Wednesday, March 14, 2007 | 7:18 a.m.
Folks who set the standards for environmentally friendly buildings probably didn't envision the day when Las Vegas casinos would go "green."
But the Nevada Legislature passed a tax rebate program for such buildings in 2005, and casino executives recognized the "green" in the potential payout of hundreds of millions in property tax savings. So they jumped to join the slim ranks of progressive commercial developers designing green projects.
But casino bosses soon ran up against a problem: Smoking isn't green.
The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards require buildings be smoke-free.
As one of the last bastions of smokers, some casinos spent millions of dollars on improved ventilation systems to suck up smoke in an attempt to accommodate both smokers and nonsmokers. Even that's not enough to get tax rebates on smoky casino floors.
But the standards allow the casinos to hedge their bets. They can seek green certification for parts of their buildings. A resort could try to get certification - and the tax break - for its hotel or shopping mall as long as there is an appropriate buffer between it and the smoky gambling area, said Kimberly Hosken, director of LEED's new construction program.
What kind of buffer would be required for businesses to receive the tax rebate has been the subject of heated debate over the past several months.
It dominated public workshops on LEED standards hosted by the Nevada energy office, but anti-smoking advocates and some casino bosses aren't happy so far.
"This is a complete sellout to the casino industry," said Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of Smoke-Free Gaming of Colorado, a grass-roots organization pushing for smoke-free casinos in that state, New Jersey and Nevada. The building council is allowing resorts to reap tax rebates while casino workers still inhale smoke, Steinberg said. "Smoke is not going to stop at this invisible wall between a casino and a hotel."
Hosken said the building council isn't changing its standards to accommodate casinos. Rather, she said, the nonprofit group has concluded that gambling floors and nearby restaurants and shops won't be eligible for green certification no matter how effective they are in sucking up smoke.
"As much as we don't like smoking, this is not our cause," Hosken said. "There's $20 billion of construction going on in Vegas. Our role is to promote environmentally sustainable building."
Steinberg said she is disappointed that LEED experts aren't requiring casinos - the only businesses seeking to maintain smoking while seeking certification - to enclose smokers in pressurized smoking lounges like those used in some airports.
Building officials probably will require that casinos have a 25-foot buffer zone like the existing requirements for outdoor smoking areas. Council engineers also are studying whether pressurized air curtains such as those used to keep cold air out of open doorways could be installed in casinos to keep smoke from traveling, say, from the casino floor into a hotel lobby - although it's unlikely that it would stand up to the kind of testing experts use to test smoke in hotels.
MGM Mirage, which began construction of its casino at CityCenter last year, has been among the most proactive in addressing casino air quality even though gambling areas won't be eligible for green certification, Hosken said.
The casino will make up about 300,000 square feet of CityCenter's eight-building, 18 million-square-foot city within a city. Executives say it will use the most advanced filtration technology available, such as pumping air upward from tiny holes in the floor and installing air curtains between card dealers and customers.
"We are really focused on cleaning the air rather than pursuing LEED certification," said Cindy Ortega, senior vice president of energy and environmental services at MGM Mirage.
The LEED workshops and the smoking ban approved by voters in November are keeping the smoking issue on the public's radar and will put pressure on casinos to improve their air quality even as they accommodate smokers, said Pamela Vilkin, owner of Greenview Sustainability Consultants and president of the Green Building Council's Las Vegas chapter.
Vilkin predicts that some properties will end up banning smoke on their own once they analyze how much high-tech filtration systems cost compared with the tax benefits of going green. For those that allow smoke, liability concerns and demand for fresher air will yield better ventilation mechanisms.
"There's more of an awareness now that people don't want smoking," Vilkin said. "It's clear that if you're going to have smoking you have to have improved ventilation. If you're going to honor the smokers you're going to have to honor the nonsmokers as well."