News
12.10.2009
Greener Apple
City Council approves first-in-nation retrofitting bill, with scaled back requirements
A New Yorker holds up a sign during a rally Monday in support of green buildings legislation that passed the City Council yesterday.
William Alatriste

Yesterday, the City Council passed landmark legislation aimed at greening the five borough’s existing building stock, with the goal of creating jobs, reducing the city’s carbon footprint, and setting an example for the rest of the country. “Most of us do not look at a skyscraper and see a polluter, but unfortunately, that is the case, and they account for 80 percent of pollution in this city,” City Council member Daniel Garodnick declared from the council chambers last night, before the bills passed with overwhelming support.

The package of four bills, which were unveiled on Earth Day, had recently been criticized for no longer requiring mandatory retrofits of buildings over 50,000 square feet that do not pass decennial audits. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn insisted the legislation still came close to reaching the council’s initial benchmarks. “Our goal was to get as close to our original goal of 5 percent reduction in carbon as possible,” Quinn said. “We’ve achieved about four-and-three-quarters percent, about as close as we can get.”

Quinn said that, based on studies by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, voluntary retrofits would work almost as well as mandatory ones, given that when most building owners see the potential savings revealed by the required audits, they would make the upgrades anyway. Under the previous legislation, any building system that failed to meet current standards would have to be upgraded.

Landlords and tenant groups had resisted the requirements, fearing the cost of retrofitting buildings and the subsequent rent increases that would accompany them, especially in the midst of such a severe economic downturn. Quinn said the changes created a bill that was fair to all parties and a burden to none. City-owned buildings and small buildings will not be exempted from the required retrofits.

The other three pieces of legislation create a new city energy code that is considerably more progressive than the state code to which buildings have been bound, including a requirement for commercial building owners to upgrade their lighting systems and provide sub-metering so tenants can monitor and modify their energy usage, and annual benchmarking of building systems to ensure they are working to optimum efficiency.

The legislation is expected to create nearly 18,000 jobs and help the city reach its goal of reducing energy consumption by 30 percent by 2030. That did not keep five members from voting against the auditing bill, two of whom also voted against the lighting bill. Representative Simcha Felder, who falls into the latter group, explained his vote as opposition to burdening city residents and companies. “I care deeply about the environment, but I opposed unfunded mandates,” he said. “If the city wants to encourage people on these items, that’s a good thing, but they should incentivize them first.”

Even with the last minute changes, most environmentalists continued to rally behind the legislation, including Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. “If you took any one of the elements you’re passing today and just passed it, it would be an incredible accomplishment,” Unger said. “The fact is, when you have so many happening at once, it truly is groundbreaking.”

“This is akin to the New York City smoking ban,” he added, “in terms of how it could change the operation of existing buildings around the country.”

The council also approved the FRESH program, which gives developers in underserved communities a density bonus if they include a fresh produce store in their project.

Matt Chaban