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Issues of the Environment: Veridian at County Farm in Ann Arbor preps construction in its net-zero energy development

Matt Grocoff
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Matt Grocoff

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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and after years of planning and work, Ann Arbor will soon see one of the nation's first mixed-income net-zero energy communities. The 130-acre development is Nestle Long County Farm Park, and it's known as Veridian at County Farm. I'm David Fair, and this is going to be an entirely electric-powered community. No gas lines are going to be installed. It's going to have many other sustainable features. The development comes from a partnership with the THRIVE Collaborative and Avalon Housing. And our guest today is going to fill us in on where we are and where we're headed, both short and longer-term. Matt Grocoff is founder and principal at THRIVE Collaborative. And welcome back to WEMU, Matt.

Matt Grocoff: David, thanks so much for having me. And it's been a long couple of years for all of us.

David Fair: We haven't spoken since the pandemic started. So, let's talk about that. The pandemic obviously has impacted so many aspects of our lives. Did it impact progress on Veridian at County Farms?

Matt Grocoff: It impacted us, I think, the same way it did everyone else, you know, as having to take a step back in the early days, seeing what's happening here. But our work kept moving forward. The climate crisis did not pause for the pandemic as much as we all wish it would have. So, we had to keep our work going. And because of the nature of this project and the passionate people that work with us and the partners that we have, we kept moving forward. Obviously, early on, everyone was concerned about financing our real estate projects and refinancing in the middle of the pandemic and so on. And by the end of it, there was so much enthusiasm. We actually had folks, more than one, basically negotiating with us to fund the project. And so, we are fully funded and ready to go and exciting demand for it. And we're getting media attention from around the world.

David Fair: So, all of these things that are affecting the country as a whole, supply chain issues, rising material costs, a booming housing market and inflation, these are factors that have driven the prices of everything up. But you're saying that you are fully funded and that is not impacting your ability to proceed?

Matt Grocoff: In fact, it's enhancing our ability to proceed. You know, all these global supply chain issues that are happening right now and the globalization and the centralization of everything really emphasizes why something like Veridian is so important. You take a look at something like the the Honey Locust Farm Stop that we're going to have at Veridian, which is modeled after the Argus Farm Stop here in Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor. They were not impacted by the global food supply chain issues. When you went into Argus with your mask on in the early days of the pandemic, they had everything you needed because they had direct relationships with local farmers, over 200 local farmers supplying that store every single day. And while Argus was not designed for the pandemic and Veridian is not designed for pandemic, it is uniquely adaptable under all circumstances. If Veridian existed today, it would be an ideal place pre-pandemic like COVID, because of the layered sociality, because you can have your private space with your family inside, but you can also step outdoors to your front porch and still socialize at a distance with your neighbors who are also in their front porches or walking by in a public pathway. You can gather with friends or family out, you know, at a fire, in a community space. You can walk over to the food store, to the honey locust farm stop.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. We're talking about the net zero energy development Veridian at County Farm with Matt Grocoff from Thrive Collaborative. And, again on Earth Day, that's when ground broke. And you began accepting reservations that day for some of the various housing options that would ultimately be available. How has the initial response been?

Matt Grocoff: It's been fantastic. We've had literally hundreds of people that are interested in their property. We actually sold about 30 or 40% of those on within the first 30 minutes. To this first set of homes, we really were, you know, we call them the founding neighbors of the project.

David Fair: And they are the three most expensive kinds of housing available in the community. And is it so that that affords the resources to build the rest?

Matt Grocoff: It's a little of both. There's a lot of decisions that went into that. But one of the main ones was that everything about this project is designed literally from the soil up. So, the pathways and the driveways and where the houses go, we're all informed by the soil beneath the ground and where the water wants to flow. And then, all of that was designed around it. The first homes that were going to build are the ones that are in this central area where we're going to be flowing a lot of the water through and all the bio wells. They all need to get built first. Lawyers and engineers love boundaries, but water doesn't care. So then, we can kind of construct outwards from there.

David Fair: And you do have 30 lofts coming after that. 22 apartment style units. And those are going to range in price from starting at 185 up to $340,000. At what juncture do we get started on those?

Matt Grocoff: That, we're trying to figure that out right now, and we want to move as quickly as we possibly can. We actually have a bunch of folks who have already said that they are ready to reserve one of those homes when we release those. We are talking with our lawyers right now about drafting up documents to allow people to reserve those ahead of time. So, those are coming hopefully sooner rather than later, but we'll have more information about it in the coming months or weeks.

