Destiny USA: Sustainable or MisLEEDing? A look at this super-mall's green building certification and how it is paving the way for other retailers

SYRACUSE, NY -- Walking into Destiny U.S.A., the seventh largest shopping mall in the United States, is an overwhelming experience.

With over 300 stores to choose from, the mall attracts people from near and far. The restaurants, small vendors, movie theater, and even a laser tag arena make Destiny an all-day attraction. And all of this comes with a widely-recognized endorsement of environmental consciousness: LEED – or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – certification.

But given the sheer size and level of consumer traffic – In 2014, 26.5 million people visited the mall, according to Destiny’s website, and the number of yearly visitors only anticipated to increase – a visitor could be forgiven for asking,

"How sustainable can a mega-mall be?"
Overview of the scale of Destiny USA

Not everyone is arriving at Destiny’s doors in a Tesla, and the vehicles filling the massive parking lot emit a lot of exhaust into the atmosphere.

Moreover, the fashion industry – Destiny is two thirds clothing-related stores – ranks as the second highest polluting industry in the world. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a staggering 84 percent of unwanted clothing in the United States ended up in a landfill or the incinerator in 2012. And Newsweek has reported that the average American throws away an estimated 80 pounds of clothing each year.

Photo courtesy of Destiny USA

LEED certification is based on a point system that evaluates how green a structure is by looking at six categories: building location, water efficiency, energy efficiency, choice and use of materials, indoor environmental quality, and design innovation. A building receives one of four rankings: Certified, silver, gold and platinum. Out of a possible 62 points, Destiny earned 36 to earn its gold certification.

But a shopping mall, said Chris Straille, who certifies the environmental qualifications of residential buildings in Syracuse, is by its nature “an energy hog that uses and consumes.”

Still, he said, a LEED certified mall is better than a mall that does nothing at all to reduce its carbon footprint.

Straille noted that because builders do not have to have high point totals in every category to be certified, they can choose to make improvements only in areas that are less costly and still be confident that they will meet the certification criteria. “You can kind of get around things that you think are too expensive, or you can do something else that is less valuable to the environment than another aspect of the certification.”

For example, he notes that, “In water efficiency, you don’t necessarily need to get it in low-flow fixtures, you can flow all of your irrigation outside of your building for uses such as watering your lawn. Then you can get all your points there without looking at all of the water efficiencies inside.” He said he does not know enough about Destiny to comment on their specific LEED certification.

But Lauren Staniec – a former employee of Pyramid Management Group, the company that developed Destiny – who was involved with the mall’s LEED certification process, said she was impressed with Destiny’s environmental efforts.

Staniec said she could see how the notion of a sustainable mega-mall might draw skepticism.

"Consumption and consumerism in its entirety is not sustainable; it is inherently an oxymoron."
Photo of one of the many signs promoting Destiny's sustainability efforts

"Consumption and consumerism in its entirety is not sustainable; it is inherently an oxymoron," she said, adding that when she tells people she was the head of sustainability for a series of shopping centers she gets some funny looks.

But Staniec said that Bob Congel, the primary partner of Destiny USA, wanted Destiny to be a “living laboratory” for environmental sustainability in the retail sector.

“His end goal was to make this an education center,” she said. “Not just for the businesses we were trying to lease to, but also for the design teams, the construction teams, and ultimately the consumers as well, which is the part I find the most inspiring” Staniec said. In fact, she said every tenant that chooses to lease in Destiny must get LEED certification.

Staniec’s main job working with Pyramid was to get 60 tenants LEED certified for their expansion under the LEED Core & Shell standards. Previous tenants can keep this status under the 2009 version of LEED, but new tenants must abide by the new and stricter set of LEED v4 regulations. Many of their areas of focus for certification revolve around their waste from packaging and shipments and their overall energy performance.

Pyramid Management Group owns about 22 million square feet of retail space, mostly in the form of shopping centers, in New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Each project has its own onsite management.

To achieve LEED certification, Destiny scored 5 out of 5 on water efficiency mostly because of a rainwater harvesting system that collects more than 4 million gallons of rain annually for use in bathrooms and common areas, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Another high score was based on the mall’s location. Destiny is located on top of “Oil City,” an old oil field and near a junkyard contaminated with heavy metals and other hazardous waste. The re-development and cleanup of the oil field property and junkyard were among the biggest contributors to Destiny’s gold certification. Their location in proximity to public transportation also helped earn them points for community development in building a stronger relationship with the city. Destiny received 10/15 credits for their work on sustainable sites and the location of the project.

An overview of Syracuse, NY in 1874

The mall also scored highly on waste management. Staniec said the stream-lined nature of the Syracuse recycling program makes it easier to take care of waste since there is no need to separate different recyclables.

“Every single food-use tenant has the opportunity to participate in the on-site composting program” Staniec said, and “90 percent of the food-use tenants participate in this to some level.” The compost is then made available to the public and is used in Destiny’s landscaping.

In terms of energy and atmosphere, which focuses on energy efficiency and air quality in areas such as air heating and cooling and overall energy performance, Destiny only scored a 3 out of 14 on the LEED point scale. Some initiatives the mall has taken to try to decrease its energy usage include painting the roof white to reflect heat off the building and trying to use natural window lighting to save money on electricity. The mall scored the least number of points in this sector, despite energy savings and efficiency being what most people think about when they hear the words "environmentally conscious."

Destiny USA's LEED certification points

Straille, who certifies residential structures, stated that one reason LEED standards continue to change and get stricter is because of advancements in technology.

Staniec said that Destiny is currently under review to see if they will qualify for v4 certification, but that “critical things will need to take place with the entire building’s infrastructure, not just the expansion” to make it happen.

She said malls around the country are beginning to do more for the environment and that sustainability is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

“The role of the shopping center to the American public is now changing,” Staniec said. “The reason they are changing? Partly because of consumer demand. Sustainability is something that is becoming on-trend and being coveted by consumers.”

As for whether or not this trend will continue, Staniec said, “As long as the market continues driving towards sustainable and ethical fashion, I think that we will continue to see this shift towards sustainability.”

Destiny USA canyon event, courtesy of Destiny USA

Still, almost everyone would agree that a shopping mall is an incredibly polluting institution by nature. While Destiny USA may not be the most environmentally friendly building out there, it has definitely taken the first step towards a more sustainable future.

And shoppers have something to say about how that future develops.

“It is the responsibility of consumers to be very loud about what they want,” Staniec said. “We are in this era where people are not just speaking, they are being listened to, and that is very powerful.”

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