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City Gears Up for Green Buildings

by Courtney Gross, Apr 23, 2009
 
Photo (cc) broddi

This story originally incorrectly said there were 90,000 buildings in the city. It has been corrected to state that there are 975,000 buildings and properties, according to the city's Buildings Department.

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Perfectly timed for Earth Day, the Bloomberg administration and the City Council introduced a package of legislation yesterday that seeks to improve energy efficiency in large commercial buildings and could require about 20,000 buildings to improve their use of electricity.

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The plan hopes to reduce the city's carbon footprint by 5 percent -- roughly comparable to the carbon emissions generated by Oakland, Calif.

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A combination of updating the energy code and creating efficiency and lighting standards, the energy plan already has racked up criticism from a wide array of interest groups, including the real estate industry and tenants rights advocates. Many are concerned over the financial impact of the legislation.

In addition to the energy efficiency legislation, the council also approved bills to create the city's own brownfield remediation program, warn parents of hot playground equipment and to require that the city report incidents in juvenile facilities.

Energy Introductions

At least 85 percent of the buildings that exist today still will be here in another 20 years, said city officials. So the best way for the city to decrease its carbon footprint is to focus on the built environment we already have.

"This is really the first time the city's iconic skyline will be moved into the 21st century to make sure that it isn't just great, but that it's actually green," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The package -- a combination of four bills, two of which had been introduced before -- includes legislation that would require buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to audit their energy usage and make efficiency upgrades once every decade. Robert Newman, the council's legislative director, said the legislation would start by selecting 2,200 large buildings at random and audit their usage.

Those property owners could then be forced to retrofit their buildings, but only if the upgrade would pay for itself after five years, said city officials. For instance, if an audit found that the building needed better insulation, the owner would most likely have to better seal the building because the payback for that type of efficiency would occur after two and half years.

Many upgrades, from trading in current light fixtures for compact florescent bulbs to using efficient showerheads, pay for themselves after a period of nine months to two and a half years, according to city officials.

The package includes $16 million in stimulus funding to help property owners afford the building improvements. Even with that fund, though, the real estate industry is expected to balk at the legislation because the payback is not immediate.

"It's going to be really, really hard," said Newman of convincing some building owners to sign on.

If the package is enacted, building owners could save $750 million, said Newman.

The package would not require that buildings reduce their energy consumption by a certain percentage, but instead ensure that buildings abide by certain energy standards, such as using efficient Energy Star equipment.

Some of these improvements, advocates warn, could end up becoming permanent improvements to rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments, which landlords could then use to increase rents. Advocates say these improvement could amount to $275 per apartment annually.

"The whole premise of the green building's legislation is that efficient improvements will only be mandated if they will be paid back to the owner through energy savings, rent increases based on these steps should be prohibited. How can you have a landlord benefit twice -- once through savings on their energy bills and again through higher rents from tenants," said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society.

Quinn said that this would not be the intention of the legislation, and officials would work to prevent increases.

The legislative package also would require commercial buildings of more than 50,000 square feet to improve their lighting systems to meet the New York City Energy Conservation Code, which mandates a certain level of efficiency. That bill would not apply to residential spaces.

The city also proposed to close a loophole in that code that exempts renovations which account for less than 50 percent of a property from complying with the efficiency standards. If approved, any renovation would have to be in line with the code.

The legislation covers about 22,000 of the city's 975,000 buildings and properties, but, said city officials, about half of the city's total square footage. City buildings are also included, officials said.

Brownfields

The City Council unanimously approved legislation ( Intro 21a) that would establish an Office of Environmental Remediation, which would be charged with cleaning up the city's brownfields.

Currently, said the bill's sponsor Councilmember James Gennaro, the state denies aid to clean up much of the city's contaminated land, or brownfields, because they are "historic fill," meaning it would not pose an immediate hazard to groundwater. It is, therefore, too contaminated for many uses but not contaminated enough for state cleanup.

Under this bill, Gennaro said that land would be targeted by the city for cleanup and reuse.

"Most of the 7,000 to 8,000 acres of brownfields that we have would not qualify for the state program," said Gennaro. "So it's important we do what we do best: Do it ourselves."

Hot Turf

The council approved legislation requiring playgrounds to post warning signs that equipment, from slides to surfaces, could be hot. The move comes after several children received second-degree burns last year.

The bill (Intro 896a) was approved by a vote of 46 to 2 with council members Melissa Mark Viverito and Rosie Mendez dissenting. Both voted against the bill because the warning language was "significantly weakened" during the legislative process.

The bill requires signs that read: "Warning: Some surfaces may be hot. Please take precautions with exposed skin." The legislation will take effect in 45 days, so signs should be on city playgrounds by the height of summer.

Reporting on Juveniles

Last year, Christopher Robinson, a Rikers Island inmate, was beaten to death while incarcerated for a parole violation. That incident sparked the City Council to unanimously approve legislation (Intro 937), which requires the Department of Correction report incidents that occur in juvenile facilities.

City officials hope that by tracking these incidents they can spot trends and prevent similar incidents in the future, said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Letitia James.

The department will be required to report statistics on stabbings, hospital admissions that occur from assaults on staff, fights resulting in serious injury, attempted suicides and sexual assaults. Though the department reports some statistics from Rikers already, they do not break information down to this level, said James.


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