Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York Before the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection on Green Roofs Legislation

Zachary Steinberg

Vice President-Policy

January 27, 2019

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate.

REBNY appreciates the Environmental Protection Committee’s commitment to fighting climate change.

As noted in testimony REBNY submitted to this committee last month, the challenges posed by climate change are profound and merit significant attention. Given that buildings make up two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, REBNY and our members understand that we have an important role to play in addressing these challenges. Indeed, that is why we support the Council’s efforts to find smart, targeted ways of reducing building energy consumption.[1] It is also why many of our members have already taken significant steps both on their own and through public programs like the NYC Carbon Challenge to improve energy efficiency, cut energy use, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. [2]

With this context in mind, REBNY is pleased to provide comments on the package of roof-related legislation that is the subject of today’s hearing. In general, REBNY supports the Council’s efforts to expand financial incentives that encourage property owners to install solar panels, wind turbines, or green roof systems. In addition, REBNY appreciates the Council’s desire to see more buildings make use of these systems. However, we are concerned that legislation that would mandate the installation of these systems on most or all available roof space of certain types of buildings is not practical to implement and should be amended to better consider the realities of New York City’s built and natural environment. As an alternative, given the complexities raised by amending the building code in these ways, REBNY would encourage that these issues be more fully considered as part of the Department of Buildings’ ongoing building code revision process.

REBNY offers the following comments on each of the proposed measures:

BILL: Intro No. 276

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the New York city building code, in relation to requiring that the roofs of certain new buildings be partially covered in plants or solar panels.

SPONSORS: Richards, Brannan, Rose, and Espinal

BILL: Intro No. 1032

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring that the roofs of certain buildings be covered in green roofs, solar panels or small wind turbines.

SPONSORS: Espinal, Levin, Constantinides, Levine, and Ampry-Samuel

Intro No. 276 and Intro No. 1032 are similarly drafted bills and the comments below generally apply to both measures. Intro No. 276 would require buildings in occupancy groups A-1, A-2, A-3, A-4, E, F-1, F-2, I-1, I-2, R-1, R-2, or R-3 to cover at least 50 percent of their available roof space with a green roof system or solar panels. Intro No. 1032 would require that 100 percent of the available roof space of buildings in occupancy groups B, I-4, M, or S-2 be covered with a green roof system, solar panels, or small wind turbines. Both bills define available roof space as space that is not occupied by either mechanical equipment or required by the New York City Fire Code.

Ultimately, the shortcoming of these bills is their simplicity. As drafted, the measures fail to recognize that not all rooftops in New York City are appropriate for solar panels or green roofs and such a requirement would create a conflict with the zoning code in high density residential districts.

Indeed, many buildings in the city do not get adequate sunlight to make solar panels useful to generate energy.[3] And, without adequate sunlight, green roofs quickly turn into brown roofs as plants die off. The relative absence of rooftop wind energy systems from the city’s skyline is an indication that small wind turbines are also not viable in all circumstances. In many cases, REBNY members have already carefully considered whether installing these types of systems on their roofs are worthwhile investments and found that they do not generate energy sufficient to make up for the investment, which explains why they are not already ubiquitous.

This concern is not just relevant to solar panels and wind turbines. The current and future Energy Code requirements for roof insulation are such that the energy-related benefits of a green roof are limited. While a green roof may have other value, stormwater detention requirements are already in place for new buildings, so green roofs add little value in that regard either.

Ensuring that resources are used most effectively to improve building energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is particularly important considering proposed Intro No. 1253 that would require building owners to take steps to reduce building greenhouse gas emissions. As currently drafted, Intro No. 1253 provides building owners with the flexibility to meet the bill’s emissions limits through whatever means the building owner determines is most appropriate. This legislation, however, would force building owners to use their resources to install specific systems on their rooftops, even if doing so is not economically prudent or other investments would do more to help reduce their building’s greenhouse gas emissions or energy consumption.

The interaction of the various building-energy related legislation pending in the Council is of particular concern given that these bills do not provide sufficient guidance on whether these requirements apply to new construction only or if these measures would be required to be applied to all existing structures under certain circumstances (for instance a reroofing or a change in occupancy or use). It is vital that building owners who may in the future be required to significantly reduce building energy use and/or greenhouse gas emissions know that they would also need to adequately plan and budget for the cost of solar panels, wind turbines, or green roofs even if those investments are not the most effective way to improve building energy use.

Practical factors will also complicate the ability of building owners to comply with this legislation. Specifically, for both certain existing buildings and new structures, imposing the requirements of these bills has the potential to conflict with the zoning code. For instance, in high density residential districts the Zoning Resolution controls for the provision of open space. This requirement is often fulfilled with the provision of set aside rooftop space for tenant access and recreation. The bills as drafted would require an open space encroachment that would negate a requirement already adopted by this body. This rule also doesn’t consider the interaction with special tower or tower top rules.

