In the last several years, NYC has stepped up as a national leader in the use of green infrastructure. A multi-agency effort led by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), smarter (and more cost-effective) stormwater management keeps runoff out of overwhelmed city sewers and helps reduce the overflows that regularly plague all five boroughs.
DEP’s technical guidelines allow for two compliance paths: slow-release methods (such as subsurface vaults and blue roofs) or volume-reducing green infrastructure practices (including rain gardens, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting) – or a combination of two approaches. (Although DEP’s current guidelines don’t address permeable pavement, a new city law requires DOT and DEP to develop recommendations on that topic.)
So why should property owners choose the greener path to compliance? Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report, The Green Edge: How Commercial Property Investment in Green Infrastructure Creates Value, detailing a wide range of benefits that green infrastructure can provide to commercial property owners and their tenants:
• Increased rents and property values
• Increased retail sales
• Energy savings
• Local financial incentives (such as tax credits, rebates, and stormwater fee credits)
• Reduced infrastructure costs
• Reduced flood damage
• Reduced water bills
• Increased health and job satisfaction for office employees
• Reduced crime
Real dollar values can be put on many of these benefits:
On any given property, these benefits can add up to big money over the long-run. The Green Edge includes three examples that show the potential cumulative value of a suite of green infrastructure retrofits to the owners and tenants of medium-sized office buildings, midrise apartment buildings and retail centers. In both the office building and apartment building examples, the total present value of benefits approaches $2 million over 40 years; for the retail center, benefits exceed $24 million, including nearly $23 million of increased retail sales for tenants.
This commercial office building in Washington, DC, incorporates a green roof, a cistern, plantings that maximize the “curb appeal” of the façade, and reuse of captured rainwater for landscape irrigation -- achieving zero stormwater runoff from a 2-year storm or less. More information is available here (Photo credit: Timmons Group, Richmond, VA.)
So when it comes to stormwater compliance in NYC, why not invest your compliance dollars in ways that create value, instead of just adding to the cost side of the ledger? Green infrastructure can actually make the difference in having a project pencil out, as illustrated by this case study in the Jan/Feb. issue of Urban Land. In other instances, lower life-cycle costs can be compelling.
In virtually every case, though, putting your stormwater management dollars towards “gray” infrastructure, rather than green, carries an opportunity cost of not using those dollars for something that creates real value beyond mere regulatory compliance.
This big-picture thinking about green infrastructure also applies to existing developed sites, where investments in retrofits can improve older properties and create value, while contributing to the city’s green infrastructure goals. Property owners should check out DEP’s incentives for green infrastructure retrofits, including a green roof tax credit, and a green infrastructure grant program.
The report doesn’t offer a single formula for calculating return on investment. But it does show why the commercial real estate industry should think broadly about the benefits of green infrastructure in order to make wise investment decisions.
So instead of asking “Why green infrastructure?” ask yourself “Why not?”
For more on this topic, see these recent articles:
- Crain’s New York Business
- Architect Magazine (official magazine of the AIA)
- REALTOR Magazine (official magazine of the National Association of Realtors)
- Urban Land
- Engineering News Record
Larry Levine is a senior attorney in NRDC's Water Program. He focuses on promoting the use of green infrastructure as a sustainable solution to polluted urban runoff and raw sewage overflows.