Green Apples and Bad Apples: NRDC's Annual 2009 Earth Day Listing

Thirty-nine years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers poured into the streets of Manhattan to demand clean air, safe water and environmental protection in every sphere of city life. Similar events took place across the nation, as millions of American helped launch the modern environmental movement.

Things have improved dramatically here in New York City since that first Earth Day. The air is cleaner and so are New York's waterways, thanks mostly to federal, state and local laws passed since 1970. But significant concerns involving core issues remain, and new challenges, such as global warming, have emerged.

To mark this week's anniversary, we here at NRDC put together our third annual "Green Apples, Bad Apples" listing. We looked at some of the city's best environmental places over the past 12 months, and also at some of the most environmentally worrisome locations. We've identified five of each throughout the New York City area.

This year's list illustrates both the resilience of the city's environment, as well as the ecological challenges posed by living in the nation's most densely populated urban area. We're focused on the topical with this list, so for better or worse, we left out historic problem sites, such as power plants, and brights spots, such as Central Park, that would otherwise make the list year after year.

Here they are, listed in alphabetical order:


"BIRD BOUTIQUE" (Brooklyn)

If you are reading this listing, you are certainly well aware that the global warming crisis is the most urgent environmental problem facing the city, the nation and the planet.  While national and international action is necessary, steps taken right here in New York City can make a difference as well. In New York City, where public transit use makes us more energy efficient per capita than most other Americans, more than 80% of our energy use and carbon emissions will come from existing buildings by 2030, according to city figures.  That fact highlights the need for New Yorkers to enhance energy efficiency in buildings that have already been constructed, if we hope to make a significant dent in our city's carbon footprint.

It is with such concerns in mind that the U.S. Green Building Council -- creators of the well-known LEED ("Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design") rating system -- has created a new rating category for Commercial Interiors ("LEED-CI").  LEED CI is focused on the energy and environmental impacts of interior construction.

Bird, a boutique located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, is on track to become the first LEED-CI certified retail store in New York City.  Construction of the retail outlet, which sells locally-designed clothing and jewelry, was completed in February 2009.  Its interior was designed by Manhattan-based Ole Sondresen Architect and constructed by WM Dorvillier & Company. Installation of energy efficient lighting fixtures, low-flush and low-flow bathroom fixtures and the use of paints made without volatile organic compounds are some of the environmentally sensitive construction practices that were employed.  Over 30% of materials used in construction were refurbished or salvaged (including wood paneling found in a SoHo dumpster and wooden beams taken from a nearby demolition site).  Nearly half of the new construction materials were manufactured locally, including the store's cork flooring and custom metal work. According to architectural estimates, the overall design will reduce the store's annual CO2 emissions by 6,862 tons and cut water usage by over 40%.

While building the store to these standards added 7.7% in construction expenses, a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority brought the final price tag down to 5% over conventional costs. The estimated payback period is only five years.

In recognition of Bird Boutique's commitment to sustainability and in the hope that this store's construction process will become an example that other retail establishments around the city can follow, we are pleased to designate Brooklyn's Bird Boutique an Earth Day 2009 Green Apple.

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GREAT POLLINATOR PROJECT -- Greenbelt Native Plant Center (Staten Island) and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (Manhattan)

Often overlooked until you feel their sting, bees help protect plant biodiversity, contribute to healthy ecosystems, and are fundamental to agricultural production.  Bees are the most important of the animal pollinators that transfer pollen from one plant to another, fertilizing at least 30 percent of the world's crops and 90 percent of our wild plants. Each year, bees pollinate more than $15 billion in U.S. crops such as almonds, alfalfa, apples, berries, cantaloupes and cucumbers. In addition, U.S. honey bees produce an estimated $150 million in honey yearly. In short, bees are essential to our ecology and our economy.    

But some of the planet's bees are in trouble.  Since 2006, European honey bees have been disappearing from their hives en masse. The number of hives in the U.S. is now at its lowest point in the past 50 years.  Given honey bees' importance to our food supply and economy, this dramatic change in their numbers -- often called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) -- is a cause for concern. Researchers attribute the causes of CCD to global warming, habitat loss, pesticide use and parasites. Perhaps one positive outcome of CCD is that it is dramatically increasing public awareness of the importance of all bee pollinators -- the introduced European honey bee as well as our often-overlooked native bees.  Right here in New York, new initiatives are enabling residents to protect, study, and learn more about the City's native bees.

