HDC Statement on Zone Green Text Amendment

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Regarding the Proposed Zone Green Text Amendment

Being Considered by City Council, Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee

April, 24th, 2012

The Historic Districts Council is the citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods. HDC’s mission is to protect designated landmarks and historic districts as well as neighborhoods meriting preservation.  As this proposal has the potential to affect all existing and new buildings within historic neighborhoods across the city, we have carefully reviewed it and are pleased to have the opportunity to comment on its provisions.

It is hard to argue with motherhood, apple pie or “green buildings”. We all want to help reduce energy use. But it should be noted that NYC is already one of the most energy-efficient places on the planet. New Yorkers walk, bike or ride mass transit, and live densely, sharing walls and often floors and ceilings with our neighbors. Preservationists don’t disagree with the intent of the legislation, but find it incomplete, with an odd bias against simple, time-tested, low-tech solutions. That is the opposite message from the recent evidence-based reports of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There need to be performance standards attached to the text amendment, or these directives invite gaming by unscrupulous developers and misleading of unsophisticated owners. As written, they promulgate changes that may be visually extreme yet energy inefficient, so opportunities for collateral damage to the built environment are great. There needs to be both science and enforcement added.

Importance of Reusing Older Buildings

HDC’s chief and over-arching concern about these proposals is about the potential loss of historic fabric in the many buildings and neighborhoods that should be preserved but are not protected by landmark designation or otherwise. HDC supports sustainability and believes that the greenest building is the one that is already built. Existing historic buildings often have lower-carbon-cost climate control systems – such as operable windows and masonry walls – which, when properly maintained, lower the environmental costs of the building. Moreover, re-using, upgrading and rehabbing existing buildings rather than demolishing them lessens the waste stream, has a lower energy cost than new construction and creates local economic activity.

Equally importantly, retaining and preserving historic buildings adds immeasurably to New York’s quality of life and helps create the distinct sense of place which distinguishes the various precincts of the city and add to their livability and desirableness. The City Planning Commission acknowledges this goal by stating that “this proposal will help bring our buildings into the 21st century while protecting the character and quality of life of our neighborhoods.” Despite the laudability of this goal, the details on how this proposal will actually affect the character of New York City’s neighborhoods is not well-defined or examined.

To look at “green” only from the perspective of zoning is not helpful to homeowners who want to do the right thing, but don’t know where to begin. It leaves them vulnerable to sales pitches for exterior-insulation-finish systems and photo-voltaic panels, when those products are unlikely to produce significant energy savings, yet are likely to have a great and negative visual impact on neighborhood character. The City of New York should instead be suggesting that they start with an energy audit, and begin with the lowest impact/ highest benefit projects (caulking, storm windows, attic insulation). There are also numerous traditional climate-mediating solutions which are both easier and more appropriate (i.e. awnings or planting trees and vines instead of sunscreens) that should be given precedence.

Threats to the Historic Character of Unprotected Buildings and Neighborhoods

HDC is concerned that in striving to streamline the process for environmentally upgrading all of New York City’s buildings, the door may be opened for their widespread defacement or worse. The Department of City Planning and the Buildings Department do not have guidelines for design or materials dealing with existing buildings and there are scant few for new construction. Encouraging generalized, one-size-fits-all retrofitting and environmental upgrading, unless done conscientiously and with careful oversight,  could potentially have negative impacts on all new and existing buildings throughout the city.

Specifically, HDC is concerned that the provisions regarding retrofitting of existing buildings with external insulation creates the potential for massive alterations of building exteriors in a manner that could negatively alter the essential nature of such buildings in their neighborhood context. Applying exterior insulation is probably the MOST expensive and inefficient way to improve thermal performance. Imagine re-siding an ornate wood-clad Victorian home in a foam “fat suit” or examine how little positive energy impact coating the front and back facades of an attached rowhouse would be. This proposal does not seem to relate to the present built environment of the five boroughs and certainly pays no heed to the very real concerns which citizens have about the appearance of their neighborhoods. It also does not make sense from an engineering perspective; there is currently not an intrinsic connection between wall thickness and R-value, and the disconnect will become more pronounced in the future with new technologies.

