INTERVIEW: Tweaking the Code, Greening the City

INTERVIEW: Tweaking the Code, Greening the City

Prior to the zoning change, buildings like the Bronx’s Via Verde had to undergo long approval processes before adding green features. Credit: Via Verde Homes LLC

This is the second in a series of five interviews with staffers at the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), where the interviewer interned while pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning. Read the first installment here.

This past spring, the New York City Council adopted Zone Green, dozens of pages worth of tweaks to the city’s zoning code that make it easier for property owners and developers to work environmentally friendly features — from rooftop greenhouses to insulated walls — into new and existing buildings throughout the city. Here Monika Jain, project manager of the DCP-led effort and an urban designer with the department’s zoning division, talks about the ambitious overhaul that’s been two years in the making.

Next American City: What are some examples of how Zone Green can encourage greener construction?

Monika Jain: We have height limits for buildings in the city. Before Zone Green, if you exhausted the height allowance, you wouldn’t have been able to add solar panels or a green roof to your building. There was a list of exemptions, which included things like stair and elevator bulkheads, but no green obstructions were on that list until now. Also, in zoning, the thickness of a building’s wall counts toward the allowable floor area. The thicker the wall, the less usable space you have. So another big change through Zone Green is that we exempt some portion of the thickness of the wall from the floor area calculation, if you are insulating the wall to make it more energy efficient.

NAC: There has been some buzz about the largest rooftop greenhouse farm in the world set to open in Brooklyn. Can you say more about this project?

Jain: It’s due to start in the fall in Sunset Park. Bright Farms is the company. Their business model is to create these farms near supermarkets. The building they chose was overbuilt — both the floor area and the height already exceeded the zoning limits — so they wouldn’t have been able to do this without the new regulations.

NAC: Was there any concern that by making the zoning code more flexible developers might abuse the freedom?

Jain: Those fears were expressed, but the whole premise was removing obstacles. I don’t think this flexibility is going to give developers a lot of leeway. And places,where people may have concerns, like with rooftop greenhouses, there are enough checks and balances. 

For instance, there is a certification process for all greenhouses, so every one that is proposed has to come to DCP and use this waiver of floor area and height. And then that application has to be sent to the relevant community board. So there are many eyes to see if it is in fact a greenhouse being built. And greenhouses are very expensive to construct — if you’re spending millions of dollars and showing us the plans, it’s a big investment for a fake use.

NAC: Does affordable housing stand to benefit from Zone Green too?

Jain: Yes, this creates opportunities for affordable housing to be more energy efficient, to make use of the insulation, solar panels and sun control devices. Before Zone Green was passed, Via Verde in the Bronx, for example, complained that they had to go through an 18-month-long approval process just to use solar shades, because they were not allowed by the building code regulations. So they had to get a revocable consent from the Department of Transportation to project over the right of way.

With Zone Green, we not only removed the impediments from the zoning regulations, but we partnered with other agencies and made changes to multiple codes in the city. We even changed the state’s multiple dwelling law to allow for insulation in buildings built prior to 1961.

NAC: Do you have a favorite green innovation that you’d like to see rolled out citywide?

Jain: Most regulations that come about are for new construction or enlargements, but Zone Green is special because it focuses on existing buildings as well. And we looked at the figures in PlaNYC — it’s projected that 85 percent of buildings in 2030 already exist today. So retrofitting a building with external insulation is one of my favorites. We did some in-house calculations and found that existing buildings could save over $800 million annually in energy costs, if they were to make use of the insulation and solar energy provisions encouraged by the new regulations.

Bridget Moriarity is a journalist based in New York City. Her writing has been published in Travel + Leisure and Art + Auction, where she also worked as an editor, as well as in Time Out New York, I.D., Modern Painters and Sotheby’s at Auction.

Tags: new york citycultureurban planningzoning

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