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Wind Turbines Will Bring Blight, Preservationists Say

By Amy Zimmer | February 29, 2012 1:43pm
An image of wind turbines in Canada. Upper East Side residents worry that city zoning changes to allow for rooftop turbines will lead to visual blight.
An image of wind turbines in Canada. Upper East Side residents worry that city zoning changes to allow for rooftop turbines will lead to visual blight.
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UPPER EAST SIDE — Imagine if New York City was completely transformed into an eco-friendly paradise with rooftops dotted with wind turbines, greenhouses and solar panels and building facades outfitted with energy-efficient insulation and special shade structures over windows.

The Bloomberg administration hopes to promote these types of projects under a new zoning amendment, which was the subject of a City Planning Commission public hearing Wednesday. It would lift previous constraints to allow for the construction and retrofitting of green buildings.

But some preservationist-minded residents on the Upper East Side fear that the proposed changes could mar the character of their neighborhood.

"I'm all for the environment," Elizabeth Ashby, a member of Community Board 8, said at a recent City Planning presentation of the "zone green" text amendment. "But I'm worried this is a license to create an eyesore."

Many expressed concern over the possibility of wind turbines, which would be allowed to rise 55 feet above rooftops on buildings taller than 100 feet, as long as they are set back at least 10 feet from the property line.

"What about the noise?" asked Community Board 8 member Michele Birnbaum. "That's such a visual blight."

It’s unlikely that the historic townhouse-lined blocks of the Upper East Side would become havens for wind turbines. City officials said that landmark rules would still apply, which means that any applications in those swaths would have to pass muster from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

City officials noted that wind energy makes the most sense where the winds are consistent, which tends to be on taller buildings and nearer the waterfront.

The Department of Environmental Protection will be seeking bids to build the city’s first major wind project for turbines atop the Fresh Kills landfill-turned-park on Staten Island. An application by a New York Power Authority-led coalition is pending for an offshore wind farm, too, to be sited 13 miles off the coast of the Rockaways in Queens, according to the New York Times.

Still, some Upper East Siders expressed concern about "unintended consequences" of the proposed zoning changes.

Several residents were galled by the prospect of buildings being allowed to alter their facades by adding up to eight inches of external insulation to them and thought that horizontal or vertical projections for shade structures — such as the rods over the windows at the New York Times building on Eighth Avenue — would be an unwelcome addition to their streets.

“It’s going to open a Pandora’s box,” said Community Board 8 member Teri Slater.

While the zoning would not allow for rooftop greenhouses to be used as living spaces, some fear these structures could be used not just for local food production but perhaps as party spaces or other uses.

Preservationists were not opposed to the legislation's goals, but found it "incomplete," said Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council.

"To look at 'green' only from the perspective of zoning is not helpful to homeowners who want to do the right thing, but don’t know where to begin," Bankoff wrote in testimony he expected to submit at Wednesday's hearing. "It leaves them vulnerable to sales pitches for exterior-insulation-finish systems and photo-voltaic panels, when those products are unlikely to produce significant energy savings, yet are likely to have a great and negative visual impact on neighborhood character."

Bankoff wanted applications for green projects under the new zoning amendment to require community board review.

The Bloomberg administration views the zoning amendment as a job generator and money saver for New Yorkers, estimating the changes could result in up to $800 million in potential yearly energy savings.  After reviewing the testimony, City Planning hopes the zoning amendment will head to City Council for a vote in time for Earth Day on April 22.

Despite concerns of several Community Board 8 members, the board ultimately voted to support the city’s zoning amendment.

"If we save energy for some buildings, we save it for all of us," Community Board 8 member and architect David Helpern told his colleagues.