Commission Backs Zoning Changes That Promote Green Buildings

The New York City Planning Commission is rolling out a set of proposed changes to the city's zoning regulations Monday that would help give a boost to property owners who want to make their buildings greener.

The commission is seeking to re-write rules to remove impediments to the construction and retrofitting of green buildings. These amendments would apply to all varieties of buildings — from commercial high rises to single-family houses.

The public review process for the Planning Department's proposed changes also begins Monday.

It costs about $15 billion a year to heat and power all the buildings in the city, the mayor's office estimates. Energy consumption by buildings is responsible for 80 percent of the city's carbon emissions, according to City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden.

She said said the objective of updating existing zoning regulations is to help the city reduce its carbon footprint.

"In 1961, when the zoning resolution was written, we didn't really imagine what was going to be happening to our planet," said Burden, "and we didn't envision that there were ways that we could reduce our energy uses."

Architect Chris Benedict, who served on teh city task force that helped draft the proposals, said that there are a lot of "holes" in older buildings.

"So being able to approach a building and give it a good air barrier and insulation on the exterior is a great way to get these buildings to be high-performance and to use less energy,” Benedict said.

For example, one proposal would allow existing buildings to add external insulation within the property line, while exempting it from floor area limits and open space regulations. Up to eight inches of external insulation would be permitted, but usually only four inches are needed.

Another recommended change would allow solar panels on flat roofs anywhere below the parapet.  If the solar panel exceeds four feet, it would be subject to some height limitations.

The commission will also propose allowing rooftop greenhouses to be exempt from floor area and height limits, as long as the greenhouse is on top of a building that does not house residences.

"It will help residents and businesses lower their utility bills and put more money in their pockets," said Burden.

Urban Green Council executive director Russel Unger said the proposals would encourage developers to put stronger, airtight facades with more insulation onto new buildings. Under the current rules, he says, that extra bulk would be counted toward floor area restrictions.

"Zoning's not going to count that against you," he said. "City planning's gonna say , 'Ok, we realize you've done that to make a better building, so we're not going to count that toward your floor area.' And you can kind of build yourself a little higher than you would have otherwise. So I think that's gonna be a very strong incentive to greener buildings."

The changes would also make it easier to add insulation and sun control devices to the outside of older buildings without running afoul of floor area and open-space restrictions.

The proposals will be referred out for review by all five borough presidents and 59 community boards on Monday. The Planning Commission will then hold a public hearing before it votes on which proposals to send to the City Council for a final vote.  

Burden said she hopes to have the amendments adopted by next spring.

With reporting by Brian Zumhagen