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and the Parks Department's Greenbelt Native Plant Center, collaborating with San Francisco's Great Sunflower Project, have recently launched the Great Pollinator Project to raise public awareness of the importance of native bees and their habitats in New York City and to promote home gardening and park management practices that benefit our over 225 species of native bees.  Among other things, the project is enlisting the services of New Yorkers, turning them into bee watchers. As of early this year, more than 50 volunteers from across the city had already signed up as participants.

New York City bees offer numerous benefits to our urban environment, including helping to keep our gardens and natural spaces thriving and healthy.  Recognizing their important efforts to promote a greater understanding of New York City's native bees, we are happy to award the Great Pollinator Project a Green Apple (from an apple tree pollinated by a mason bee, no doubt) for Earth Day 2009.  

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Every time there is a significant rainfall in New York City, raw sewage and rainwater are funneled into our rivers and bays from approximately 400 outfall pipes in all five boroughs.  As little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can trigger these overflows, which threaten public health, damage the harbor's ecology, and frequently make our waters unsuitable for recreational activities.  Throughout most of New York City, the problem is triggered by an antiquated "combined sewer system." The combined sewers carry both rainwater and raw sewage through a single network of pipes to the city's 14 sewage treatment plants.  But during rainfalls, the volume of combined sewage and rain waters increase to many times the dry weather flows.  Valves close at the sewage plants to prevent flooding at the facilities.  And the mixture of raw sewage and stormwater runoff is discharged right into our local waters.

Fortunately, there are new approaches that can mitigate these problems.  And the green infrastructure solutions the city is starting to advance make economic, as well as environmental, sense.  The idea here is that rather than build huge new facilities to hold the high volume stormflows, we undertake urban landscaping that mimics the way natural systems handle rainwater -- using it to, quite literally, green the city before it ever has a chance to enter the sewer system.  These cost effective tools include street tree plantings, roadside swales, the creative use of soil and vegetation in green spaces and green roofs, as well as other techniques that retain storm runoff.  In addition to being far more cost effective than heavy construction, these green infrastructure systems can cleanse and cool the air, reduce indoor cooling costs and energy demand and beautify city neighborhoods. 

One of the first sites where the city has actively applied these techniques in the urban streetscape is the former traffic island at the intersection of Sagamore Street, Cruger Avenue and White Plains Road in the Bronx.  The site -- part of the Department of Parks and Recreation's long-running "Greenstreets" beautification program -- was excavated into a basin shape and lined with geotextile and a layer of bluestone and then filled with topsoil and plantings.  Stormwater enters the landscaping via curb inlets.  In cooperation with the New York City Soil and Water Conservation District,, this site is being closely monitored to quantify its stormwater capture capacity and further improve the design for what will hopefully become a citywide program, pursuant to the City's new Sustainable Stormwater management Plan.

With thanks to the Bloomberg Administration and participating city agencies, we are pleased to designate the landscaped Greenstreets site at the intersection of Sagamore, Cruger and White Plains Road as an Earth Day 2009 Green Apple.

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MARCAL PAPER FACTORY (Bergen County, New Jersey)

Although not everybody has recognized it yet, the cornerstone for New York City's solid waste policy in the 21st century is likely to be recycling.  Recycling, of course, is great for the environment.  It conserves natural resources and protects habitat, it produces less water pollution and it helps reduce global warming emissions. But of particular importance to New Yorkers in tough budgetary times are the economic benefits of recycling.  According to an independent analysis performed last year by DSM Environmental Management for NRDC, and undertaken with the cooperation of the city's Sanitation Department, the per ton costs associated with recycling are projected to stabilize or decline over the next five years while the costs for exporting waste to landfills and incinerators are expected to continue to mount.  This analysis forecasts that by 2013 city taxpayers should be saving money for every ton of material recycled vs. every ton shipped to landfills or incinerators.

For the recycling program to fulfill its economic potential, New York needs to continue to develop new markets for collected recyclables.  This approach has the added benefit of creating "green collar" jobs for New Yorkers.  One good example is the Pratt Industries plant on Staten Island, which has, for more than a decade, been purchasing much of the recycled paper collected by New York City to use as feedstock for its recycled paper products.

