Government Goes Green?

SAN FRANCISCO has done it. Seattle has done it. Even Dallas, Texas, has done it. Now some City Council members want New York to join the list of cities with green building codes for government facilities.

This spring, Councilmember Jim Gennaro, head of the Environmental Protection Committee, sponsored a bill requiring that all new construction of public facilities, including significant renovations, qualify for "silver" certification from Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), the rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Although the city's Department of Design and Construction already has green guidelines, this is the first local attempt to mandate environmental standards. Under LEED, each building's design would have to include enough green features to meet a point quota. A project might receive points for using recycled materials, clean indoor air systems, or solar panels, or for recycling wastewater. "It really allows for the public sector to open the market to green construction," Gennaro says. It will, he adds, also save the city money in the long run. So far, Gennaro has 19 council colleagues sponsoring the measure, including Speaker Gifford Miller.

Mayoral agencies are reviewing the council proposal. "The fact that the city is addressing sustainability issues is a positive thing," says Bob Kulikowski of the city's Office of Environmental Coordination, while noting that the Bloomberg administration has its own green initiatives. "Perhaps we can work together on this one."

Some professional greens, however, are skeptical the city will be willing to spend more on bricks and mortar. "There's the question of being able to support and go on supporting this decision with an influx of upfront capital," says Julia Lynch, director of the Healthy Homes Project of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports affordable housing co-ops. The LEED standards, she adds, may not best address specific needs and opportunities in New York's dense and tall built environment.

Regardless of the fate of Gennaro's bill, it presents an opportunity for New York to find out exactly how much money a greener government could save through greater energy efficiency. Right now, construction costs get counted in the city's capital budget, while utilities are paid out of the separate expense budget, making it difficult for municipal agencies to justify spending more on construction in order to realize cost savings later. The city's Independent Budget Office is crunching numbers to figure out the potential savings. Says Merrill Pond, a senior analyst at the IBO, "The introduction of this legislation provides a key opportunity for an in-depth study of the costs and benefits associated with green design." --Tess Taylor