2009 Awards of Excellence: S.W.I.M.
Civic Award of Excellence: Organization
Award Winner: Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.)
Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (SWIM) – a coalition of more than 50 NYC-based organizations working towards more swimmable waterways – is a superb example of the power of collaboration and persistence to affect change.
By Tiffany Finley
When fully realized, New York City’s new Hudson Yards area, built on a former manufacturing zone, could include roof space about one-third the size of Central Park. Caroline Harris, a lawyer at Goldman Harris LLC, hopes that one day soon this roof space – and much of NYC – will be covered by green roofs. She started her journey toward fulfilling this dream through *pro bono* work on the barriers to entry for green roofs. Using her legal expertise, she partnered with several not-for-profit organizations, all interested in promoting green roofs in New York City. One of these organizations was Sustainable South Bronx whose policy director, Rob Crauderueff, had expertise in researching how to “cool” cities through his previous work at the Columbia Earth Institute.
Ultimately, Harris and Crauderueff tapped into a multitude of organizations focused on sustainability through the coalition Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (SWIM), a New York City-based coalition with broad support from over 50 members that works toward more swimmable waterways, a goal to which green infrastructure such as green roofs can significantly contribute.
SWIM mobilized industry professionals, passionate citizens and sustainable-minded organizations to bind together and propose an incentive for green roofs. Yet this effort was rapidly overshadowed by a similar proposal from *PlanNYC,* resulting in the reconciliation of the two bills. Crauderueff traveled to Albany (the New York State capital) to lobby with Natural Resources Defense Council for the bill, which passed in June 2008 after a “groundswell of support from citizen advocacy.” The revolutionary legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., enables New York City building owners to apply for a one-year property tax credit of up to USD $100,000 for green roofs installed on a minimum of 50 percent of available roof space. According to SWIM, this credit is equal to $4.50 per square-foot of roof area that is planted with vegetation, or approximately 25 percent of the typical costs associated with the materials, labor, installation and design of the green roof. After a significant effort to modify the rules based on similar New York legislation and efforts by other cities, building owners are now able to apply for the tax abatement.
Despite competing real estate interests, an initial lack of governmental support, and a set of application rules that posed high costs, SWIM was able to gather organizations over a shared vision and overcome these barriers. “Some of the organizations had never met before despite similar missions,” says Harris. “With SWIM’s coalition approach it is exciting to see what can be accomplished.” SWIM is designed to be active, allowing coalition members and partners to react in a constructive manner guided by various experts in the field of sustainability. The key relationship with New York City will help facilitate future efforts and has moved SWIM to play a supportive and advising role.
The groundwork has been done for this major step toward green roofs populating the city’s skyscrapers, yet time will tell if building owners will utilize the tax abatement. New York City is not yet dedicating critical energy into public education and awareness campaigns about this new tax incentive. For Crauderueff and Harris, the current tax abatement is a step toward a more inclusive credit to enable schools, government buildings, religious institutions and non-profit organizations to install green roofs. One day, they hope, green infrastructure will become the standard but for now it is in the hands of New Yorkers to utilize and expand the future of green roofs in their city.
”Green roofs are the tip of the iceberg for democratic greening that is accessible, benefits everyone, and encourages public participation,” says Crauderueff. It is SWIM and Harris’ hope that green roofs will continue to be a practical – if not symbolic – way of taking care of the city.
SWIM Coalition: swimmablenyc.info