Additionally, building owners currently may reserve rooftop space to allow for the safe use of window washing rigs, antennas and broadcast communication equipment, or water tanks. Preventing these legitimate uses of rooftop space would be unwise. Further complicating the ability to comply with these measures is the fact that in some buildings, rooftop spaces are leased to tenants and therefore not in control of the building owner. Consequently, this legislation could force building owners to violate contracts with their tenants or risk being out of compliance.

Finally, beyond the complications outlined above, the key terms in these bills, including “rooftop” and “mechanical equipment,” are not adequately defined. A roof is commonly thought of as the top of a building, but not all roofs look alike and many buildings in New York City include setbacks that create multiple roof-like structures. This legislation should clarify exactly what structures it considers to be the rooftop of any given building. Similarly, the term “mechanical equipment” is not defined, raising critical questions about whether the bill would consider space needed to access and service mechanical equipment or other rooftop amenities to be available for the purposes of calculating the area that would need to be covered by solar panels, green roofs, or small wind turbines.

Given these complicating factors, REBNY believes that the most effective way to move forward is to consider these issues in the context of the update to the City’s building code. Doing so will provide a forum so that technical experts with a wide range of backgrounds can determine how roof space can best be used to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. If the Council does choose to move forward with these measures, we would welcome the chance to discuss ways of crafting legislation that achieves our shared goals of reducing building energy consumption, restricting greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately limiting the harmful effects of climate change.

BILL: Intro No. 141

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the New York city administrative code, in relation to requiring that the roofs of city-owned buildings be partially covered in source control measures.

SPONSORS: Levin, Brannan, Espinal, Richards, and Levine

This bill would require the Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) to cause to be installed on the roof of all real property owned by the City either a green roof system or a detention system that would cover at least half of available roof top space. REBNY supports the Council’s efforts to improve the quality of roofs of City-owned buildings. REBNY encourages the Council to coordinate closely with DCAS and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to ensure that this legislation does not conflict with the City’s other energy-related policy objectives including installing solar capacity on the roofs of City-owned buildings or prevent the City from meeting whatever greenhouse gas or energy use limits are imposed in other proposed legislation that may be enacted by the Council.

BILL: Intro No. 961

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to extending J-51 benefits to owners of multiple dwellings for green roofs.

SPONSORS: Constantinides, Brannan, Koslowitz, and Yeger (at the request of the Manhattan Borough President)

Intro No. 961 would extend J-51 tax benefits to building improvements relating to green roof, solar panel, or white roof installation or alteration. REBNY supports this legislation, which will promote the use of these systems.   

BILL: Intro No. 1031

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to posting information regarding green roofs on the website of the office of alternative energy.

SPONSORS: Espinal, Constantinides, Levine, Yeger, and Ampry-Samuel  

This legislation would require the Office of Alternative Energy at the Department of Buildings to put information on its website relating to green roofs. REBNY supports this legislation, which will increase resources available to interested parties and the public generally about green roof systems.

BILL: Intro No. 1317

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the New York city noise control code, the administrative code of the city of New York and the New York city building code, in relation to large wind turbines.

SPONSORS: Constantinides

Intro No. 1317 would impose noise and safety regulations on large wind turbines that generate greater than 100 kW of electricity. REBNY is not aware that these devices are used widely in New York City. However, we encourage the Council to discuss the impact of this proposal with building owners who have installed large wind turbines to ensure that the bill is not so restrictive as to prevent the devices from being used at all if it makes economic sense to do so.

BILL: Res 66

SUBJECT: Resolution calling upon the State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, legislation that would increase the real property tax abatement for the installation of a green roof to $15 per square foot

SPONSORS: Levin and Brannan

If adopted, Res 66 would encourage the State to increase the real property tax abatement for the installation of green roofs to $15 per square foot. REBNY appreciates the Council’s effort to improve this particular abatement.

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Zachary Steinberg
Vice President-Policy
Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY)
(212) 616-5200

[1] Joint Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and 32BJ SEIU Before the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection on Intro No. 1253, December 4, 2018.

[2]  Mayor de Blasio Announces Major Expansion of NYC Carbon Challenge as 22 Commercial Owners and Tenants Commit to Dramatically Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Next 10 Years, January 26, 2017. Heather Senison, “How NYC Real Estate Firm Rudin Is Using Big Data To Save The Planet,” Forbes, January 7, 2019.

[3] Estimates of available sunlight for New York City buildings.