Guidelines must be developed, especially with regard to new features including greenhouses, exterior insulation and its covering, window-covering awnings/sun control devices and expanded bulkheads. We are also concerned that certain aspects of the proposed changes could be misused in a manner not intended by the proponents of such changes, such as construction of rooftop additions nominally characterized as greenhouses, but in reality constituting party spaces or other uses. Additional specific concerns are that solar panels should be encouraged on rear facades, not street facades and freestanding air-conditioning units should not be permitted on the street facades of any buildings. Finally, we have serious concerns about noise and potential structural damage to existing buildings from wind turbines. To the extent that the wind turbine provisions are enacted, any such wind turbine constructions should require a certification of the Chair of the City Commission Planning and Community Board Review and conform to Department of Environmental Protection noise guidelines.

Public Review of Effects on Neighborhood Character

One strategy which could reinforce community input into projects which have an avowed community purpose would be to require that applications which under the provisions of the Zone Green Text Amendment require a certification of the Chair of the City Commission Planning (such as for rooftop greenhouses) also be made to require Community Board Review.  If the requirement of the Chair’s review was expanded to encompass any substantial modification of a building’s exterior above and beyond what is currently allowed, community board review would further ensure that enhancements to the building would not negatively impact the essential character of the building in its neighborhood context. In order to encourage participation in this program, permit fees could be waived if an energy audit were required.

Requirement for Quantifiable Energy Savings

In fact, the role of an energy audit is pivotal in ensuring that these provisions are used in the manner they are intended. Instead of the current language: “An energy audit should be conducted and submitted to the Department of Buildings prior to approval of any DOB/CPC authorization,” the provision’s language could say:

“Submittal for approval to DCP and DOB shall include an energy audit of the existing building TOTAL energy performance which shall include an energy analysis of the improvement expected from the proposed work and a demonstration that it cannot be obtained otherwise. This energy analysis shall constitute a commitment on the part of the applicant that the project will provide the promised energy savings.

Approval of the submittal by DCP and DOB shall include a commitment by the applicant that within 3 months of completion of the project an energy audit will be conducted and certified by a qualified professional and be submitted to the DCP and DOB. In the event the project fails to deliver the expected energy savings, an additional charge shall be levied on the property until the promised energy savings have been delivered. ”

Applicability to Designated Landmarks

Finally, the Amendment should in some manner explicitly state that New York City landmarks and buildings in historic districts are subject to Landmark Preservation Commission review.  CPC staff advised this is not explicitly stated in other sections of the Zoning Resolution and including here as it might call into question other zoning rules that do not expressly state this exemption. Here is language that might be considered about this:

“That the enacting legislation specify that nothing in this Text Amendment is intended to alter the criteria that Landmarks Preservation Commission applies in consideration of applications for alterations or construction on designated individual landmarks, buildings in historic districts, and buildings calendared for designation hearings, and that such applications continue to be considered according to criteria that would be applied irrespective of any “green” merits of such alterations or construction.”

Leave A Comment

About Us

The Historic Districts Council (HDC) is the advocate for all of New York City's historic neighborhoods. HDC is the only organization in New York that works directly with people who care about our city's historic neighborhoods and buildings. We represent a constituency of over 500 local community organizations.

Contact Us

Historic Districts Council
232 East 11th Street
New York, NY 10003
Tel: (212) 614-9107
Fax: (212) 614-9127
E-mail: hdc@hdc.org

Donate Now

Become a Friend of HDC! Your donation helps preserve, improve, and celebrate the places that make New York great.

Join Our Mailing List

Receive updates on programs, events, action alerts, and our Landmarks Preservation Commission testimony.