Residential conversions, a much-discussed solution for helping New York City’s housing crisis, could also decrease carbon emissions, according to a new report.
The Findings: The conversions could cut pollution by 2050.
Arup, a global sustainable-development firm, explored in a report released Wednesday the amount of pollution that could be eliminated if New York City made more office buildings eligible for residential conversions.
The report found that if about 220 office buildings were converted to housing, they could produce 54 percent less carbon emissions by 2050. That would be a decrease of up to 11 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Over half of the carbon savings would come from simply reusing the buildings, the report said.
“Ninety percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built, so if we can productively put them to use, it’s a win for the city and for the environment,” said Dan Garodnick, the director of the Department of City Planning.
Other emissions cuts would come from new, more energy-efficient building facades with operable windows, which residents must have. And about half could come from upgrades recommended by the city, like electric HVAC systems, as it pushes for decarbonization, said Tess McNamara, the senior sustainability consultant at Arup who led the study.
Why It Matters: New York needs more places for people to live.
This fall, in a move to create more housing, Mayor Eric Adams proposed changing the city’s zoning code to allow for more commercial spaces to be converted to residential.
And on Jan. 1, Local Law 97, which sets limits for emissions of greenhouse gases from large buildings in the city, will go into effect, with the goal of zero emissions by 2050. But getting to that goal will require expensive upfront costs, argue many property owners. They can also choose to pay fines and keep emitting instead, while waiting for the lackluster office space market to improve.
Offering more commercial buildings the option of residential conversion could give owners the incentive they need to complete the costly Local Law 97 upgrades, Ms. McNamara said.
What the Critics Say: Think more about costs and affordable housing.
While property owners are concerned about conversion costs, several city leaders would like to see affordable housing become a larger part of the conversation.
But currently New York State does not offer a tax subsidy program that supports either conversions or housing.
“We are very interested in seeing a tax policy in Albany that incentivizes conversions with affordable housing as a component of that tax abatement, but it remains to be seen whether that will come out of this next legislative session,” Mr. Garodnick said.
The buildings that would newly qualify for conversions under the zoning changes are mostly in Manhattan, and would have high property taxes, said Howard Slatkin, the executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit. Between taxes, construction and energy retrofit costs, it will be impossible for property owners to offer affordable housing units without tax incentives or public subsidies, he said.
“These conversions are almost as expensive as ground-up construction,” said Robert Schiffer, the executive vice president of development at SL Green, which owns office buildings throughout New York. “In almost every case they don’t pencil out without significant government incentives.”
For property owners to get on board, “the numbers need to make sense,” said Erik Bottcher, a City Council member who represents parts of Midtown where many of the underused commercial buildings are. “Something’s got to give because we’re not seeing these conversions happen and that’s a public policy failure.”
What Happens Next: The City Council will vote on zoning changes.
Several city leaders intend to push for financial incentives that will support conversions when the State Legislature convenes next year, they said.
The City Council is voting on a series of zoning changes. This week, it approved a plan that would make decarbonization efforts easier in New York. In the fall of 2024, it will vote on the zoning changes for housing, which include the expansion of residential conversions.
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