A new zoning code proposed by the City of Boston would require that newly constructed buildings over 20,000 square feet — including labs, offices, and housing projects with more than 15 units — must immediately hit net zero emissions goals. The move accelerates the city’s push to reduce buildings’ reliance on fossil fuels by several years, but is raising concerns among developers.
The Zero Net Carbon Building Zoning Initiative, released this week by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, would also require new buildings over 20,000 square feet to be built to the LEED Gold standard — a marked boost from the current standard.
“Every new development in our city — whether it’s affordable housing, commercial offices, lab or life science spaces — is an opportunity to implement our zero net carbon building framework,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wrote in a report announcing the new zoning code. “This initiative ensures that large, new buildings in Boston don’t come at the cost of our future.”
The city has already targeted net zero emissions by 2050 for existing buildings, with some buildings required to start cutting emissions by 2025.
Adding a net-zero-carbon building standard to the zoning code for newly constructed buildings, the city said this week, “prioritizes low carbon building construction practices and the use of on and off site renewable electricity sources.” The zoning change is not finalized or approved, and the BPDA has kicked off a public comment period. It also plans to create an advisory committee to maintain the code.
The proposed changes have sent jitters through the real estate development industry, with some wondering about the kind of impact further electrifying commercial and residential real estate would have on the state’s power grid — particularly as the state prepares for the possibility of rolling blackouts this winter. Other developers who spoke with the Globe expressed concern about the economic feasibility, particularly for smaller projects.
Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Rooney noted concerns at an event with Wu this week.
“Some have argued these climate-change resiliency goals, while aspirational ... some say they lack feasibility, practicality, and in some cases come with tradeoffs,” Rooney said.
“The decisions that we’re making today are always about tradeoffs,” Wu replied. “Every conversation, I think we can have in mind what the immediate impacts are, what the immediate costs and benefits are, but we also have to take a really longitudinal, long-term approach.”
The city’s proposed zoning changes also follow the state releasing its final regulations for what’s called the Stretch Energy Code, a specialized building code standard targeting net zero emissions in new construction by 2050 “primarily through deep energy efficiency, reduced heating loads, and efficient electrification.” The BPDA is assessing the stretch code and how it interacts with the city’s proposed zoning changes, the agency’s deputy chief Devin Quirk said at a public meeting Wednesday.
“We know that many city, state, federal building regulations can be confusing and occasionally tough to navigate, and that standard updates — even when we’re all expecting them — can take some time to fully understand and implement,” he said.
Existing buildings are responsible for almost 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and many in the commercial development industry recognize the importance of cutting emissions.
Greg Vasil, the CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said in a statement that his industry group agrees with and supports Boston’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions — but is worried that “a one size fits all approach to abruptly shift this type of construction away from fossil fuels will lead to a drastic increase in governmental process and building costs” that would complicate or deter new construction.
The BPDA this week began public meetings to discuss the proposed changes. The public comment period ends Oct. 28.