David Fair: Once again, WEMU's Issues of the Environment continues, as does our conversation with Matt Grocoff. And we're talking about Veridian at County Farm. Now, let's talk impact for a moment. When up and running and fully populated, how are you going to then assess the environmental and climate benefit?

Matt Grocoff: That's a great question. There is no such thing as sustainable perfection in a home or a neighborhood. Our success will be using this neighborhood not just to sell out all of the homes and to have people who can afford to live there or lucky enough to get into one of the Avalon housing units. But really using all of the partnerships that we have with our appliance makers and their faucet makers and lumber and everything else, to leverage the opportunity to really try to bring the entire building and development and construction industry and planning commission and city councils across the country along with us to show them what we've done. Why it was hard for us, but it's not rocket science, and it shouldn't be this hard for everyone. The thing that worries me the most that it won't be replicated.

David Fair: Well, that begs the next question. Is this something you plan on using as a blueprint for further such developments in other areas of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, or Southeast Michigan?

Matt Grocoff: 100%. Except the blueprint will get even better each time. Just like in the natural world, this is the first of the many, many iterations of what we can and should be doing. Every day, we talk about what aren't we doing right at Veridian. What can we do next on the next project? We have the technology and the knowledge and the desire to do affordable housing that is truly integrated into neighborhoods in every layer in every way.

David Fair: You say you have the desire. Do you think the good folks at our utilities feel the same?

Matt Grocoff: I do. Now, again, there's a difference between, you know, giant entities and individuals. And there are many, many individuals. And I think everyone gets it at this point that we have to drive towards electrification. How quickly they will move to act on it remains to be seen. This is the direction it's going. And anyone who doubts that is going to have a financial and moral difficulty in the coming years. It's absolutely clear that neighborhoods in the very near future will be completely electrified and powered with energy.

David Fair: So, if we are to consider Veridian as kind of an infant step, when will people start moving into this development and when will it be fully populated?

Matt Grocoff: Target date for people to start moving in is next year. Fall of 2023 will be the first set of homes, and we think we should be tying everything up and wrapping it by that by the end of 2024 or early to mid-2025, which takes us five years away from that 2030 deadline. The city of Ann Arbor and other folks around the world have targeted as the date that we really need to be decarbonizing. So, this is the decade of action. It's 2022. We're doing it. We're proving it. But now, we have to ensure that it's replicated and that others do the same because we're not going to be done until 2024 or 2025. At that point, all new construction needs to be all electric. No fossil fuels required whatsoever, a grid beneficial, renewably powered, and just.

David Fair: That is a conversation in which I can invite you back and we can have and discuss whether or not the political will is there to get that done in a reasonable timeframe. That would be fascinating to explore.

Matt Grocoff: Absolutely. There's so many exciting things happening. We're working with a battery company right now, a really innovative battery company called Salient Energy. Seeing what opportunities there might be for this next generation of power supply as a democratic and affordable and networked renewable energy system.

David Fair: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I appreciate it. And we'll stay abreast of how it's coming along.

Matt Grocoff: Absolutely. And people can go to Veridian dot community and keep in touch with us. Sign up for our updates. And we're going to be having all kinds of webinars and things on different topics on energy microgrids, on zero waste, on affordable housing over the course of the remainder of the spring and summer. And everyone, even if people are not going to be living at Veridian, will be able to join us for those conversations. So, we look forward to that. And, again, it's Veridian dot community. And you can see floor plans and all the other good stuff on there.

David Fair: And you'll be able to link right there from the WEMU website if you didn't have a chance to write it down. That is Matt Grocoff. He is the founder and principal of THRIVE Collaborative, who in partnership with Avalon Housing, is building one of the nation's first mixed-income net-zero energy developments. And it is a step into the future. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

Resources:

THRIVE Collaborative

Veridian at County Farm

Avalon Housing

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Nearly three-quarters of David Fair’s 20+ years in radio has been at WEMU. Since 1994, he has been on the air at 5am each weekday on 89.1 FM as the local host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Over the years, Fair has had the opportunity to interview nationally and internationally known politicians, activists and celebrities. But he feels the most important features and interviews have been with those who live and work here at home. He believes his professional passions and desires fit perfectly into WEMU’s commitment to serving a local audience.
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