What is a wellness district? Vinik-Cascade project in downtown Tampa promotes healthy lifestyle

If you walked into the kind of building Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Strategic Property Partners wants in their planned redevelopment of Tampa’s southern downtown, you might not immediately notice major differences from other buildings.

There might be more visible daylight and the air might smell slightly fresher.

Stairways might be more conspicuous than in most office buildings, and if there was a cafeteria, you might notice more obvious displays of fruits and vegetables.

But SPP, the joint real estate venture between Cascade Investment, LLC and Jeff Vinik, and others designing the $2 billion development that’s just now getting off the ground believe the kind of buildings they want will actually make you healthier.

Strategic Property Partners has teamed up with Delos real estate company, which specializes in designing buildings that meet standards for wellness. 

The buildings are intended to promote health with cleaner air, less risk of infection and exposure to allergens, better dietary offerings, and surroundings that promote fitness and reduce causes of stress, from sound to lighting.

And for the first time, they plan to expand the concept into the world’s first “wellness district” -- a neighborhood of offices, stores and homes intended to make its residents healthier.

Delos has been working for several years on standards for making buildings healthier, says Delos Founder and CEO Paul Scialla. 

But it’s only just now starting to produce standards for a wellness district in downtown Tampa. They’re likely to include making the neighborhood walkable, with abundant green space, access to healthy food and to the amenities of the Channel District waterfront to enhance the quality of life.

It’s likely to include details such as low-pollen trees, sound barriers to reduce noise pollution, and even daily monitoring and reporting of local air quality.

It could also affect the designs of streets and sidewalks.

“There is evidence that having too narrow a sidewalk, too long a block or too wide a street affects people’s physical activity or their safety,” Scialla says.

The wellness district standards are to be incorporated into SPP’s 50-acre redevelopment of southern downtown, including the Amalie Arena where Vinik’s hockey team plays, and the struggling Channelside Bay Plaza mall. 

The project is a partnership between Delos and Strategic Property Partners, which includes Cascade Investment, Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s asset management company.

Phase 1 of the project, which spokeswoman Ali Glisson says is to be completed by 2020, is to include the new University of South Florida medical school and Heart Health Institute on land Vinik has donated, plus a related parking garage; a hotel next to the Arena; an office building; about 1,000 residences; renovation of the shopping center and 200,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and entertainment venues.

She says the later phase will bring the total development to more than 9-million square feet of commercial, residential, hotel, educational, entertainment, cultural and retail uses by about 2026 -- the result of a total investment exceeding $2-billion.

Global connections

Scialla founded Delos along with his twin brother Peter in 2007 as a luxury home developer with emphasis on building healthful residences. Both had been traders at Goldman Sachs.

The firm has connections with politicians, celebrities and scientists. Its advisory board includes Deepak Chopra, Leonardo DiCaprio, former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, and former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, plus former Mayo Clinic medical director Nicholas LaRusso.

In 2012, working with the Clinton Global Initiative, Delos committed to developing a set of wellness standards for buildings.

It compares those standards to the LEED standards -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies buildings as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. USCGB’s founding chairman, Rick Fedrizzi, is also on the Delos advisory board.

Through the International WELL Building Institute Delos founded, its detailed WELL building standards have since been applied to nearly 50 million square feet of building projects in 12 countries in the program, the company says.

The standards are grouped into seven major categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. 

Scialla says standards in the same categories “will be applied to the community at large, with safety and injury prevention added,” in the district standards.

A list of the standards for buildings covers some 230 pages and applies to nearly every aspect of a building’s construction and operation, including the maintenance and cleaning practices used while it’s in operation and the employment policies of its occupants.

Some of the standards touch on areas obviously important for health -- clean air, water, and food choices -- but others may be surprising, such as lighting. In a certified building, it will be designed to complement the human body’s “circadian rhythm,” an internal clock that regulates physiological processes to prepare the body for sleep, eating and other activities at various times of the day.

“For tens of thousands of years humans roamed the earth outside and we developed a natural connection to the circadian rhythm,” Scialla says. “With the invention of artificial light, that was disrupted.”

In general, he says, people expose themselves to too little light during the day and too much at night, which affects the production of hormones that regulate processes from sleeping and waking to digestion.

“Light is medicine,” he says. “Light can help you digest food. It can help wake you up and keep you energized.”

A few other examples culled from those pages of standards:
  • Practices during construction to prevent pollutants and moisture from being captured inside the building.
  • A 30 percent higher-than-normal rate of fresh air supply in the HVAC system, extensive air filtration standards, and even limits on vehicle idling in or near the building.
  • Windows that open, but with indicators to show when the outside air is low-quality.
  • Bans or restrictions on hazardous construction materials, including asbestos, lead, formaldehyde, some compounds thought to be toxic that are commonly used in plastics such as perfluorinated compounds and phthalates, and even halogenated flame retardants and mercury lights.
  • Countertops made of anti-microbial materials and cleaning protocols including ultraviolet light for “high-touch” areas.
  • In cafeterias, salad bars and fresh fruit and vegetable offerings at the beginning of buffet lines, along with limits on processed food and trans-fats and limits on plate and cup sizes.
  • Paper towels rather than air hand dryers in bathrooms.
  • Gardening or greenhouse space available within a certain distance of residential structures.
  • Water quality testing and limits on contaminants.
  • Accessibility of stairs, physical activity spaces, “active workstations” and pedestrian-friendly exteriors.
  • Features designed to create psychological serenity, including plantings and water features and room designs providing an open and comfortable feel.
  • Commitments to charitable contributions by employers and policies providing paid family leave and health insurance for employees.

All this sounds expensive, but Scialla says it’s not as expensive as it sounds. Percentage-wise, he says, making a building compliant with the standards should add an amount in the low single digits to its construction cost, as little as 1 percent.

Scientific evidence

As new as the practices are, there aren’t any long-term studies to show how the standards affect the health of the people in the buildings, but Scialla says there is scientific evidence behind the standards.

In a partnership with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, artificial environments or rooms designed to duplicate buildings built according to the standards have been tested for their effects on human physiology.

Tampa has had air quality issues in the past that could affect the efficacy of the air standards, but the city’s air quality has improved. “We don’t foresee any insurmountable problems,” Scialla says.

The company has also looked at the general state of health in the Tampa area.

“We have looked at some of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity and nothing stood out that Tampa was either was in trouble or a shining example,” he says.

But lots of questions about the project remain unanswered, including its name -- SoDo (for South Downtown)? Waterside? The Water District? Water’s Edge? Or simply Channelside? Vinik has invited suggestions from the public.

The City of Tampa’s contribution to the district isn’t clearly defined, although Mayor Bob Buckhorn is on board with the idea. A long-time political ally and associate of the Clintons, he appeared at the September 2015 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting at which the idea for the wellness district was announced.

“Together, we will demonstrate that city design -- not just building design -- can be healthy and sustainable, making Tampa a leader in the wellness industry and our downtown, a destination,” he said then.
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