Under Fire: Stores Air Conditioning the Streets

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The energy wasting New York summer tradition of drawing in hot customers by cooling the outdoors came under fire Friday from two environmental groups. Protesters stopped in front of Fifth Avenue businesses that keep their doors wide open while blasting air conditioning, saying the practice taxes the power grid and increases demand for oil, which results in tragedies like the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

“You might as well get gas for your car and leave the gas pump running after you drive away,” says one protester, Sally Newman, an environmental lawyer and member of the group Stop Oil! New York City.

“Outdoor air-conditioning” has been banned in New York City since September 2008 for stores larger than 4,000 square feet, and chains with more than five locations in the city. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer recently completed an informal survey showing that 30 percent of stores on stretches of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street are not complying with the law. The Department of Consumer Affairs, the city agency that enforces the law, has conducted 282 inspections in 2010 and issued 134 warnings and nine violations. But Brewer wants the department to do more.

“They need to work with the business improvement districts, and they need to work with the chambers of commerce and they need to work with the retail associations to educate people on this law,” Brewer says.

Many business owners who receive warnings are not aware that they are breaking the law, according to a Consumer Affairs spokesperson. After the initial warning, the second offense is a violation, which carries a fine of $200.

On Friday, a group of chanting protestors marched up Fifth Avenue carrying signs that read “Cap the AC Spill” and “Energy Waste Is Not Chic: Close the Door.” Retailers like Zara, Fossil and Baker’s closed their doors when the protesters arrived.

But at the clothing store Gant, the manager, who was visibly angry, refused to close the door. And that store manager was not the only one who would prefer to keep the doors open. One Manhattan resident, actor Warren Kelder, says he likes the blast of air conditioning to hit him when he walks by air-conditioned retailers.

“It reminds me of those spills I take into the country and when I pass a cave,” Welder says. “I call it the ‘caves of retail.’ And I enjoy that sensation.”