At Times Tower, Great Gray Lady Gets Less Green

The New York Times has repeatedly trumpeted national standards for “going green”—building environmentally friendly buildings. For its own headquarters, though,

The New York Times has repeatedly trumpeted national standards for “going green”—building environmentally friendly buildings.

For its own headquarters, though, The Times is opting for a more cost-efficient option. The Gray Lady, it seems, will keep its color.

The paper of record has chronicled how the new national standards for green-building designation are currently being adopted by the Hearst Corporation, Bank of America tower developer Douglas Durst and Ground Zero developer Larry Silverstein.

An Aug. 25, 2004, Business Day article, for instance, said the “group of green building standards” was having a “rapidly expanding influence” on the real-estate world.

But The New York Times and its co-developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, recently decided that it is not worth the cost or the fuss to get certified—and that they can do just as well without them, according to the co-architect on the project, Bruce Fowle.

“It is probably the equivalent of a silver or a gold rating,” said Mr. Fowle, co-founder and senior principal of Fox & Fowle Architects, who is designing the 52-story tower with Italian architect Renzo Piano. “They have decided it is time-consuming and costly, and they are doing so many things that are right and correct, and some of the prerequisites are not that meaningful.”

To help the newspaper-developer duo make its decision, Mr. Fowle’s firm drew up a chart showing the relative costs and merits of achieving certification under the five-year-old program, called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or, in industry jargon, LEED). Mr. Fowle called the costs “substantial,” although he would not name a specific price.

Officials at The New York Times and Forest City Ratner would not consent to an interview for this story. But MaryAnn Gilmartin, executive vice president of Forest City, said in a statement, “With respect to the New York Times building, we consulted and incorporated LEED specifications wherever possible throughout the building. However, we wanted the architect to drive the design rather than design to LEED specifications.”

The decision by The Times and Forest City puts Mr. Piano, an acknowledged environmentalist, and even more so Mr. Fowle, a pioneer in sustainable buildings, in an awkward spot. Mr. Fowle’s firm designed the Helena and 4 Times Square, which is widely acknowledged as the city’s first green office building. It was never certified because it went up before the LEED system came into place.

For the Times headquarters, Messrs. Piano and Fowle will place hundreds of ceramic tubes on the outside walls of the building, running horizontally, which will keep sunlight from heating the structure. Computerized louvers will turn up to varying degrees depending on the time of day and angle of the sun, and the building will burn its own natural gas for electricity and use the excess heat to create steam and hot water.

But no longer will contractors be required to keep track of how much of the construction debris is recycled, which is a big component—and hassle—of certification.

“It becomes more of a point scheme as opposed to a means to encourage innovation,” Mr. Fowle said of the LEED specifications. “For all the innovation, we were only going to get a few points. You can create a zero-energy, neutral-climate building, 100 percent off the grid, and only get a few points for it.”

And those points are expensive—which is surely a consideration in the present real-estate environment.

Expected to open in 2007, the New York Times building will be half-occupied by The Times, with the other half leased out by Forest City Ratner. So far, Forest City does not have any leases for its 600,000 square feet, according to a source knowledgeable of the project.

Green-Building Greenbacks

The Times’ decision, made in June, is as much a reflection of the state of green buildings in New York as it is of the financial calculus of a team of developers. LEED standards specify a few prerequisites that developers must follow (clean air, energy-efficiency minimums), and then gives them a menu of items (use renewable energy, recycle storm water, plant a greenhouse on the roof), each worth a point or two, from which they can choose. Twenty-six points gets a new building certified, 33 a silver, 39 a gold, and 52 out of the possible 69 points garners platinum. Building according to LEED standards adds somewhere between 1 percent to 5 percent to the cost, and while some measures may save money in the long run, the main attraction financially has been the marketing pull that an officially green building will bring.

Then again, that marketing pull may not be that strong—or not strong enough to make up for all the headaches that developers and architects privately complain about with the LEED system: namely, that you have to keep track of how much construction debris gets recycled and shop for special materials not knowing if, in the end, you will even get blessed by the green gods who make up the U.S. Green Buildings Council, the nonprofit that runs the program. The council, according to spokesperson Taryn Holowka, has accredited 20,000 professionals that can provide guidance to developers, and their presence on a team earns another point for the project.

“LEED has not taken off as quickly as they anticipate, and the reason for that is it’s costly and time-consuming,” said Lou Mantia, managing director of asset services and a portfolio manager for Cushman & Wakefield, the real-estate services firm. “The majority of tenants are not willing to pay the extra cost for a LEED building. It’s a good tool, but it needs to be tweaked—maybe a little more than tweaked.”

Apartment buildings are the exception: The Solaire, in Battery Park City, and the Helena, on 57th Street, are both LEED-certified buildings whose owners can charge a premium for being green. But there, the same people who will benefit from more fresh air and light are the ones making the decision to rent or buy.

