Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Going Green, Saving Green

A new state-of-the-art apartment complex called Via Verde boasts a series of terraced rooftop lawns and gardens, an outdoor amphitheater and stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. The building -- as its Spanish name suggests -- is also dedicated to the “green way,” meaning it meets the highest standards of environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient construction.

But unlike some other eco-conscious apartment buildings in New York City like the Solaire in Battery Park City, or the Tribeca Green in lower Manhattan, Via Verde is located in the South Bronx. And unlike these other luxury condos, it is built with middle-class New Yorkers in mind: Many of the 202 apartments in Via Verde are intended for families for four that earn less $56,700 a year. “We hope that [the Via Verde] proposal will serve as a prototype for future affordable housing developments built nationally and internationally,” said Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan.

Via Verde is not alone. A smattering of low-cost environmentally friendly projects housing projects are being built across the country, according to a recent article in the Next American City. In Duluth, Minnesota, for example, a project for 70 formerly addicted or homeless people will be convenient to public transportation and boast such features as a high-efficiency steam heating and hot water system, energy-efficient lighting and controls, ceiling fans and landscaping that requires no irrigation.

If Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way, there will be more buildings using such technologies in New York City’s future. On April 22, as part of a plan to make New York more sustainable, the mayor called for a series of new projects and initiatives aimed at reducing harmful emissions and energy usage.

But accomplishing such changes in the city could be a major challenge, with high demand, a scarcity of land combining to create a critical shortage of low- and middle-income housing - let alone apartments that are energy efficient , environmentally friendly and still available to less affluent New Yorkers.


But some experts believe that New York City cannot afford to neglect the environment in its push to provide more moderately priced housing. They argue that constructing buildings that use less water and energy and contain fewer toxic substances is not just an innovative idea but also a necessity.

The city is expecting demand for electricity to outpace current capacity by 2012, and a major portion of that demand comes from buildings. New York City buildings emit 79 percent of the global warming gases in the city, which in turn, accounts for 1 percent of emissions nationwide, according to a recent study from the mayor’s office. New York City alone emits as much as these gases than all of Portugal or Ireland.

And unless something is done, the pollution is bound to increase. More than a million people are expected to move into the city by the year 2030, according to the Department of City Planning.

This will “pose challenges that – if left unmet – could be paralyzing,” Bloomberg said in a recent speech.


Through a variety of techniques, such as energy saving appliances, improved ventilation, recycling rainwater, green buildings use less energy than conventional homes, emit less of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and often provide safer and more pleasant environments for residents who are not subject to harmful chemicals and compounds.

But one of the biggest obstacles is cost.

Estimates on the up-front costs of building green and the time it takes to recoup that investment vary. The city’s Department of Design and Construction has figured that green buildings cost 2 to 3 percent more to construct, and the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of building industry leaders, estimates that, on average, it can increase initial costs by between 2 and 7 percent.

Proponents point out that these costs can be recovered in lower operating costs over the life of the building – particularly reduced energy and water bills. And those expenses pose an increasing burden for many homeowners and rents.

The cost of energy in US cities increased on average 11 percent last year, accordingto the US Conference of Mayors._New York City is considering an increase of 11.5 percent in water rates, which would add an estimated $72 to the average water and sewer bill for a single-family home in the city._

Despite this, many developers are reluctant to put more money into upfront construction costs.

To help developers and builders defer the costs of building green, the state and city have offered a series of tax incentives and financing.

The state began offering the first tax credit for developers of green buildings in the country in 2000. It has distributed the total $25 million allocated to the program among seven projects. The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency also offers a variety of help with different aspects of green building.

Some money is also coming from the non-profit sector.

The Enterprise > Community Partners has invested $130 million dollars to finance the development of 1,800 homes in the city over the last two years.

Yet many say this is still not enough, and so government has begun to require, not just encourage, environmentally friendly construction.

The state mandates that the buildings housing many state government agencies improve their energy efficiency by between 10 and 35 percent, and that they purchase up to 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar.

And the city enacted Local Law 86 at the beginning of this year, which requires that most new, non-residential developments using at least $10 million of city financing reduce their energy costs by between 20 and 35 percent, among other environmental requirements. The law is estimated to affect $12 billion in construction.


On Earth Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented list of 127 proposals, called PlaNYC, aimed at making a “greener, greater New York.” Dozens of the ideas involve making new construction more environmentally friendly – and even helping New Yorkers upgrade their existing homes to be more energy efficient.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection has already allocated $34 million dollars toward a water conservation effort that aims at a 5 percent reduction in water use. The program would provide rebates to replace toilets, urinals and washing machines with more efficient models starting in 2008.

In an effort to make green building more affordable, the new building code - which is expected to be adopted this summer - will provide rebates for many environmentally friendly features such as improved ventilation and white roofs, which reflect heat rather than absorbing it and so reduce energy needed for air conditioning. In a similar vein, the city plans to offer a property tax abatement for solar installations.

To indicate that the features normally associated with green construction are not limited to the affluent, some of the 55,000 units fundedunder the mayor’s plan to create or preserve 165,000 homes by 2013 were built to meet sustainability standards.

And from now on, the Bloomberg administration says, all of the new apartments and houses will adhere to more stringent standards.

Still, it will take some radical new approaches to ensure that New York can be environmentally sustainable and affordable.

While the Via Verde apartment complex in the Bronx has been hailed as eco-conscious model for features like the ability to rainwater, spaces to grow vegetables and fruit, solar panels, and even a Christmas tree farm, it began with a substantial commitment from the city: the land, which was valued at more than $4.5 million, was donated free of charge.


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