The Department of City Planning and the City Council are considering a rezoning proposal that would make it easier for New York City property owners to “go green.”
At a Community Board 7 committee meeting on Monday night, city officials discussed the proposed legislation, which would relax zoning codes in order to give property owners more flexibility to update old buildings with environmentally friendly features. The new zoning codes would also exempt many green features from 1961 zoning restrictions, which were not geared to accommodate environmental concerns.
Although community boards and borough presidents across the city will play an advisory role, the DCP and the City Council will make the final decision on the zoning changes. According to Land Use Committee co-chair Richard Asche, committee members, despite minor reservations, support the proposal.
“Overall, everybody’s very happy,” Asche said.
Klari Neuwelt, the co-chair of CB7’s Parks and Environment Committee, praised the rezoning plan, calling it a “very well-thought-out set of proposals by professionals.”
According to Monika Jain, a project manager at the Department of City Planning, the proposed legislation would loosen traditional restrictions, including maximum floor area and height requirements, for many buildings. This would allow for thicker external insulation of buildings, rooftop greenhouses, taller solar panels, wider awnings, and small wind turbines on high buildings.
The Monday night presentation highlighted existing examples of green technology, such as a greenhouse on top of P.S. 333 in Manhattan that grows food for the school cafeteria, and a green roof covered in outdoor plants. The proposal has already been tested in neighborhoods including West Chelsea, downtown Brooklyn, and Battery Park City, with restrictions being lifted in those areas.
Although most members of CB7, which represents the Upper West Side, expressed approval of the proposal, some were concerned about its treatment of bulkheads—structures on top of buildings, such as water towers, stairwells for roof access, and air conditioning units, which are not part of the building proper.
The amendment would permit bulkheads to extend to 40 feet above buildings. A few CB7 members said they were concerned that massive bulkheads could negatively affect a streetscape’s appearance, and questioned whether larger bulkheads would actually help property owners go green.
“I don’t recall a single applicant asking for a 40-foot-tall bulkhead,” Asche said. In an interview, he added that CB7 members did not understand how the bulkhead rules would contribute to the overall “greening of the city.”
Another attendee at Monday’s meeting expressed concern that the height allowances were “outrageous and not necessary to green anything.”
Jain, though, said that in places where the new zoning has already been tested, the bulkheads do not look “horrific.” She noted that the relaxed restrictions “accommodate many different things,” giving owners flexibility when installing boilers and experimenting with different types of roofing.
Although some meeting attendees said they were worried that property owners would take advantage of the relaxed restrictions and build extra-large bulkheads for other purposes, others praised the proposal’s goal of allowing flexibility for green design, saying they would be more sympathetic to green features than to ordinary rooftop installations.
“I would certainly prefer to see solar panels … than some of the ugly things we see now,” CB7 board member Ian Alterman said. Alterman also pointed out that it would be expensive for property owners to exceed the amount of bulkhead space they actually needed.
Other concerns raised at the meeting included the noise that windmills could generate, and the specific regulations regarding greenhouses. For example, greenhouses built atop educational institutions and food-processing facilities, but not those built atop residential facilities, would be exempt from building height requirements.
Neuwelt, though, said she “wouldn’t try to second-guess” the proposal based on minor potential problems, a point echoed by several meeting attendees.
CB7 members agreed to send the city a letter requesting more information about the bulkheads. The city proposal will be discussed again at CB7’s full board meeting on Feb. 7.