Thursday, June 21, 2012
Enjoying Air-Conditioned Sidewalks? Thank the Lawbreakers
Summer officially arrived on Wednesday at 7:09 p.m. Hours earlier, on a day so hot that the only things half-baked were the usual weather clichés, many shopkeepers in New York welcomed the season in traditional fashion: They ran their air-conditioning at full blast and kept their doors open so that the cold poured onto sidewalks in cascades of wastefulness.
At 12:30 p.m., with temperatures in the 90s, that was how 43 businesses squandered energy along a four-block stretch of Broadway in SoHo, from Houston to Grand Streets. Among the wastrels were prominent retailers like Steve Madden, Club Monaco, Banana Republic, Hugo Boss, Aldo, Hilfiger Denim, Daffy’s and H & M. One offender, a clothing store, had a fitting name for summer’s advent: Chill.
The situation was similar on West 34th Street, another area that is a magnet for chain stores and tourists. Between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, 17 businesses had air-conditioners on and doors open. The burst of cold air from the H & M outlet there was so strong that it could be felt 15 feet from the front door.
None of this will come as a revelation to New Yorkers. But there is a difference now from the past. Most of those stores on Wednesday were not merely energy wasters. They were also lawbreakers.
Four summers ago, the City Council voted to forbid this profligacy. Enforcement began in 2010. The law applies to any store with at least 4,000 square feet and to smaller stores that are part of chains with at least five outlets in the city.
To those who ask what right the government has to dictate to shop owners on a matter of this sort, the Council’s response was simple. Public policy, it said in 2008, is to “conserve energy, reduce peak power demands during hot weather periods and limit environmental pollution and local contributions to global warming.”
More is at stake than bathing the city in environmental virtue. New York has experienced three devastating blackouts over the past 47 years. Every summer, some neighborhoods lose power. Ask people in Queens, which has endured more than its share of blackouts and brownouts.
On really hot days, when the power grid is pushed to the max, we always seem to be one straw away from breaking this particular camel’s back. Do we really need a marketing tool — the open doors are typically explained as a device to lure customers into the store — to potentially become that straw?
“It’s a really easy thing to do, to close the door,” said Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, who was the legislation’s chief sponsor.
When I first wrote about this issue in 2006, a city official responsible for energy policy, Gil C. Quiniones, told me that “the waste created by all those open restaurant and store doors can really hurt.”
“Trust me,” he said, “it’s not a little thing.”
Yet enforcement of the law, signed by the mayor with little enthusiasm, has not been conspicuously vigorous. The Consumer Affairs Department, which has responsibility, says that last summer it conducted more than 500 inspections and issued warnings or violation citations to 199 stores.
A first offense brings a warning. A second offense carries a $200 fine, and subsequent violations within an 18-month period can bring $400 fines. For many stores, the penalties are no doubt shrugged off as the cost of doing business.
Ms. Brewer doesn’t detect a municipal passion for getting them to toe the line. More detailed statistics that she obtained from Consumer Affairs show that, from 2010 through last month, 348 warnings were issued, and only 25 violation citations. Three weeks ago, the councilwoman wrote to the commissioner, Jonathan Mintz, asking about his enforcement strategy for this summer, but she said she received no substantive response.
“We get a lot of calls from residents who, to their credit, are paying attention that there is a law, and want to know why it’s not enforced,” she said.
Some New Yorkers have taken matters into their own hands. I once dubbed them the new Weather Underground. They’re people like Peter Kaufman, who designs data networks. “If, after the smoking ban was enacted, 40 bars decided to invite smokers to light up, I presume we’d hear from the mayor,” Mr. Kaufman said.
He has gone into offending stores, and simply closed the doors himself. On summer’s first day, he said he would keep at it.
Anyone can do that. You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the doors close.