The Green Machine

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To soften the blow of development, government officials and developers have long sought new ways to make building in the city more environmentally friendly. For years, all the best developers could do was turn off their trucks at job sites and try to print their work orders on recycled paper, since the cost of green development was astronomical and the materials were hard to find. To top it off, many environmentalists would have bristled at the thought of such programs, since the only truly environmentally friendly development project in their eyes would have been not to develop at all. 

All that is changing as government, along with private business backed by environmental activists, have begun to seriously consider the upside of building green, which brings not just increased energy efficiency to a new building but significant tax benefits as well. The State Department of Environmental Conservation has put together a tax credit plan for developers that builds such energy efficient buildings that have provided more than $50 million in benefits so far. Further, New York Power Authority president Timothy S. Carey has urged anyone doing new construction in New York State, and everywhere else, to consider more eco-friendly construction practices.

With options ranging from recycled construction materials to planting full gardens on a building’s roof to save energy, green development is fast becoming big business. And policy wonks like Carey are not the only ones who see this, as elected officials have also begun to notice that a building boom in their communities will require a more energy efficient development model—a fact especially true given the rising cost of oil and the City’s already stretched-to-capacity power grid.

In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put together a task force to recommend new green building codes and related benefits that could be passed down to developers doing business in the five boroughs. Over the summer Bloomberg went further, creating a new office to focus on sustainable development and long-term planning. Last week, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. held a hearing in the Bronx on the potential for expanded green development in his own borough.

“We can no longer ignore the responsibility of pursuing environmentally sustainable development. As we continue to grow our cities, we must understand that economic viability and environmentally friendly are not mutually exclusive,” says Carrión. “We must create a set of conditions in which future generations will enjoy cities that are both economically strong and environmentally sound.”

In his own report, Carrión notes the apparent cost benefits of building green, pointing out that over 20 years a $4 investment per square foot can yield a $58 savings. But that extra $4 might be a problem for some developers. Most businesses demand economic results now, and a benefit that accumulates over 20 years, no matter how great it may be, could easily be passed over by some developers if it has a negative effect on today’s bottom line.

Carrión is doing what he can to fight the cost issue by proposing a series of tax breaks for developers. Along with traditional tax credits, the borough president has proposed low-interest loans for small businesses looking to build green. Carrión has even suggested that the sales tax should be eliminated when construction companies buy green materials.

But does tax benefit after tax benefit have a negative impact on the City and State’s own wallet? If every development project were to suddenly shift to green development and take advantage of the many current and proposed tax breaks afforded to them, millions of dollars in revenue would no doubt be lost. Still, development projects get tax breaks all the time, and supporters would certainly argue that making it a little more viable for a construction company to put up an environmentally sound building without going broke is worth that tax break. If the City and State can float tax-free bonds to billionaire baseball teams to build their new stadiums, why not give the local contractor some help building his three-story apartment building?

Last month, Carrión introduced the world to the newly installed green roof that sits atop the Bronx County Courthouse building, a project undertaken to show the City that not only can new buildings be made green, but much older buildings can be retrofitted to add a eco-friendly touch. Carrión is expecting a huge development boom in The Bronx over the next few years, and other boroughs—especially Manhattan and Brooklyn—are already in the midst of construction explosions. It’s time to think like the hippies of old, says Carrión, and go green.

“There is a unique opportunity to merge economic growth with environmentally friendly building practices,” says Carrión. “We must make green development not only good for the environment, but good for the wallet.”

Carrión adds, “It may not be easy being green, but in today’s world it is a necessity.”

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