Ashok Gupta, the air and energy program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, defended the LEED standards.

“The question is: How does one independently verify if something that someone is doing is green?” he said. “If you want to do it, my belief is you want people to believe that you did it, and sure, you can go around telling people all that you did, but that will be long and complicated. That’s what LEED is for. It’s shorthand. What we are talking about is market transformation, and the more people who adopt LEED standards, especially in these beginning stages, the better.”

At the same time that LEED is being temporarily abandoned by environmentalists like Mr. Fowle, the rating system is under attack from the right. The old-line vinyl and lumber industries have established a competing certification system called Green Globes and have lobbied municipalities to adopt it as their standard. Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network, has called the upstart program “a textbook model of industry green-wash, designed to confuse the market and drive down standards by rewarding minimal efforts with a maximum public-relations bonanza.”

Follow the LEED-er

Still, the complexities of the LEED system have not been enough to scare away the three developers who are competing to erect the first certified green office building in New York City. “Competing” is a bit of exaggeration, though, because, as in a high-school talent show, there is a category for just about everybody.

Larry Silverstein will probably cross the finish line first when his 7 World Trade Center opens next March. But Mr. Silverstein is applying for certification under a new rubric, reserved for buildings created by developers “on spec”—that is, without one majority tenant in mind—and therefore a bit easier to achieve. Anyone following New York real estate does not need to be told that 7 World Trade Center is being built very much on spec—and on faith. Only one company—his own—has committed to leasing space there, and then but a floor. A spokesman would not even confirm a report, first printed last week by Crain’s New York Business (and picked up in The Observer’s own daily real-estate blog, The Real Estate), that an American Express subsidiary would lease 20,000 square feet there.

Other structures at Ground Zero—Mr. Silverstein’s other four towers, the cultural buildings and memorial—will be required either to earn LEED certification or something very much like it. The something very much like it is what has environmentalists furrowing their brows now, but officials at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation argue that their guidelines, now in draft form, will ultimately be stricter than LEED guidelines and will be monitored by a panel of independent consultants.

Coming in second place will be Sir Norman Foster’s bigger and better Hearst Corporation palace uptown at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street. Or make that first place, for the Hearst tower—the original 1928 pediment has been gutted and a 42-story glass pyramid placed on top—will be the first gold-rated LEED-certified building in New York City for an owner-occupied property! Try writing that on the back of a ribbon.

All joking aside, there is plenty for Hearst to be proud of. The side offices have entirely glass exterior walls and glass interior walls also, so that even the lowliest fact-checker, the most poorly paid coffee-fetcher laboring in the central pod, will receive some natural light—and won’t have to bother bringing in that 40-watt high-intensity clip-on job from Target.

That and other environmental features, according to Brian Schwagerl, Hearst’s real-estate director, will save the company $50,000 a year in energy bills and $12,000 in water savings once the building opens next fall. It also qualified Hearst for $5 million in tax credits from the state’s energy program. You do the math.

Coming in third place—no, make that first again!—is the Bank of America tower, at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street. That 2.1-million-square-foot building won’t open until 2008, but its developer, Douglas Durst, is trying for the city’s first platinum rating for a spec building. (It qualifies as spec because Bank of America is only going to occupy half of it.)

Mr. Durst emphasizes the word trying—it was the condition for his project being awarded $650 million worth of triple-tax-free Liberty Bonds, which were part of the post–Sept. 11 federal relief package for New York City. (Another $2.8 million in tax credits will fall out of the sky when it meets state standards.) But some onlookers doubt whether anybody can achieve platinum in a city like New York, where it is much harder than the suburbs to earn LEED points through elements like a bicycle room.

It’s not that people doubt Mr. Durst’s environmental commitment—he was the one behind 4 Times Square, and as far back as the early 1990’s was retrofitting his buildings to save energy. He got onto his tree-hugging kick as a business proposition.

“It really started with my wife and I,” he told The Observer. “We are avid horse people, and where we live in Westchester county, there is really no place to dispose of the horse manure, so we decided that if we could compost our horse manure and other people would pay us to take away their horse manure and use it to grow vegetables, we would have money coming in from two sources.”

This triangular horse-manure/compost/vegetable-garden trade only occasionally turns a profit—“It hasn’t been the financial windfall we had hoped”—but the tomatoes are said to be mighty fine!

Building green is sort of like that too. Mr. Durst said the green features played absolutely no role in leasing up 4 Times Square, while so far with the Bank of America tower, prospective tenants have responded with uneven interest. “To be honest with you, I don’t think anybody is going to lease in the building because it is platinum. I think the real selling point is that it’s going to increase productivity by 10 to 15 percent,” he said. “Some tenants get it just as some people do and some don’t.”

The New York Times may be one of those that gets it—but don’t bother to give it a ribbon. It doesn’t want one.

—Additional reporting by Sara Levin At Times Tower, Great Gray Lady  Gets Less Green