New York City

Constantinides on NYC’s very own Green New Deal

City & State talked to New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides about getting big real estate on board, what he wants to do with Rikers Island and whether any presidential candidates stand out on environmental policy.

Costa Constantinides

Costa Constantinides Photo courtesy of the NYC Council

Nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and the New York City Council passing environmental legislation the meeting before Earth Day.

But Thursday’s stated meeting at City Hall promises a more robust legislative package than usual, with at least one backer calling the eight-bill package “a Green New Deal for New York City.” The package will encourage green roofs, even requiring vegetation or solar panels on some buildings. It will also – following December’s power plant incident that lit up the city under an eerie, blue “Astoria Borealis” – require studying the feasibility of closing power plants in New York. But the pièce de résistance is a New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides’ bill (Int. 1253-C) that will force large buildings to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

City & State talked to the environmental protection committee chairman about getting big real estate on board, what he wants to do with Rikers Island and whether any presidential candidates stand out on environmental policy.

You’re sponsoring a bill to study the possibility of closing gas-fired power plants within city limits. But with the impending closure of Indian Point, the city might be relying more on these plants.

We’ve been very clear that’s never been the case. The governor said that should not be the case. Indian Point should not be a rallying cry for natural gas. The closure of Indian Point should not necessitate the need of dirty, fossil fuel infrastructure. Fossil fuel instructure is the 20th century. In the 21st century, we have to look at renewables. We have to think about the opportunities we have for wind, solar, battery storage, hydropower, geothermal technology.

When it comes to renewable energy, are there are plans on the table for the five boroughs? Or is this really an energy burden that other communities are going to have to shoulder?

We’ve put out a plan working with the CUNY Law Center for Urban Environmental Reform to take Rikers Island. Just a fourth of Rikers Island can replace every power plant (in New York City) that has been built in the last 20 years. We can right the wrongs from Rikers Island that have been impacting these environmental justice communities for decades. That’s a real world opportunity. We just aren’t looking for more of those.

They’ve talked about large, offshore wind in the Rockaways. They’ve talked about hydropower. New York City needs to start taking a look at how we implement renewables. We’re not asking for other people to do that. We’re coming up with it ourselves.

Long before the Green New Deal was big in Washington, you introduced a bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions from large New York City buildings. It’s expected to pass on April 18 as part of a legislative package ahead of Earth Day, nearly two years after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his support behind it. What’s been debated since then?

We (talked) about the various issues being raised by stakeholders around hospitals, around nonprofit institutions. But this bill, when done, is still going to be the largest emissions reduction policy in the history of any city. Not just New York – biggest policy in any city anywhere.

The main concern of the bill is the cost for landlords, right? Or are there other issues being considered?

There’s lots of different stakeholders. We want to make sure it’s fair. We want to make sure that we get the emissions reductions we need. We need a 40% reduction from this sector by 2030. There’s no denying that. Climate change is real. The IPCC report, the national report on climate change, the mayor’s report on climate change that just came out – everyone knows we have to take action. We have a limited window to get this done. That’s been the driving force, and how we do that, taking into consideration around hospitals and making sure they’re protected and around nonprofit institutions and then making sure that the emissions (reductions) that we need actually occur has been a big sticking point.

There’s been pushback from big real estate, there’s been pushback from lots of different groups, but at the end of the day, it’s a clear choice. Either you’re with big real estate, or you’re with getting it done. And we’re trying to get something done that’ll be meaningful for the people of the city of New York.

Are you particularly impressed by any 2020 presidential candidate’s environmental policy? Have any caught your ear as being better than the rest?

Oh wow! Not yet. I think we all agree that the person currently in the White House needs to go. For a myriad of reasons.

Right now, I haven’t gone to one candidate, but I’m hoping that the presidential candidates will continue to talk about the environment as the national security crisis that it is. In 2016, all the debates, not one question about climate change. At all. On the national stage, there was not one question in any of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about climate change. That cannot be the case in 2020.

Congestion pricing just passed in Albany. Should policy makers keep a high fee to maximize the environmental impact? Or are your constituents worried about the price?

I think that my constituents are interested in the details! That’s the portion of this I would like to see fleshed out more. We share a goal of wanting to reduce congestion not just in the central business district, but throughout the city. And I think having less cars on the road accomplishes that. I haven’t put a whole lot of thought into the fee, how high it should be. I just want to hear more details and see how it could impact the entirety of the city.

This is New York City. We should have a say. And I stand by my Speaker (Corey Johnson) and some of the comments he’s made around that.

I look at Western Queens, and there’s a lot of bridge shopping. They’ll bypass the Triborough Bridge and go over the 59th Street Bridge because there’s no fee on the bridge. You’ll see 21st Street have over 2,000 cars an hour. There are some aspects where we see people dropping off their cars and taking the train in now. I could see that happening in much more abundance under the new rules. I wouldn’t want to create a parking lot in Western Queens for those who seek to avoid the central business district.

Is it environmental legislation, or just a revenue raiser?

It’s environmental legislation, absolutely! By funding mass transit, you’re increasing the likelihood that people are going to use mass transit rather than drive, which is good for the environment. So I think all the way around, it’s an environmental bill.