Hardly anyone would associate casinos with conservation of any kind. They have well-deserved reputations as temples of excess, including the amount of energy and resources they devour. Some boast laser beams visible from outer space, others feature massive nonstop fountains, and most plug in enough neon lights to turn the darkest night into day.
But developers competing for the chance to open Massachusetts’ first casinos say they understand the wisdom of being kinder to Mother Earth. Instead of giant mechanical flamingos or 300-foot-tall illuminated towers, they are pitching plans for composting programs, solar installations, and rain-harvesting systems.
This newfound environmental awareness is not necessarily being prompted by worries about glaciers melting and sea levels rising. The state’s licensing process gives preference to casino proposals that limit water and energy use, fueling an unconventional competition among developers to out-green each other.
“It is a little bit counterintuitive, the idea of a green casino,” said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, which hopes to build a $1 billion casino complex at the racetrack’s East Boston site. “But we realized we have an opportunity to set the bar for sustainability not just in Massachusetts, but in the United States and around the world.”
The racetrack is proposing to build one of the region’s largest privately owned solar arrays as part of the resort. Plans also include a rooftop garden to provide produce for its restaurants and a bicycle valet for high-rollers who prefer pedal power.
Although Suffolk Downs was the first to file its environmental plans in the Boston region, other developers are pledging to build projects that would be equally green, if not more so.
In Milford, Foxwoods promises an “unparalleled level of sustainability” through a variety of technologies, including a wastewater recycling system and on-site solar panels to power a parking garage and provide charging stations for electric vehicles.
“This is a resort that will be built into a 187-acre forest preserve at the headwaters of the Charles River,” said project designer David Hancock of CBT Architects. “The environmental factors are very important to all of us.”
The other company vying for the Boston-area license, Wynn Resorts, said it was too early to give details about design plans. Steve Wynn, who heads the company, has emphasized his project will revitalize a contaminated industrial site in Everett, reconnecting people to a closed-off section of the Mystic River.
The movement toward green building has been slow to catch on in the casino industry, one historically built on encouraging consumption — from all-you-can-eat buffets to burning electricity. Casinos operate hundreds of slot machines around the clock; the buildings are typically cavernous and offer little natural light, and they are flooded with thousands of tiny lights and ringing bells.
But gaming specialists said the industry is beginning to move away from the old model of concrete, windowless boxes designed for hard-core gamblers.
“Casino owners are finding that environmentally responsible design helps save money on operational costs, and it also attracts a broader group of patrons,” said Krista Sykes, principal of Architecture In Context, a Cambridge consulting firm that works with casino designers.
She cited the recently completed Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City as an example of a more modern, environmentally sensitive resort.
The facility uses a combined heat-and-power-generation system to produce much of its own electricity. The complex is also designed to maximize customers’ exposure to daylight and the adjacent boardwalk and seashore.
In Massachusetts, the gaming law requires developers to meet the state’s more stringent environmental standards.
It also makes sustainable design one of the main criteria for judging proposals against each other, intensifying the pressure on developers to go above and beyond when it comes to reducing their carbon footprints.
The law suggests casinos achieve “gold” certification under guidelines of the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit that publishes widely used standards for environmentally friendly buildings. A gold rating, the agency’s second-highest, requires developers to work to limit energy use in areas such as heating, cooling, lighting, and water use.
In addition to conservation measures, developers are under pressure from many groups to tailor their building plans to fit with the landscape and Massachusetts’ progressive design sensibilities.
Put another way: They shouldn’t appear tacky.
“We don’t want casinos in Massachusetts to look like they were designed in Las Vegas and then plopped in here by helicopters,” said Mike Davis, president of the Boston Society of Architects, which published a paper advocating sustainable casino design in the state.
“My hope is that they end up feeling more like urban neighborhoods and less like giant sports arenas,” he said.
The Foxwoods plan in Milford includes a “town green” and promises to preserve more than a quarter of the site’s acreage as open space. Restaurants would spill out onto walkways and patios embedded in the woods, and half of the rooftop space would be landscaped.
To draft plans for Suffolk Downs, executives convened a “green team” to help brainstorm ideas, spending months tweaking plans for a resort rich with energy-saving features.
The resulting proposal looks like something more suited for a suburban side road than busy Route 1A.
The resort would have 16 acres of new open space. Plumbing features would be low-flow, and the casino’s lights energy-efficient.
In addition, track executives have pledged to each year give 3,100 tons of food waste to Harvest Power, a Waltham company that works with communities to manage and reuse organic waste.
Suffolk Downs’s Tuttle said that the plan will help the resort attract customers interested in modern, sustainable architecture and locally sourced food.
“This is important to people; it’s a differentiator,” he said. “You look at consumers in all walks of life — whether it’s gaming or packaged goods or restaurants or entertainment — and there are more and more people who are factoring this into their decision-making.”
Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.