One Size Doesn’t Retrofit All

Spencer T. Tucker / City of New York, Office of the Mayor

Like most of my colleagues, I tip my hat to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council for devising a plan to make landlords retrofit older buildings. And like the cleantech advocates who stood beside me on a Rockefeller Center terrace to hear the mayor outline the plan on Earth Day, I shrugged when I tried to gauge which engineering recipes will help landlords meet the requirements. And now, I’m biting my nails a bit.

Landlords tend to hate mandates, in part because it’s bedeviling to legislate engineering: no two buildings respond optimally to the same efficiency fixes. A building’s optimal tune-up depends on what its tenants do, how frequently they move in and out, where the building faces, and so on. But the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan requires energy audits and upgrades from all  landlords in big buildings, and lighting fixes from all their commercial tenants. Bold and properly so. But maybe we would get greener sooner if the mayor had offered incentives to a subset of landlords whose huge portfolios make investing in efficiency a surer bet than nitpicking over why they shouldn’t have to.

“It speaks volumes to see who isn’t standing with the mayor,” a City Hall staff member confided on Earth Day. The landlords’ lobby has clamored for slow-track changes to their buildings since the mayor’s focus turned green in 2007. I now worry that the mandates in the new plan – five year paybacks, full benchmarking, code compliance after even minor upgrades – will embolden the small landlords to cry “oppression in a Depression!” and swoop us all into a political Punch and Judy show. Hey, it happened with congestion pricing.

So what do urban enthusiasts do about it? Focus. The audacity that brought us Rockefeller Center, Dumbo and the High Line crackles through the mayor’s plan – except that the stakes are much higher. Before the mayor spoke on Earth Day, I turned and paused to geek out at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The next few years will ask us to choose economic constraints to free us from a flood of climate-related disasters. If we tell our landlords, our pension funds, our architects and our mayors to keep thinking big, we will build something as sublime as Rock Center. If we listen to the silence of landlords who worry about short-term costs, the bright cheer of recent days will fade to a painful echo.


Alec Appelbaum writes about how cities can become greener and fairer for the New York Times, the Architect’s Newspaper and others. He lives on the Lower East Side.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

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