Planning a Sustainable NYC: Howard Slatkin, Director of Sustainability, NYC Department of City Planning

Howard Slatkin

Howard Slatkin. Image Credit: DCP.

Howard Slatkin, the director of sustainability for the New York City Department of City Planning, was a frequent visitor to NYC while growing up in New Jersey, but it was not until he moved to the City after studying history at Brown University, that he became interested in architecture and the social life of places. He earned a master’s degree in urban planning at Columbia University in 2000. At that time the concept of sustainability, though embedded in the course curriculum, had not yet gained the notoriety it has today.

From City planning to City sustainability. Slatkin joined the Department of City Planning immediately after graduation in the summer of 2000; he started as the community planner for Brooklyn Community District 1. His first task was to look closely at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn area and how the community was changing around the L subway line. His work eventually became part of the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning. The rezoning addressed population growth in the area and the disparity between the actual and legal uses of industrial buildings that were increasingly being used as residential and commercial spaces. The experience exposed Slatkin to many important issues including mixed-use development, waterfront redevelopment, and affordable housing, which became one of Slatkin’s areas of expertise and focus. The Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning created the City’s current tool for affordable housing development – the Inclusionary Housing Program, which allows developers to take advantage of a floor area bonus in exchange for creating or preserving units of affordable housing for targeted income levels. The program has been used to encourage affordable housing development in many of City Planning’s rezoned areas, including Hudson Yards, West Chelsea/High Line, and West Harlem. From there, Slatkin became increasingly involved with the policy side of city planning and eventually became deputy director of strategic planning, where he oversaw the special projects, and in particular the green initiatives, for all of City Planning’s divisions.

In 2010, Slatkin was named City Planning’s first director of sustainability. Slatkin said that the creation of the position was a recognition of the importance of sustainability to the City and a reflection of the City’s shift in focus after PlaNYC. PlaNYC was created in 2007 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration and sought to develop long-term sustainability goals addressing population growth, climate change and economic development. At City Planning, sustainability issues and ideas for projects are communicated and implemented through a green team, a person from each division who is responsible for focusing on sustainability. Slatkin coordinates and directs the group. He says that “the idea of sustainability is that it is a set of principles that you integrate into everything you do.” Slatkin and the green team encourage the concept of complete neighborhoods, communities with a variety of housing options and accessible transit, open space, and retail and services all within walking distance.

Zone Green. In 2010, the Green Codes Task Force, a joint collaboration of City government and private industry, released a report recommending ways to increase green building, energy efficiency, and resource conservation. Slatkin’s team used those recommendations as a jumping off point for Zone Green, a comprehensive zoning resolution text amendment aimed at removing obstacles to and encouraging green building. Passed by the New York City Council on April 30, 2012, Zone Green allowed building developers and owners to accomplish green retrofits and sustainable projects which were not possible under the zoning resolution. For example, inadequate insulation can cause as much as 70 percent of a building’s energy loss. A minimally-intrusive, effective way to achieve energy efficiency is by retrofitting the building with external insulation. However, most existing buildings were built out to the allowable maximum floor area and height under zoning regulations. Adding extra inches of external insulation onto the building would therefore push the building into violation of zoning laws. Zone Green amended the zoning resolution to exempt external insulation on walls and roofs up to eight inches. Zone Green also removed impediments to solar and wind power installations, sun control devices, the installation of roof maintenance systems, and rooftop greenhouses.

Slatkin accepted the American Planning Association’s 2013 National Planning Excellence Award for Environmental Planning for Zone Green on behalf of City Planning. He said that Zone Green is not always perceived as environmental planning, but categorizes the project as urban environmentalism. “Cities are not antithetical to the environment.” He says “When we grow in cities, we’re not sprawling. Seeing [Zone Green] nationally recognized was really gratifying for New York.”

Rebuilding the waterfront after Hurricane Sandy. Slatkin’s newest project seeks to make the City more resilient in the face of extreme weather events. Slatkin’s office was contemplating the implications of climate change on the City’s 520 miles of shoreline when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. That preparatory work gave his team a head start on issues the City faced in the aftermath of the storm. A mayoral executive order issued on January 31, 2013 and emergency rules promulgated by the Department of Buildings allowed immediate reconstruction of homes destroyed or damaged by the hurricane. Certain zoning regulations, especially those related to building height, were suspended so that owners could rebuild based on new advisory flood elevation data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. City Planning plans to propose amendments to the zoning resolution to permanently enable the construction and retrofit of buildings in flood-prone areas based off of FEMA’s newest data. For example, the Flood Resilience Text Amendment would give buildings an additional one to two feet of height to accommodate DOB floodproofing regulations that require first floors to be above base flood elevation levels. When FEMA issues new Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) sometime in 2015, City Planning will revisit the zoning resolution and propose appropriate updated amendments.

– Amber Gonzalez

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