In Brief

Skyscrapers (and Museums) May Soon Face Environmental Restrictions in New York City

City Council has passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which tasks qualifying buildings to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels or face fines.

New York City’s skyline (via M M/Flickr)

Last week, New York City Council passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which will require buildings with more than 25,000 square feet of space to reduce their carbon emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by no later than 2030. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the rule into law.

The news comes just in time for Earth Day (today) and after a series of wins for environmentalists. For example, the month began with an agreement by state and city politicians to implement a congesting pricing zone over the city aimed at reducing traffic and pollution. The first of its kind in North America, officials expect the tolls to bring $1 billion in added revenues for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s planned subway renovations once the fees are fully implemented by 2020.

By comparison, the Climate Mobilization Act will activate in 2024 and affect an estimated 50,000 buildings throughout the city. According to the Urban Green Council, skyscrapers larger than 25,000 square feet represent only two percent of New York City’s buildings, but account for nearly half of all emissions. The city produces 50 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, and buildings account for approximately 67 percent of that; large skyscrapers, therefore, produce 35 percent (13 million tons) of carbon dioxide a year.

Regardless, property owners are worried that the necessary retrofitting and refurbishments needed to meet the impending law’s expectations will cost them billions of dollars.

“Unfortunately, [the legislation] does not take a comprehensive, citywide approach needed to solve this complex issue,” Real Estate Board of New York president John Banks said in a statement. “A coalition of stakeholders including environmental organizations, labor, engineering professionals, housing advocates and real estate owners came together and proposed comprehensive and balanced reforms that would have achieved these goals.”

Hospitals, public housing, and places of worship are exempt from the rule, however, museums are not. The Climate Mobilization Act will apply to the city’s many cultural institutions, including including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the New Museum. With vacuous spaces and a need for 24/7 heating and cooling systems, such large museums tend to accumulate CO2 emissions quickly. The new law will certainly cause pause for arts organizations looking to expand their footprints in the city (MoMA’s new skyscraper and Pace Gallery’s new 75,000-square-foot space will be subject to regulation) but none of the aforementioned museums have yet to release a statement about the upcoming ordinance.

Other companies, however, have voiced their complaints.

The Durst Organization also told Crain’s New York that its LEED-certified building at 1 Bryant Park, popularly known as the Bank of America Tower, wouldn’t meet the requirements despite it becoming the first skyscraper to win top “platinum” status from the US Green Building Council in 2010. Because the building is open 24 hours a day and hosts 11,000 works, the company says its property would incur $2.5 million in fines in 2024 and escalate annually from there. (The law will also require buildings to slash emissions by 80 percent by 2050.)

But officials have promised a gradual rollout. This year, an Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance and an advisory board will be created at the Department of Buildings to both regulate and enforce the new standards. Advocates of the plan say that the retrofitting of skyscrapers — which will likely need better heating, cooling, lighting, and window systems — will bring thousands of jobs to architects, engineers, and builders. Property owners can also purchase renewable energy credits to offset some of the emission goals or work with the office to reach higher energy requirements.

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