Volume 78 / Number 8 - July 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

A chart from the Greening a Block feasibility study released in January 2006, showing the typical energy cost savings achievable by replacing an old refrigerator with a new model.

Greening a Block feeling blue with project in limbo

By Gabriel Zucker

When Charles Komanoff, Jeff Perlman and Lois Sturm first met to hatch Greening a Block, a plan to create a prototype environmentally friendly city block in the East Village, it was October 2004. Almost two years later, in June 2006, Community Board 3 voted to allocate funds for the plan.

Now, after two additional years, five implementation plans, and much frustration among all parties, Komanoff and Perlman have all but lost hope for their proposal.

“Sometime this spring, Jeff and I looked at each other and figuratively threw in the towel,” said Komanoff. A Tribeca resident and founder of the pro-bicycling and -pedestrian group Transportation Alternatives, Komanoff is director of Komanoff Energy Associates, an organization that focuses on environmental issues, sustainability and livable streets. Though he said that Greening a Block was not dead, he said, “It’s on life support and it’s up to the community board to bring it back to life.”

“In our opinion, it’s in their court,” agreed Perlman, regarding the community board. “We’re totally here for them. We’ve been through many iterations of it; we’re totally happy to incorporate any changes they want in the plan. We’re here to implement it, but we’re not pushing anymore.”

According to C.B. 3, however, the proposal is far from scrapped and the delays have been necessary to ensure its successful implementation.

Under the proposal, Greening a Block would be funded by money from a settlement with Con Edison over the expansion of its East River power plant. C.B. 3 has to approve the funds’ allocation.

“For us to give out that much money, we need to work out the evaluation and accountability aspects,” said Paul Bartlett, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Con Ed Settlement Fund Subcommittee, which has earmarked $475,000 for Greening a Block. Bartlett also cited the proposal’s insufficient outreach plans as a cause for delay. “It’s basically unfinished,” he said. “They did a lot of work on the proposal, but we want to know what the results are. It’s somewhat of an experimental program.”

Bartlett said that the issue had been forwarded to the board’s Executive Committee, so he was not sure of the exact progress.

David McWater, who chaired C.B. 3 and its Executive Committee until last month, similarly said, “We weren’t comfortable with the accountability procedures,” adding that Greening a Block’s promoters had not been very helpful in updating these financial safeguards.

McWater also mentioned an ethics issue that has come up in recent months: Komanoff served as an expert witness for the East River Environmental Coalition, or EREC, that sued Con Ed, and the settlement was not supposed to benefit any of the plaintiffs. Under Greening a Block’s “Final Implementation Plan: Phase I,” submitted this March, Komanoff and Perlman would both get part-time jobs with the program, paying salaries over an 18-month period of $30,420 to Komanoff as “campaign manager” and $27,300 to Perlman as “project manager.”

McWater said C.B. 3’s Ethics Committee was exploring this “potential conflict of interest,” but he believed that they would soon ask Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office for an exemption to allow Greening a Block.

Komanoff, however, was skeptical that C.B. 3 was working efficiently to address their concerns.

“The community board would say that something needs to be done, and we would turn stuff around to them within a week — sometimes within a day,” said Komanoff. He said he felt that while 5 to 10 percent of the delays were attributable to his and Perlman’s revisions, 75 percent was due to C.B. 3 stalling. “And then they would sit on those things forever,” he added.

McWater thought that the plan’s proponents should recognize that they were working with an all-volunteer group.

“Everyone on the community board is a volunteer, and they’ve done the best they can,” McWater said. Asked if the board made any mistakes, he said, “Maybe we did, but nothing that was intentional and nothing that’s overly negligent.”

Komanoff also suspected that C.B. 3 did not begin the implementation process until months after the original resolution, but McWater denied the claim, explaining that it took a “long, long time” for C.B. 3 to finish negotiating with the energy company’s lawyers.

The Con Ed Settlement Fund, totaling $3.75 million, was created in 2002 when EREC sued Con Ed to help mitigate the polluting effects of its E. 14th St. power plant. A total of $500,000 was set aside to convert neighborhood buildings to steam heat, and another $500,000 was used to raise the height of the plant’s smokestacks; the remaining $2.75 million is in a “fuel-switching account” that allows Con Ed to switch from oil to natural gas, though the community board can appropriate funds from this account to use for other local environmental projects. The subcommittee recently voted to appropriate $86,000 of the fund to the Lower East Side Ecological Center for a sustainable business program, and $50,000 has been devoted to the Asthma Free School Zone project. Pending full board approval, $110,000 in additional funds will be given to the Asthma Free School Zone project in the coming months.

Another $475,000 of the settlement fund is earmarked for Greening a Block, which is described in the proposal’s executive summary as “an innovative project to transform a city block on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into a showcase of community-scale sustainability, energy efficiency and renewable energy.” Greening a Block, the description continues, “will demonstrate and quantify the benefits that community-based programs can achieve in delivering energy efficiency to middle- and low-income urban areas, making it a model for sustainability efforts on other blocks and in other communities.”

Komanoff explained that Greening a Block “simultaneously addressed half a dozen goals,” such as improving air quality, lowering housing costs, reducing use of fossil fuels, job creation, housing preservation and community cohesion. As proposed, the program would transform one city block selected in the area between Ninth and 14th Sts. east of Avenue A — most likely a block from the Haven Plaza housing project. The phase-one implementation consists of educational and outreach campaigns, energy-efficiency retrofits on several buildings and advocacy for public housing energy efficiency. Ultimately, Greening a Block would involve surveying each building to determine ways to improve efficiency; reducing heat consumption by balancing heat among units and weatherizing; reducing electricity consumption by installing energy-efficient appliances and stimulating community energy-consumption awareness; and installing solar panels and green roofs on several buildings.

The Greening a Block feasibility study completed in 2006 estimated the total annual energy savings at $478,000, although the recent rise in oil prices may increase that number significantly. The study also estimated the project would create 96 job years, save 1.55 million gallons of water annually and significantly increase the block’s air quality.

Thirty-one percent of the project’s finances would come in the form of $454,000 from the Con Ed fund; the rest would come from government energy-saving programs and building owners, who would ultimately stand to save money from the program. The ultimate cost of the four-year implementation would near $4 million, which Komanoff hoped would be forthcoming after the successful implementation of phase one.

Although he wanted to see the Greening a Block roadblocks cleared, McWater emphasized that the settlement fund was not being wasted in the meantime.

“Any project that gets this money is a good project,” said McWater, referring to the other initiatives that have been funded.

These initiatives include the $110,000 appropriated to the Asthma Free School Zone two weeks ago, of which $30,000 is for educational work and $80,000 for 10 air-monitoring stations to augment the one already in the district. The air monitoring, which will be performed by Hunter College — “an expert in this area,” according to Bartlett — will be done seasonally until next summer.

When areas in the South Bronx and Harlem did similar monitoring, they found serious air quality issues that Bartlett suspected might be uncovered in Community Board 3, as well.

“We should get a good picture of to what extent we have an air pollution problem here,” he said. Bartlett, an environmental scientist, hypothesized that nitrous oxide from the F.D.R. Drive, combined with vast amounts of heat absorbed by the artificial-turf fields in East River Park, could lead to very high ozone levels in the area.

Komanoff, however, was unsold on the other projects, saying that though they were “certainly worthy…any project that would meet all six of these goals would have to be a clone of Greening a Block,” referring to the project’s main objectives stated above.

“Greening a Block was a way I could really work at a hands-on, local level,” said Komanoff. “It’s a real hole in my heart that I wasn’t able to make it happen.”

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