Mayor’s proposal to reduce building emissions raises concerns



The Bryant Park Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Photo: MG Engineering D.P.C.

In response to Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to tighten energy efficiency standards for buildings in New York City, architects, sustainability experts, and government officials weigh the challenges of greening the cityscape.

At a press conference on September 14 the mayor announced a proposal stipulating that buildings exceeding 25,000 square feet, including office buildings and multifamily residential properties, significantly invest in efficient energy systems by 2030. The proposal furthers the mayor’s commitment to reduce emissions and combat climate change, an environmental position he’s underscored since President Trump announced his plan to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord.

Under the new proposal, about 23,000 buildings across the five boroughs would need to revamp their heating, cooling, and electrical systems, and improve insulation. Landowners who don’t meet the new energy standards by 2030 would face potential penalties and restrictions on permits for major renovations.

Public benchmarking data for Midtown show that the Bryant Park Hotel and the New York Athletic Club are the most energy-consuming buildings in the neighborhood. However, making them energy efficient to meet the mayor’s proposed standards is complicated, according to some experts.

Nikolai B. Katz, a LEED-certified architect, said he’s concerned that the mayor’s plan doesn’t consider the “repercussions for contractors, architects, and residential clients.”

Katz explained that finding contractors who can retrofit buildings for energy efficiency is difficult enough without adding more demands and tighter standards. “The pool of contractors who can do this work gets smaller as the requirements get stricter,” he said.

Yetsuh Frank, a managing director at Building Energy Exchange, a non-profit project for building-energy education and research, said that “low vacancy rate” is an issue.

“If New York City is looking to improve performance across the board, the fact that our buildings are all occupied is definitely one of the challenges we are going to have to address,” he said.

Revamping systems from the ground up is one way to reduce a building’s energy consumption. Another is to operate and maintain existing energy systems more efficiently, said Jessica Vicuña, manager of training at CUNY’s Building Performance Lab, which teaches building operators how to use and maintain existing energy systems to reduce consumption and costs.

Vicuña said a major challenge to meeting energy-efficiency standards is that many building operators don’t know how their energy systems work.

“Most building operators in low-income residences are not trained professionals,” she said. “They are a friend of a friend, so they don’t know the technical parts of the building.”

In 2015, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability established the Retrofit Accelerator Program in anticipation of a market that would need more trained building operators and contractors. The program is designed to train and connect participants with building owners and managers who want to make energy-efficient upgrades.

“The program exists to help develop the market,” said Ali Levine, the manager of the Retrofit Accelerator Program, who added she’s not aware of a lack of qualified contractors being a major problem for the city. “It’s not something that’s come up as a challenge,” she said, while acknowledging she wasn’t certain either.

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said the market for contractors will grow as landowners are motivated to alter their building’s energy profile. But that motivation won’t come, warned Cohen, unless policymakers anticipate the “unintended effects on the poor and businesses.”

He recommended as an option, “lining up the people who spend the money with the people who save the money,” through subsidies and tax breaks that will incentivize landowners away from transferring the costs of the upgrades onto their tenants. 

The building managers of the Bryant Park Hotel and the New York Athletic Club could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s proposal. However, Jesse Bodine, district manager of Community Board 4, explained that the board can review how buildings in Midtown West plan to meet energy efficiency standards.

Bodine said the board has the “right to hold public hearings to comment” on how building owners design new constructions for energy efficiency. He added that CB4 can also request additional review of building plans and “urge applicants to use energy efficiency techniques.”

Costa Constantinides, city councilman and chair of the Environmental Protection Committee, said in an email, that in order for the city to remain “a global leader on the environment” that it would need to “take a hard look toward our city’s buildings.” Constantinides added that the council will work to implement a “retrofit policy that makes the city greener and more sustainable.”

The Mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. But a future city council hearing to debate the new proposal is said to be in the works.