There is good news on this front from just across the Hudson River.  This past year, the Marcal Company emerged from a company re-organization designed in part to make it a national leader in the manufacture and sale of recycled paper products.  The company processes over 200,000 tons of recycled paper annually at its Elmwood Park, New Jersey facility -- just a stone's throw from Manhattan -- where it provides 800 green collar jobs. Much of the waste paper that is Marcal's raw material comes from recycling programs in the New York/New Jersey region.  And all of its products, now being marketed under the name "Simple Steps," are made with 100% recycled content and whitened without the use of chlorine bleach.  For more than 75 years, Marcal has been making "paper from paper, not from trees," and the company now seems poised to become an even more important leader on sustainability issues.

For providing green jobs in the region and providing New Yorkers with an opportunity to purchase a wide range of paper products that are locally manufactured from recycled materials, we are happy to designate the Marcal Company's Elmwood Park paper plant as an Earth Day 2009 Green Apple.

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The roots of farming in New York go back nearly a thousand years.  The first New York farmers were Native Americans who planted maize in Manhattan in the year 1100, according to the Encyclopedia of New York City.  In the 1700s, wheat, corn and oats were grown throughout the region and exported by English colonists.  By the time of New York City's consolidation in 1898, more than 2,000 farms (average size, 25 acres) remained throughout the five boroughs. The overwhelming majority of these urban farms disappeared in the first three decades of the 20th century.

The decline of local farming in New York (and in urban areas around the nation) has been unfortunate for many reasons.   Locally grown food is fresher, it requires less energy and expense to ship to market; and it can often be sold without chemicals that prolong shelf life.  Additionally, local farms provide jobs, remind us of our historic connection to the land and help to prevent the homogenization of our regional landscape.  The Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC) understood all this more than 30 years ago, when it created its popular Greenmarkets program, which brings regional farm products to the streets of New York City.

Today, the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn, established by the non-profit organization Added Value with Parks Department cooperation, is one of just a handful of urban farms throughout the city. And 2008 was perhaps its best year ever.  The farm is located in Coffey Park, on a 2.75 acre plot that was once a concrete ball field.  One hundred and thirty-five students from across the borough and a band of neighborhood residents are the farm's dedicated workforce.  They are growing basil, beans, beets, carrots, chard, Chinese cabbage, collard greens,, cucumber, kale, lettuce, mint, oregano, radicchio, sage, spinach, squash, thyme, and zucchini. And they close the food loop by accepting food waste from local families and restaurants, which they turn into compost.  The farm's food is sold at Added Value's weekly farmers' markets and to local restaurants. You won't find anything fresher. 

For keeping the city's urban farming tradition alive and setting an example that other neighborhoods could emulate, we are pleased to designate the Red Hook Community Farm as an Earth Day 2009 Green Apple

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For generations of New Yorkers, Coney Island has been their summertime escape.  It has been the place where many residents first enjoyed the sand and surf, the place they first rode "kiddie" rides and won prizes for games of chance, and the place where they wandered around the honky-tonk amusement parks and took in the beauty and the frenzy of the city.  The first amusement parks opened there more than a hundred years ago. And, despite the ups and downs of the neighborhood, one thing has long characterized Coney Island -- its authenticity.  To see real New Yorkers of all ages, races and incomes having fun on a summer afternoon, all you have had to do is take a subway ride out to Coney Island.

Now, however, the Coney Island that millions of New Yorkers knew is in jeopardy.  Thor Equities, a local development company, acquired key parcels in the area and is seeking to advance large scale development.  Groups like the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association and the Pratt Center for Community Development, along with many community representatives, want to preserve the democracy of the place and prevent real estate interests from turning Coney Island into an enclave of the rich.  Meanwhile, the Bloomberg Administration is advancing a rezoning plan that would establish a new entertainment district, while allowing for new hotels and apartments. The developer, Joseph Sitt, of Thor Equities maintains the city's plan is economically infeasible. 

Caught in the crossfire have been the interests of New Yorkers who want to see a revival of the area without the kind of overdevelopment that removes Coney Island's heart and soul.  One early victim has been the Astroland amusement park, which closed last fall, after Thor Equities refused to give its operators a long-term lease renewal.  Aware of the adverse publicity, Thor Equities is now scrambling to bring some temporary amusements to the area.  And Mayor Bloomberg has announced that a unit of the Ringling Brothers circus will arrive for a run this summer, with its tent to be set up west of the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium. 

