative policies and the commitment of businesses and residents,” said Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “Jamestown is demonstrating that building decarbonization is not insurmountable.”

Challenges do lie ahead, though. Planners will have to figure out how to increase electrification without significantly increasing the electricity Levi’s Plaza draws from the grid, which could raise costs. Jamestown hopes that proposed energy efficiency upgrades and onsite solar generation will help overcome this challenge. It remains to be seen if the hope will materialize.

Jamestown will also have to work with the restaurants, including Fog City Diner, that call Levi’s Plaza home. A complete transition will include electrifying gas ranges and other fossil-fuel based equipment. This could prove a hardship as restaurants work to recover from the long shelter-in-place. But The City could help with financial programs. And Jamestown has pledged to work closely with its food and beverage tenants in the coming years to determine the best path forward.

The challenges do not appear insurmountable. If the past 15 months have taught San Francisco anything, it’s that there is power in unity. Together, we did the hard work of flattening the curve and taking the steps to reopen safely. If our common goal is to create a healthier, safer and more sustainable city, this columnist has no doubt San Franciscans can make it happen.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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