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In the middle of fast-changing Ballard, one developer is constructing wetlands and planting vegetable gardens on land where it could have built many more apartments or offices.

City planners already had approved a six-story, 157-unit condo project on Northwest 56th Street, next to the Ballard Library, when Greenfire Group bought the property two years ago.

It chose to build less, not more — two buildings with just 18 apartments and 18,000 square feet of office and retail space.

That’s less than one-third as much development as the property’s zoning allows. Half the 0.8-acre site will be open space, an unheard-of percentage in an urban neighborhood.

Seattle has become a mecca for green commercial building in recent years, and Greenfire Campus, scheduled for completion this June, is another variation on that theme.

Like others, it’s designed to use significantly less energy, water and other resources than most buildings. But what distinguishes this project is its leafy, almost agrarian character.

Rain from the buildings’ roofs will feed a brand-new wetland, planted with sedges, ferns, camas and willow. Plans show a tiny “orchard” of native bitter cherry trees, chosen because birds like their fruit.

Another area will be landscaped specifically to attract butterflies.

Every apartment tenant will get a P-Patch of about 200 square feet. On the other side of the property, passers-by will be encouraged to graze on raspberries and pick peas growing along the plaza outside the office building.

Hop vines will climb one wall — a small craft brewer already has plans for the berries.

“You’ll be able to live and work and play — and farm — here,” says Ray Johnston, the project’s lead architect.

Philanthropist’s vision

Greenfire Group’s principal is Rose Letwin, one of the Northwest’s leading environmental philanthropists. Greenfire Campus is her vision, built with her money.

Letwin’s ex-husband was one of Microsoft’s 11 original employees. For the past 20 years she has poured much of her energy and fortune into the Wilburforce Foundation, which she founded. In 2011 it gave nearly $10 million to wildlife-conservation causes across western North America, tax records show.

The foundation will be Greenfire Campus’ anchor office tenant, relocating from Fremont.

Letwin declined to be interviewed, instead issuing a statement saying the project “reflects my conservation background and belief that restoration and sustainability of our ecosystem begins with sensible measures.”

Greenfire Campus germinated about three years ago, Johnston says, when Letwin approached him wanting to build a new office for Wilburforce somewhere in North Seattle.

She wanted the new building to reflect her values and priorities, he says: resource conservation, habitat restoration, urban agriculture, community.

Johnston and other team members looked at the Ballard property, then mostly parking lots, and initially rejected it as too big. But as the search continued, “we kept coming back to this site.”

They liked its visibility next to the library, Johnston says, and Ballard’s walkability. Plus, they thought their project could make a contribution to the fast-growing neighborhood by providing more open space.

So the project’s scope grew. Space devoted to plants — especially edible ones — increased dramatically. Apartments were added: Letwin and her team liked the idea of giving people the opportunity to both live and work on the property.

“They went out of their way on the green spaces,” says Mike DeLilla, a Ballard resident and member of a city advisory board that reviewed the project. “It’s got a more organic feel to it.”

The Greenfire Campus buildings are positioned for maximum solar exposure. Geothermal heat pumps will cut energy consumption.

Solar panels atop the office building will generate part of that building’s power. Another solar installation on the apartment’s roof will provide most of its hot water.

Rainwater will be stored in cisterns and used to irrigate all those plants. The counters in the apartments will be made from recycled bottles.

Greenfire Campus’ goal of fostering community is reflected in the publicly accessible berry bushes and vegetable gardens. That goal also is one reason why most of the apartments won’t have washers and dryers.

Instead, Greenfire is building what development manager Bob Wicklein calls “the world’s nicest laundry room.”

It will have big windows and bigger, more efficient machines that reduce water consumption. And residents can’t help but run into their neighbors there.

Big money

All this costs big money, more than most projects. Wicklein and Johnston won’t reveal Greenfire Campus’ total cost.

But public records show that Greenfire Group paid a premium for the land, a price that reflected the bigger project that could have been built there.

And Wicklein says construction costs are running about 20 percent higher than they’d be for a conventional project.

But this is not just a feel-good monument to eco-altruism, he and Johnston say. Greenfire Campus is being built on a budget, they say, with expectations the investment will generate a return.

The team rejected many potential green features — composting sewage, for instance — because they weren’t deemed cost-effective, Johnston says.

The project will produce income. Office and retail tenants — including Letwin’s Wilburforce Foundation — will pay rent. The apartments, which range from 500-square-foot studios to 1,500-square-foot two-bedrooms, will rent for about $3 a square foot, pricier than most new buildings.

Greenfire Campus’ financial model projects annual income eventually will exceed total annualized costs, Wicklein says — but it probably will take 15 years or more, not the five years or so that most for-profit developers require.

Not greenest project

For all its aspirations of sustainability, Greenfire Campus won’t be Seattle’s greenest development.

The Bullitt Center, another environmental foundation’s office building now nearing completion on Capitol Hill, has been designed to generate as much electricity as it consumes and produce all its own water. It’s probably the greenest office building on the planet.

Skanska USA’s Stone 34, an office/retail project that broke ground last month in Fremont, aims to use 75 percent less than energy and water than a typical project. Greenfire Campus won’t meet that standard.

But to meet their environmental or financial goals, both Bullitt and Skanska had to get special approval from the city to build bigger or taller than zoning allowed. Some neighbors objected; both projects had to survive appeals.

Greenfire Campus took a different approach. Some neighbors thanked the team at design-review meetings for building so little.

Channeling development into neighborhoods like Ballard by allowing greater density has been central to the state’s approach to managing growth for more than two decades. Where does Greenfire Campus fit in that grand plan?

Tim Trohimovich, planning and law director for the anti-sprawl group Futurewise, says he has mixed feelings about the project.

“On the one hand, we need to use our urban lands wisely,” he says. “But you don’t need to max out every site. You do need green spaces as well.”

Ballard already has exceeded its city-approved target for new housing through 2024. “If [Greenfire Campus] were in an area that was underperforming, I’d be more concerned,” Trohimovich says.

“Ballard already is receiving a lot of the density it needs,” architect Johnston says. “We’re bringing something different.”

Eric Pryne: or 206-464-2231