The Green Impact of Urbanization

 OP NYNJ FOCUS 01By Efstathios Valiotis

When we think of construction in a metropolitan area like New York City, we conjure images of massive foundations dug three stories below ground and wooden sidewalk sheds on Manhattan streets. Certainly, such scenes are the most visible indicators of the construction boom currently taking place.

However, there is a quieter and perhaps less visible boom taking place in all five of New York’s boroughs, as well as in older, former industrial cities throughout the region. Whether it is gentrifying urban areas where former factories and warehouses are finding new uses as residential developments - such as in Long Island City in Queens or Paterson, N.J. – or parts of Upper Manhattan where nearly century-old housing stock must be revamped, construction on existing properties has become another crucial focus of landlords all across the Northeast.

The United Nations has estimated that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Much of that migration will be reclamation of existing urban areas repurposed as residential or simply revived after years of decline. This population trend is likely to be led by many older people trading in their lawns and picket fences for the comfort of apartment living in more densely developed neighborhoods. The same study showed the number of people over 60 will double by 2050 and triple by 2100, meaning a higher housing demand among populations perhaps most suited to urban living: smaller households without children.

Reusing Housing Stock 

According to the city’s OneNYC report, which examines resilience, sustainability and the growth patterns of neighborhoods, existing buildings in use today will comprise 85 percent of all buildings standing in 2030. At the same time, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that projections show the city’s population will surpass 9 million during the 2030s. Currently, 62 percent of rental units in New York City are in buildings constructed before 1947, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some one-third of all residential units in New York State are pre-1940 and 50 percent were built between 1940 and 1979. In New York City, 70 percent of all residential units were built before 1960. These data illustrate a metropolitan landscape teeming with aging housing stock, much of whose infrastructure has passed its intended lifespan.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “infill housing” – new homes in existing, previously developed areas – accounted for 20 percent of all new housing construction between 2005 and 2009, an increase over the previous half-decade.

As a property owner overseeing 15,000 units across New York and New Jersey, my company has been in the midst of top-to-bottom rehabilitation projects from the Rockaways peninsula of Queens County to Washington Heights in Manhattan. At 150 buildings with 10,000 units, we have replaced or substantially repaired all the roofs, installed or rehabilitated virtually all the elevators, repaired or rebuilt all the balconies, and repaired a few thousand square feet of facades. And that is to say nothing of the unit-by-unit rehab required in many of the buildings we purchased from owners who had previously underinvested in modernization, allowing neglect and deterioration to set in.

Building a new 18-story building may require 5,000 yards of concrete and several tons of brick. Renovating and improving five 10-story buildings can mean the same or more, not to mention a similar amount of labor. Of course it is not enough simply to maintain and bring buildings up to the latest code, compliance and environmental efficiency standards. As urban populations swell and new construction lags behind demand, we must rapidly prepare aging housing stock for the future. Reducing Costs 

In New York, the city has mandated that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced by 80 percent by 2050. With the city’s own analysis finding that buildings account for over 70 percent of all emissions, the owners and managers of tens of thousands of existing buildings will be tasked with making serious upgrades in energy efficiency, new heating and cooling systems, window improvements and other construction-heavy projects that reduce carbon emissions and keep energy costs down.

How do we accomplish this? We have replaced thousands of light bulbs, installed and rebuilt about 140 new heating systems and replaced over 5,000 windows in the last 5 years alone. These are labor-intensive projects and they don’t always garner the headlines that the newest glass-and-steel monolith may attract, but this is the reality of what construction looks like in many of the places that will be most crucial to the future of our residential communities.

Efstathios Valiotis is the principal at Alma Realty, which manages 15,000 residential units in New York and New Jersey. 

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