It Takes Patience To Green A Village

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A plan to promote energy efficiency, clean air and lower energy costs in the East Village has hit delays that organizers fear has cost New York City a trendsetting model for community-based solutions to environmental problems and high energy prices. But a resolution to the delays may be in the offing.

A new template for retrofitting old buildings called “Greening a Block” would work with landlords, tenants and community groups to replace inefficient appliances and light fixtures, install insulation and better-sealed windows, and create jobs while reducing the environmental impact of existing city residences. The designers of Greening a Block say the project could be replicated in as many as 6,000 blocks around New York City that have a mix of five- and six-story walk-up residences and commercial property.

What makes Greening a Block different from other models of community-based environmental programs (like Sustainable South Bronx’s initiative to help people “green” their roofs, for example) is that designers hope to make improving the environment something building owners and tenants have to choose not to do. “We want to create a system where you have to opt out of energy efficiency, whereas the existing paradigm is that you have to opt in,” says Charles Komanoff, a Manhattan-based environmental economist and one of the project’s designers.

But four years after implementation of the program was first envisioned for parts of the East Village, residents, building owners and business owners are still missing out on the program’s promised benefits. Greening a Block’s supporters – which include outside consultants and East Village-based activists – and Community Board 3 each look to the other party as the cause of the holdup – but are also expecting movement at last.

The original proposal for Greening a Block promised a decrease in local air pollution as well as lower energy costs. According to the original feasibility study, building owners would net a savings of $7,200 per year on heat, hot water and electric bills. Apartment tenants could expect savings of $210 per year; for small business owners it would be $1,390 per year. Small particulate matter, produced by burning fossil fuels in energy production linked to asthma and other severe respiratory problems, was predicted to decrease.

The Greening a Block program grew out of a 2002 settlement between Community Board 3 and Con Edison over the controversial expansion of the 14th Street power station in 2000. In the settlement, the community gave up the right to sue Con Ed, and the utility agreed to give $3.75 million to CB3 and local environmental groups to lessen the effects of increased power generation on the Lower East Side.

Greening a Block was first discussed in 2004, and the four-year process has been described as frustrating by all involved. The project was envisioned as a template for other communities, even those that don’t have millions of dollars from a public utility to use as seed money. The initial funding is necessary to cover some of the start-up costs, but backers are hoping that banks will soon see this as a wise investment. The project would then gain momentum, because small loans would be issued within a community following an initial seed grant. “The premise there is that nobody can do that now because no bank is going to trust this can happen,” Komanoff says. “So let’s break the mold, let’s establish the mold, if you will, and show that it can be done.”

Komanoff, energy consultant Jeff Perlman and Lois Sturm, a local environmental activist, originally pitched a $2.1 million project covering approximately 40 buildings and 450 apartments. Applications for grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, plus contributions from landlords and tenants, would make up the rest of the funding. Organizers would handle all the necessary paperwork, make sure buildings met the income requirements necessary for some state grants, and even distribute energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Community outreach in environmental and energy efficiency training makes up a big part of the program.

After community input, phase one of the program, which is expected to take 18 months to complete, was scaled back to just over $1 million, with $455,000 coming from the Con Edison Settlement Fund. It includes just the three buildings of Haven Plaza, a combination Section 8 and rent-controlled complex owned by the Archdiocese of New York – on East 12th Street between Avenue C and Szold Place, right in the shadow of Con Edison’s smokestacks – as well as four other walk-up buildings in the neighborhood.

“It was a very long process to get the money” from Con Ed, says CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer, “so it is not a surprise that it continues to take time to do it correctly.” The board must be accountable and “go through a proper process,” Stetzer said.

Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a local community activist group, is set to lead the neighborhood outreach efforts. Damaris Reyes, GOLES’ executive director, said Greening a Block had productive talks with Haven Plaza’s management, focusing on some of the complex’s residents most vulnerable to energy prices. “It seemed like we were going to move forward doing some of the senior units,” Reyes says. “Seniors are the most impacted, income-wise.”

But that was at least 18 months ago, Reyes added. Since then, the negotiations stalled as Greening a Block got caught in at-times acrimonious dealings on Community Board 3. The board voted unanimously to support the program in the summer of 2006. At that point, Con Edison expressed reservations about overhead costs – but the utility has since signed on.

Some on the community board, however, say they still need to see firmer evaluation tools, especially for the outreach efforts. “It’s a very expensive program and the executive committee feels very strongly that we want them be accountable for what they’re doing, and to be able to know what part of the project is working or not, so we know whether their funding should be renewed or not,” says Paul Bartlett, chairman of CB3’s environment and Con Edison settlement fund subcommittees.

Con Edison says it’s ready to participate and just needs a letter from Bartlett before it can release the funds for Greening a Block. After Con Edison releases the funds, the project requires city and state approval. Organizers say they already have support from the necessary agencies.

There does appear to be movement, however. Perlman, the founder and president of renewable energy consultancy Bright Power Inc., said he had recently received a request for revisions from Bartlett. He called the revisions “things that we have no problem changing.”

District manager Stetzer said the board has received a lot of public input on the project, and “there is a very clear feeling that people are in favor of it.”

Observers from outside the neighborhood say this sort of community environmental program will contribute to making New York City a greener place to live. “It can only benefit New Yorkers if there are community-based initiatives toward this goal as well,” said Shams Tarek, spokesman for City Councilman James Gennaro, chairman of Council’s Environmental Protection Committee.

Still, all parties involved in Greening a Block lament the time lost to all the delays. “We’ve wasted two years where we could’ve been doing something for this neighborhood that could’ve had a big impact,” Reyes of GOLES says.

– Evan Weinberger