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A New Normal For NYC: Mainstreaming High Performance Buildings

By: Jeremy Reiss

August 09, 2005

UPDATE: September 15, 2005 — NYC Council passes bill 324-A — Press Release »

City leaders are waking to the fact that workforce, economic and environmental interests need not be in conflict. Organized labor, environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and the business community are forging common ground with each other and with lawmakers around issues of sustainability — most notably, high-performance "green" buildings that improve air and water quality, conserve fuel, and reduce solid waste. Where the conflict currently lies is how we make this vision for sustainable development real — how we mainstream high-performance buildings so that green is the new normal for NYC.

Nick Kristof wrote recently in the New York Times about how Portland, Oregon is leading the charge in sustainable development, and capturing new economic markets (and a competitive edge) in the process. "Officials in Portland insist that the campaign to cut carbon emissions has entailed no significant economic price, and on the contrary has brought the city huge benefits: less tax money spent on energy, more convenient transportation, a greener city, and expertise in energy efficiency that is helping local businesses win contracts worldwide."

Why is Kristof writing about Portland and not NYC? He isn't writing about NYC because we aren't there yet. But, with the pending passage of Intro 324A – landmark legislation that would mandate Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certified construction for municipal buildings (including public schools and hospitals) and other projects that receive city funds — we will be off to an excellent start.

Some argue that 324A is just low hanging fruit and that high performance advocates should push a more ambitious bill. What this stance ignores is that by passing 324A we are changing the frame of the debate so we have more political ground and more institutional support to set the bar higher – to advocate for higher standards, to advocate for high performance affordable housing, to mainstream NYC as a high performance city. Yes, high performance housing is crucial but passing 324A pushes us one step forward towards this soon-to-be reality. It prevents us from continuing, as a city, to walk in place while other American and foreign cities usurp our competitive edge.

High performance buildings are the centerpiece of an enlightened public policy agenda – one that will help transform existing markets and jumpstart new ones (think niche "green" manufacturing sector, renewable energy sectors, high-skilled construction markets); preserve existing affordable housing by reducing operating expenses; and ensure that the air we breath both indoors and outdoors is cleaner and healthier. As NYC Apollo has shown locally and the Apollo Alliance is showing nationally, such a forward-looking agenda can rally a broad base of supporters and change the frame of our political debate. It can also challenge the city's leading pension fund managers – most notably the city and state Comptrollers – to adopt the California model of high performance investment so that this entire process is expedited.

Passing 324A now and working to strengthen it later is crucial because this will raise the public profile of high performance buildings and shift the frame for all new development in NYC – whether for a stadium in Brooklyn or Queens, new office space on the far west side of Manhattan, or new affordable housing in the South Bronx – so that high performance is seen as the new normal rather than an afterthought or competition for limited resources. Such an important development would help drive NYC to the forefront of sustainable practices and markets that our friends in Portland and other like-minded cities have so strategically captured. As we fight for economic survival in an international marketplace and our physical survival in an increasingly polluted city, this is a distinction we must start earning now.


The writer, Jeremy Reiss, is Director of Legislation and Public Policy at the NYC Employment and Training Coalition, and Co-Founder of Urban Agenda, the research and policy organization spearheading NYC Apollo.

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