The last chapter of the fight over re-development of Coney Island has not yet been written.  There is still hope that community interests will be protected and that the concept of affordable amusement areas near the beach and boardwalk will be will be retained in the final development plans.  But for advancing a development plan that is larded with big buildings and for forcing the much-loved Astroland amusement park to close its gates for good, Thor Equities and its principal, Joseph Sitt, have earned an Earth Day 2009 Bad Apple.

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Overall, the air we breathe in New York City is considerably cleaner today than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970.  Levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and lead are among the widespread airborne pollutants that have significantly declined. Among our most persistent air quality problems are ozone smog and fine particulate matter, both of which are still present in levels that exceed national health standards.  And -- funny thing about air pollution -- exposures can vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood and block to block.  In other words, while the city as a whole has experienced substantial air quality improvements over the past four decades, there may still be locally troubling sources of pollution on the block where you live or work. 

While it would require intensive monitoring to identify the single worst street in the city in terms of air pollution, it is possible to draw up a list of likely candidates.  Since motor vehicles remain the city's primary source of localized pollution, air quality specialists have long viewed heavily trafficked streets and locations adjacent to our busiest highways as pollution hot spots. 

One of the biggest problem locations in all of Manhattan is 42nd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues.  It is adjacent to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which has hundreds of diesel-powered buses entering and exiting at all hours of the day and night.  Strike one.  The street itself is a pick-up and discharging point for many commuter and airport buses.  Strike two.  And, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, buses are regularly observed parked on that block, with their engines idling.  Strike Three.  The problem is bad enough for passers-by.  It is even more troubling for neighbors who live in the immediate area. The Bloomberg Administration, as part of its plaNYC environmental activities, is currently advancing an anti-idling, clean air campaign.  But the bus operators on 42nd Street apparently haven't gotten the message.

For being a spot where numerous idling buses are polluting the air we breathe with tiny, toxic diesel particles, we designate 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues as an Earth Day 2009 Bad Apple.

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These days, some of the city's biggest development contests take place within the jurisdiction of its smallest borough - Staten Island.  Not too long ago, plans to construct a NASCAR race track on the borough's West Shore waterfront, near the Goethals Bridge, stirred considerable concern and were eventually dropped.  Today, a controversy is brewing over whether Goodhue Woods and Sports Fields -- a verdant nature and recreational asset -- will be sold off to a housing developer or rescued by city and state officials to help create a new city park for the permanent enjoyment of Staten Islanders.

The 42 acre Goodhue parcel is currently owned by the Children's Aid Society, which received the property as a gift from philanthropist Sara Goodhue more than 90 years ago.  Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, the borough's respected open-space watch-dogs, call this parcel "the only sizeable natural area on the entire North Shore."  The property, long used for after-school recreation, teen programs and as a summer camp by the Society, includes a 32-acre mature woodland, complete with streams and a boat pond, as well as ball fields, an outdoor pool and gymnasium.  Economic pressures have now led the Society to put this irreplaceable Staten Island open space on the market.

Fortunately, Staten Island Congressman Michael McMahon has been working to secure as much as six million federal dollars to help acquire and preserve Goodhue Woods.  That leaves $26 million still to be found, in order to save the softball and soccer fields, along with 20 acres of woodlands and four acres of wetlands. The solution is at hand -- the Bloomberg Administration, with help from Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, the City Council and Staten Island's other elected officials can pool their resources for a Parks Department rescue of the Goodhue property.  That would spare this natural resource from housing development and enable the Children's Aid Society to provide a modern recreation facility on a small, remaining piece of the property.

But because the Good Woods and Sports Fields property is threatened today by ill-advised housing development, we are designating it an Earth Day 2009 Bad Apple.

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There are many reasons to appreciate the new Yankee Stadium.  First, it is home to the New York Yankees, 26-time World Series Champions.  Second, with its limestone exterior, white frieze and monuments to legendary Yankee players, it is both beautiful and reminiscent of the original Yankee Stadium.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, the new Yankee Stadium is still in the Bronx - the borough where it and the Yankees have resided for 86 years and where the vast majority of New Yorkers believe it and they belong forever. 

