City Planning Commission Discusses Zoning for Carbon Neutrality Amendment Ahead of Public Review Process

An example from the Dept. of City Planning’s presentation, highlighting how a change to a facade for better insulation may be hindered by floor area ratio restrictions. Click to enlarge. Image Credit: NYC DCP.

Commissioners raised early questions about implementation and funding issues. On January 30, 2023, the City Planning Commission held a review session and overview discussion for the proposed Zoning for Carbon Neutrality amendment, one of the three City of Yes amendments proposed by Mayor Eric Adams last year. The Zoning for Carbon Neutrality amendment aims to reduce or eliminate unnecessary restrictions within the zoning text that inhibit a developer or building owner from using sustainable technology and design in their properties. While the official text of the amendment is not finished at this time, this hearing provided an overview about the goals of the amendment and highlighted common issues to be addressed by the amendment. Department of City Planning Director of Zoning Frank Ruchala presented the overview of the amendment to the commission.

Previous Steps

Over the past decade, the city has continued to explore options for how to encourage and increase the availability and usage of sustainable technology and design features in construction. In 2012, the Department of City Planning’s “Zone Green” amendment was passed, which was one of the city’s first major steps in adjusting the zoning text to better reflect green technology and encourage energy efficient retrofits. The amendment was the first mention of solar panels in the zoning text, as solar panels were not commercially available for citizens in 1961 when the original zoning text was created. 

In 2014, the city established a goal of “80×50,” to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In 2016, the city released “New York City’s Roadmap to 80×50,” outlining a concrete plan to achieve these goals.

In 2019, the City Council passed a series of bills collectively known as the Climate Mobilization Act, which includes requirements for buildings to reduce their carbon emissions and install green roofs on new buildings, among other measures. 

Needed Actions

According to Ruchala, to achieve the “80×50” goal, the city would need to find ways to reduce our energy needs, including retrofitting buildings for efficiency; the city would need to create a “clean” energy grid by transitioning away from fossil fuels and to solar, wind and other green energy sources and establishing ways to store that energy in and close to the city; and the city would need to promote electric vehicles and buildings, including updates to infrastructure that allow those buildings and vehicles to run on clean energy.

The current zoning text has unintended impediments that can hinder the installation of new green energy technology, or the retrofitting of old buildings. For example, a taller building that wants to install a thicker facade for more efficient insulation may be unable to do so because under the current zoning text, the facade is part of the calculations for the floor area ratio. If a building is maxed out at its current allowed floor area ratio, it would be unable to install the thicker facade. Another example is that the current zoning text restricts where energy storage batteries could be installed if the city wanted to establish a clean grid. Currently, variances would need to be sought from the Board of Standards and Appeals on a case-by-case basis, so to implement a larger clean grid, an as-of-right ability to install the batteries in more districts would need to be created. The proposed text amendment aims to fix these and other impediments. 

Commissioner Questions and Concerns

This overview presentation provided the commissioners with the opportunity to ask questions and raise issues. Commissioner Gail Benjamin asked about funding options for these projects. Stating “it is kind of the cart before the horse,” Commissioner Benjamin believed that before zoning issues can be addressed, building owners will need to figure out ways to fund the changes to their buildings, and if they can’t figure out the funding, the needed changes won’t be made. Ruchala responded that there are more sources emerging for these kinds of changes, and while there are larger issues that zoning can’t address, the city can at least address the zoning impediments now.

Commissioner Benjamin also asked about priority of uses, concerned about a priority for solar panels possibly taking away space for tenants that may include rooftop gardens or outdoor recreation areas. Ruchala cited the City Council legislation that requires new construction to use green roofs or solar panels, but allowed for discretion by developers in what they chose to implement.

Commissioner Alfred C. Cerullo III asked about potential design guidelines for the energy storage solutions, citing concerns that there will be additional mechanical equipment visible to other buildings. 

Vice Chair Kenneth J. Knuckles asked about rain gardens and street trees. The amendment can help address the requirements for street trees that can exclude other options like rain gardens, which can help collect stormwater. 

Commissioner Joseph Douek asked about the possibility of creating zoning incentives for the creation of energy. For example, if there was a way to provide additional square footage if a building could generate and store a certain amount of energy. 

Commissioner Juan Camilo Osorio asked if the department had consulted with the environmental justice movement regarding this amendment, concerned about the implementation. He recommended the department examine what other cities have done to implement similar changes. According to Ruchala, the department has consulted with community advocates. Commissioner Osorio also asked if this proposed amendment was doing anything to encourage people away from personal vehicles overall. Ruchala answered that this amendment was trying to focus on current impediments for energy transmission, and that addressing larger transportation issues includes discussing complicated topics like parking that require a lot of environmental review. Parking requirements for buildings are expected to be addressed through the Zoning for Housing Opportunity amendment, another City of Yes amendment which will be discussed at a later date.

Commissioner Leila Bozorg asked about how the agency has examined racial justice impacts of the amendments and if the agency was working with other city agencies to gain further perspective on these issues. Ruchala discussed a current example of the “peaker plants”, power plants used to support the production of additional electricity during peak demand times. As the peaker plants tend to be located in or near marginalized communities, creating a greener energy grid and eliminating the need for the peaker plants will also help address that inequity. 

Commissioner David Gold asked if the agency has done the outreach to the developers who are currently running into the issues with retrofits. According to Ruchala, the agency has done some outreach and tries to talk to as many people and groups experiencing these issues as possible. Commissioner Gold also seconded the comments from Commissioner Cerullo and encouraged the agency to also work with Landmarks. 

Commissioner Rasmia Kirmani-Frye asked about how this amendment can impact NYCHA and public housing, citing both concerns about environmental and racial justice and the prospect of financial savings for NYCHA through future energy conservation. 

Next Steps

The Zoning for Carbon Neutrality Amendment has not yet officially entered the public review process, but is expected to start the review process this April. 

CityLand will continue to provide ongoing coverage regarding the City of Yes amendments.

By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2018.)



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