Will New York City’s famous night skyline grow dim as we battle climate change?

City Council Member Donovan Richards (D-Queens) introduced a bill yesterday to address what he calls “unnecessary lighting”, or illumination, of city buildings at night.

“The ‘Lights Out’ bill is primarily about energy conservation,” said Richards, chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection. “Intro 578 ultimately mandates commercial buildings to turn off their lights when they are not in use, and hopefully encourage residential buildings to do the same,” he explained.

The legislation applies to buildings zoned for commercial, industrial and non–residential usages. Building owners who do not comply will be fined $1,000 per violation.

Does this mean that the Empire State Building and other New York City icons will go dark?

The proposed legislation states that landmarked buildings, more than twenty stories in height, can apply for a waiver from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Building owners must be able to persuasively argue that their structure is a “significant part of the city’s skyline.”

Buildings that remain lit for security reasons may also be able to receive a waiver, as will small stores and seasonal holiday displays. Buildings used at night can remain illuminated until the last person leaves.

The Real Estate Board of New York -which represents the City’s building owners- has not yet responded to our request for comment. Richards said in a statement that his legislation will help building owners save “substantially in costs.”

Cutting the City’s Carbon Emissions

Intro 578, maintains Richards, will help to address one of the largest culprits of carbon emissions in New York City – buildings. According to the City, nearly three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings.

Both the de Blasio administration and the City Council are calling for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 citywide.

The Lights Out legislation could also make a difference for migratory birds. According to New York City Audubon, “in the dark, and especially in foggy or rainy weather when birds fly at lower altitudes, the combination of glass and light becomes deadly.”

For this reason, says Audubon, buildings such as the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, 501 Lexington Avenue (formerly known as Citigroup Center), Silverstein Properties, the Time Warner Center and the Worldwide Plaza now turn off their lights from midnight to dawn during the peak migration season, September 1 to November 1.

But for Donovan Richards, from the Sandy-battered Rockaways, limiting New York City’s contribution to climate change is the key goal. “Mortgaging the health of the planet upon the back of future generations continues to be an irresponsible and dangerous course of action,” Richards stated.