But for residents of the Bronx who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the new stadium, the new construction has come at a high price.  The new stadium was not built on the site of the original ball park, but across the street, on what had since 1899 been Macombs Dam Park.  Thus, twenty-two acres of parkland have been one of the casualties of the new stadium's construction.  The destruction of Macombs Dam Park, along with a nearly 4 acre portion of John Mullaly Park, has deprived local residents of critical green oases in their community.  Baseball fields, basketball, handball and tennis courts, a soccer field and a running track, and hundreds of mature trees have all fallen to construction bulldozers.  To make matters worse, replacement park improvements, which the City said would be nearly finished by now, have been slow in coming, despite the vigilance of advocates like New Yorkers for Parks.

To be sure, the City's Department of Parks and Recreation continues to promise that wonderful, new park facilities are coming soon to the Yankee Stadium neighborhood.  They include a new rooftop park above stadium parking (complete with a new running track, a multipurpose field for soccer and basketball and handball and basketball courts); three baseball/softball fields at a new Heritage Park (on the site of the old Yankee Stadium); two "pocket" parks on River Avenue, with facilities for young children and for skaters of all ages; and a Harlem River Waterfront Park, with tennis courts, viewing platforms and other amenities.

But even when these new facilities are complete and open to the public, presumably over the next year or two, their scattered locations may never replicate what has been lost.  As long-time parks-watcher Anne Schwartz recently put it in the Gotham Gazette: "Residents say that all these bits and pieces can never replace the breathing space an expanse of trees and grass provides, or the way such a centrally located park [Macombs Dam] binds together a community and creates a sense of place...."

The rejection by the Yankees and the City of calls to rebuild Yankee Stadium in place (which would have saved Macombs Dam Park) and their inability to complete the replacement parks in timely fashion has left us little choice but to name the Yankee Stadium/Macombs Dam Park site as an Earth Day 2009 Bad Apple

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New York's subway, bus and commuter rail system is the region's economic lifeline.  Every day, more than 84% of those who come into Manhattan's Central Business Districts travel via public transportation (if they aren't walking or biking).  Our system is the largest and most heavily used transit network in the nation, with 8 million daily riders.  Even those New Yorkers who drive to work depend on our strong transit network -- subways, buses and rail make it possible for drivers to enjoy sufficient highway capacity as they travel in their preferred mode, and transit provides the majority of their customers and fellow employees the only practical means to reach their places of business.  It is hard to imagine how New York City would function if we allow our transit system to spiral into decline.

The mounting financial problems facing our transit network are by now well known.  The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is required by law to operate with a balanced budget.  But the national economic downturn has led to declining tax revenues, increasing costs and operating budget shortfalls. Additionally, the MTA's extensive and essential capital rebuilding program, begun by then MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch in the early 1980s, is set to run out of funds by the end of 2009.  Last year, Governor David Paterson named Mr. Ravitch to head a new Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority Financing.  The Commission's recommendations, released in December 2008, included a regional "mobility" payroll tax, tolls on East and Harlem River bridges, as well as moderate fare increases and other measures.

Unfortunately, while the Governor and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have been ready to advance one form of the Ravitch recommendations or another, the funding proposals have stalled in the State Senate. Although there are certainly friends of transit among its members who want to take action, the Senate as a whole has failed to muster a majority to support the creative and important proposals being advanced by Ravitch, the Governor and the Speaker.  Nor has a majority of the Senate been able to come up with a credible proposal that avoids near-term fare hikes and service cuts or that provides a long-term source of revenues for the transit system's capital needs.

For shirking its responsibility to the public in an hour of need, we are designating the New York State Senate Chamber as an Earth Day 2009 Bad Apple.

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This assessment was prepared by Eric A. Goldstein and Renata Silberblatt. We appreciate the assistance of our NRDC colleagues (including Larry Levine, Rich Kassel, Jenny Powers and Kate Slusark) and our friends at other organizations, all of whom aided in the preparation of this listing.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of NRDC's members and contributors as well as the following foundations that support NRDC's N.Y. Urban Program: The Brenner Family Foundation; Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc.; New York Community Trust; The Overbrook Foundation; and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Inc.