Up in Flames! De Blasio’s Wood-Burning Fireplace Ban Produces Lukewarm Reactions

The real estate community discusses de Blasio's proposed ban on wood-burning fireplaces.

Not anymore! (@rild/flickr)
Not anymore! (@rild/flickr)

Sometimes it seems that Mayor Bill de Blasio has a secret campaign to eliminate all traces of lingering Victorian charm from the city. After first going after carriage horses, a plan that has stumbled somewhat with the emergence of ever more people in favor of keeping the be-plumed beasts on their Central Park loops, Mr. de Blasio moved to ban another old-fashioned indulgence: wood-burning fireplaces.

Only in this case, it looks like the mayor may have succeeded in finding a delightful anachronism without a vocal constituency. The ban, which was proposed on April 23—Earth Day—and applies only to new construction, seems, as far as we can tell, to have produced no uproar. In fact, numerous calls to those in the real estate community, followed by some very leading questions on the Observer’s part, produced what we can only describe as a collective “meh.”

Though the wood-burning fireplace is such a mainstay of high-end pre-war listings that it merits its own, oft-breathless abbreviation—wbfp!—one prominent real estate professional said that she hadn’t heard so much as a whisper about the ban around the office. And as we well know, brokers gossip about everything. (Which is why we love them so much!)

How is this possible, you may ask? Doesn’t everything in New York come with an advocacy group?

Well, the fact is that even now there are only a miniscule number of new-construction wood-burning fireplaces.

“It’s really only in the ultra high-end luxury market, apartments over $20 million,” Andrea Mignone, a vice president at real estate consultancy group The Marketing Directors told the Observer. “If you’re looking at mass-production luxury units, they’re either getting gas or nothing at all.”

When we pressed Ms. Mignone on recent developments where one might find real-log luxury, she named 508 West 24th Street and 551 West 21st Street (which has double-sided fireplaces, no less). Then she paused, fumbling for a third.

And even in those tony buildings, you won’t find fireplaces in every apartment. Thanks to the complications of siting chimneys and flues, it’s generally only the penthouses that are outfitted, and few of those are actually occupied 12 months of the year anyway. (What mega-millionaire with multiple homes spends the dead of winter in New York if he can help it?)

All of which is to say that the proposed legislation, despite its lofty and laudable goals—it debuted with a number of related proposals aimed at curbing emissions and reducing air pollution—is unlikely to make much of a difference to either real estate developers or air quality.

In fact, some pre-war co-ops with wood-burning fireplaces, including the San Remo, site of a big fireplace brouhaha involving Bono a few years back, have already banned them. Though even those lucky enough to still light a real blaze in their living rooms could now face prohibitions as part of the same bill: they’ll be required to burn firewood that has 20 percent or less moisture.

Asked if there had been any pushback from the real estate industry, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson told the Observer last month that if a bill passes, a panel made up of stakeholders will come up with more specific rules.

Meanwhile, developers of new-construction condos with faux-fireplaces say that buyers have been quite happy with other real-fire alternatives.

“The fireplaces have been well received by several people there; they don’t create the same particulates as wood-burning fireplaces,” said Doug Maclaury, a senior vice president at The Mattone Group, a co-developer of the Azure, a Yorkville condo. The development has free-standing fireplaces that burn a sterno-like gel in the penthouses.

“People really like to express themselves with the mantelpieces,” said Mr. Maclaury. “I don’t think it’s really a restriction if you can do what we’ve done.”

Arthur Lasky, the architect who developed a vent-ess, alcohol-burning fireplace—trademarked HearthCabinets—one of which was recently installed in the renovated Tavern on the Green, told the Observer that people are always pleasantly surprised when they see the size and character of the flame in his devices.

“When they come in and see the fireplace, they’re always very happy with the flame; it’s a nice, lively flame,” Mr. Lasky said.

He said that interest in his sterno-burning devices has surged in recent years due to the fact that they are much easier to install and maintain than wood- and gas-burning devices, as well as cheaper, costing anywhere from a few thousand to $20,000 for more customized varieties.

“Obviously, the fireplace is not a functional necessity anymore, but people want the warmth of the hearth,” he said.

Still, Ms. Mignone asserted that given the choice, most buyers still prefer wood-burning. “Everyone wants a wood-burning fireplace; it adds a lot of charm,” she said. “Gas fireplaces may be more the norm, but wood-burning are considered more desirable. In listings, when it’s a gas fireplace, you see it without a qualifier. And when it’s wood-burning it’s called out.”

—Additional reporting by Jill Colvin.

Up in Flames! De Blasio’s Wood-Burning Fireplace Ban Produces Lukewarm Reactions