Cold Comfort: Some NYC Businesses Still Blast A.C. onto Sidewalks

Armed with a yellow legal pad, a blue pen, a pocket digital camera and my sunglasses, I took to the steamy heat wave-riddled streets of New York this week to fulfill a self-appointed mission in the name of energy conservation.

Here's my story - and my results:

I got a phone call the other day from New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer.  The hard-working, public-spirited Councilwoman from Manhattan's Upper West Side was the prime sponsor of a "no-brainer" energy conservation bill that passed in the Council last summer. 

The law prohibits many retail stores in New York City from keeping their front doors ajar when their air conditioning systems are operating.  The idea behind the bill, which was passed with the strong support of City Council Speaker Chris Quinn, was simple -- to save energy, reduce the prospect of brown-outs on days of peak energy demand and to limit local contributions to global warming.

Some New Yorkers have for years been dismayed over the wasteful practices of merchants who prop open their stores doors in the height of summer, sending Arctic blasts of air onto the sidewalks in the hope of attracting drop-in customers. You know what I'm talking about:

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And if you'd like to peruse additional examples, you can find them on our Flickr page here.   

The issue isn't tops on the national environmental agenda, of course.  But it does serve as something of a symbol of shameless wasting of fossil fuels by some of our fellow citizens.  (According to the Long Island Power Authority, leaving store doors open while air conditioners are operating can increase electricity use at those establishments by 20% to 25%.)

The failure of some New York retailers to change their wasteful conduct in this regard, despite thoughtful media attention from New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman and other outlets, led the City Council to act.

Councilmember Brewer asked me whether we had any information on compliance by retailers with the new statute this summer.  She was afraid that the law was not being complied with.  I told her I hadn't seen or heard a thing.

With the arrival of steamy weather here in New York City over the past week, several office colleagues and NRDC members sent me similar inquires.  And when my friend Peter Washburn, environmental analyst for New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, called with the same query the other day, I figured it was time to hit the streets.

So, that self-appointed mission I mention above was to conduct a non-scientific survey of Manhattan neighborhoods to get a sense of whether the City Council's statute, signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a City Hall Blue Room ceremony last September, was having an impact in the real world.

On Tuesday and Wednesday -- the two hottest days thus far in the Big Apple this summer -- I set off to find out. 

With that pad & pen, camera & shades, I surveyed close to 400 retail store in five Manhattan neighborhoods. Approximately 25% of the stores surveyed had their doors propped open, with air conditioners or central cooling systems on, at the time of my inspection. 

Merchants differed by neighborhood in their open door policies.  Here's the breakdown:

  • In Chelsea (Fifth Avenue from 14th to 23rd Streets), 14 of 67 stores had open doors (20%).
  • In Midtown (Fifty-seventh Street from Madison Avenue to 7th Avenue), 16 of 74 store doors were open (21%).
  • On the Upper East Side (Madison Avenue, from 68th to 74th Street), only 4% of the doors were open (2 of 48)
  • On the Upper West Side (Broadway from 96th to 86th Street), 16% of stores had open doors (16 of 99).
  • In Harlem (125th Street from Lexington Avenue to Frederick Douglass Blvd.), 30 of 95 stores had open doors (30%).

One big caveat to my survey: the city law only applies to merchants with commercial spaces of 4,000 feet or more, unless the store is one of a chain of five or more located within New York City.  This provision, inserted in deference to "mom and pop" shopkeepers, means that many smaller New York City stores are exempt from the closed door requirement.  A significant number of the stores I observed with open doors were probably smaller than 4,000 square feet.  I estimate that perhaps 10% to 12% of the larger or chain stores I observed during my survey were in violation of city law.

"This relatively high level of compliance with the Council's air conditioning law shows that most New Yorkers share our concern for energy conservation and environmental responsibility," Council Speaker Quinn wrote upon hearing the results of the NRDC survey.  "Unfortunately, there are still some store owners who are leaving doors wide open and air conditioners on high.  That kind of irresponsible behavior strains our energy grid, and we need to crack down on any violations."

Often, in the course of my walking tour, when I discovered a large store with open doors and the A.C. powered up, I would step inside and ask for the manager.  After being introduced, I would explain the law and ask the shopkeepers if they were familiar with its requirements.  Almost always, the answer was "no."

At ZARA, a clothing store on 5th Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets, I got a different response. 

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"My hands are tied," said the woman I spoke with.  "It's a corporate thing.  We have to keep our doors open."  And then, perhaps thinking I was a city employee, she asked: "Should I close them now?"

And at Armani Exchange, on Fifth between 19th and 20th streets, where the double doors were sending a chilly blast several feet onto the sidewalk, the manager stated that she hadn't received any notification from corporate headquarters about the new law.  "Actually, it feels cold in here right now," she said.

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Nevertheless, upon my return visit to this Armani Exchange the following day, the doors remained open.

Across the Avenue at Esprit, between 16th and 17th streets, the attitude was more easy-going.  After I summarized the law's provisions, the friendly store employee promptly replied:  "We'll close it for ya." 

When I returned to Esprit the next day, the doors were still closed, with the refreshing air contained inside.

Same story at Dior, on Madison Avenue, between 70th and 71st, where I initially found the double-doors open wide. The dapper store manager told me she "just transferred here from the West Coast" and assured me that "we'll get them closed up."

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Sure enough, Dior got the message.  When I returned the next day, the doors were both closed.

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Under the city law, it is the Department of Consumer Affairs that is charged with enforcing this energy conservation statute.  But I could find no information on the Department's website about the new law.  Nor did I uncover any 2009 press releases that might have informed merchants about the law or alerted the public to any ongoing or planned enforcement activities.

In sum, my survey suggests that most of the city's larger stores and chain store operations are in compliance with the new law's door-closing provisions.  And that is worth applauding.  But even if only 10% or 15% of the large stores are out of compliance, it means that thousands of retail establishments across all five boroughs are continuing their energy-wasting practices in violation of city law and common sense.

Next on the agenda is to encourage the Consumer Affairs Department to step up its educational efforts directed to merchants and to take some credible enforcement effort this summer  Ultimately, expansion of the statute to cover retail establishments of all sizes would appear to be warranted.

Readers of this blog noticing large stores or chain stores with open doors and air conditioners cranked up could jumpstart the overdue enforcement by calling the City's helpline - 311 - to file a complaint.  When calling 311 from your cell phone or home phone, just tell the operator that you are calling to report a violation of Local Law 38, relating to energy conservation and open doors at retail stores.

And please let us know here at NRDC about your observations on the streets of New York.  We'd especially like to hear what you have experienced regarding compliance with the city law by retailers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.       

Meanwhile, our thanks to the New York City Council (especially the bill's 21 sponsors) for getting the ball rolling and to the thousands of merchants who are saving energy costs by complying with the new law. 

As Councilmember Brewer stated when the energy conservation bill was up for its final vote almost exactly a year ago this week, "There's no use cooling the sidewalk."

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, and air conditioning in retail stores was still relatively new, we used to see shops with a sign in the window depicting a penguin standing on an iceberg and the words: "Come on in - it's COOL inside." (Naturally, all doors were closed.)

Maybe we need to bring the penguins back.