Zone Green: Retrofitting New York City’s Zoning Resolution

The zoning drawn up in 1961 did not envision a city of new green buildings, nor did it foresee the retrofitting of older buildings. Today, we are at a crossroads with respect to the performance of our buildings. We know that they must accomplish much more than they were once designed to do – they can save energy and generate clean, renewable power; reduce the burdens they place on city infrastructure; support our ecology; and provide a healthier environment for New Yorkers. We also know that we cannot accomplish this only with new, high-performing green buildings. We must also improve the performance of our existing buildings, which represent 85 percent of the buildings we will have in 2030. However, as highlighted by the Green Codes Task Force – convened by the Urban Green Council at the request of the Mayor and the Speaker of the City Council – zoning sometimes discourages or outright prohibits green building features. So we need to continue a retrofit of our Zoning Resolution. In the last ten years, the Department of City Planning has completed over 100 neighborhood rezonings and numerous amendments to the text of the Zoning Resolution, to promote transit-oriented development and sustainable growth in New York City. Through a series of green initiatives, we have improved the green infrastructure of our neighborhoods with street trees, front yard planting, and stormwater management for parking lots; enhanced alternatives to private automobile ownership and use with bicycle parking requirements and car sharing; and promoted the availability of healthy, fresh foods with our FRESH program.

Today, we are proud to unveil our latest initiative, Zone Greenthe most comprehensive effort of any U.S. city to sweep aside zoning obstacles to the construction and retrofitting of green buildings. City Planning is proposing amendments to promote energy-efficient and green design. Zone Green would:

  • Exempt external insulation from floor area and yard requirements, to enable existing buildings to add external insulation within their property line;
  • Eliminate penalties for high-performance envelopes in the way floor area is measured, by exempting a portion of thicker, better-insulated walls from floor area calculations when buildings substantially exceed energy code standards;
  • Enable solar panels to be added on top of any building roof, by allowing them as a “permitted obstruction” above a height limit;
  • Allow sun control devices such as vertical or horizontal shades or screens to project from building facades over required open areas;
  • Allow more flexibility to accommodate a wide range of rooftop features, including green roofs and stormwater management equipment, boilers or cogeneration facilities, recreational decks, and stair and elevator bulkheads that provide rooftop access;
  • Foster local food production by encouraging rooftop greenhouses, by allowing waiver of floor area and height limits for greenhouses on top of buildings without residences or sleeping accommodations; and
  • Allow wind turbines to exceed a height limit on taller buildings and in locations near the waterfront, where winds are most conducive to power generation.

Zone Green will also include other legislation to improve building performance.  City legislation would tighten the energy performance standards for the building envelope, ensuring long-term energy efficiency by addressing the longest-lasting elements of the building. In addition, many buildings built before 1961 are subject to the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL), and would not be able to take advantage of the proposed provisions for external insulation. So the Department is preparing draft legislation for targeted amendments to the MDL to make possible the external insulation of these buildings. This proposal builds upon other efforts under PlaNYC, including the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, by using zoning to encourage buildings to outperform the New York City Energy Conservation Code. Removing zoning impediments to green buildings will give building owners more choices to make investments that save money, save energy, and improve the quality of our environment. By making these improvements possible, Zone Green can unlock the potential for as much as $800 million per year in energy savings. Today the Zone Green text amendment begins the public review process, which includes referral to all 59 Community Boards, five Borough Presidents and Borough Boards, and review by the City Planning Commission and City Council, and is expected to take roughly six months. We have complete information about the proposal and public review available on DCP’s website, at This proposal would not be possible without the contributions of the Green Codes Task Force, whose recommendations helped spark the Zone Green effort. The continuing engagement of task force members has also been critical in shaping this proposal. We would like to thank Urban Green Council and the Green Codes Task Force for their continuing guidance and support as we take this critical step to bring our buildings into the 21st century. You can read the zoning text Amanda refers to here. Full disclosure: It is a little abstract and dry, but that's just the way laws must be written.  It's worth plowing through it if you would like to be involved in the process, since there will be public hearings and the opportunity to comment between now and February 12th, 2012. Find out more on January 11th from the architect of Zone Green, Howard Slatkin, City Planning's Director of Sustainability. After Howard’s presentation, a panel of industry representatives and Green Codes Task Force members will discuss the implications of the new zoning proposals. Details are here.

About the authors

Amanda Burden