The Greenest Building in New York (and Maybe the World)


If it were set in, say, Manhattan, Kansas, it would be a spectacular sight: a twisting, shimmering 51-story tower of glass. As it is, though, it doesn’t stand out in Midtown Manhattan, New York — a stylized office tower, topped by a harpoonish spire. In short, another glass office building that screams “architecture” while exuding a vague and somewhat threatening sense of private power.

For instance, step into its vast lobby and try to snap a photo. Before you can push the button, security people descend on you insisting that this is private property and you can do no such thing.

Among its neighboring and contemporary Manhattan hulks, the new Bank of America Building isn’t particularly offensive or beautiful. There are more graceless, striving glass towers in Midtown Manhattan, as well as in hundreds of cities around the world. And there are better. The tower uses a few contemporary architectural flourishes in an attempt to justify the towering architect costs, but it still looks like a tall, glass office building.

Called the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park (OBP), the building is actually on Sixth Avenue, or, if you want to support more pretense, Avenue of the Americas. This building with its stentorian name certainly claims a prime spot of real estate. Although no face of the building actually abuts Bryant Park, it was a costly spot, one accumulated through various purchases by the Durst Organization, a privately owned real estate company that claims to have “been at the forefront of the environmental movement since its founding in 1915. . . .”  In any case, Durst “. . . in 1999 completed 4 Times Square, recognized as the first ‘green’ high-rise office building in the United States.”

At the moment, OBP remains one of the most expensive office buildings in the U.S., with a budget of $1.3 billion. At 1,200 feet (including the spire) it’s taller than every building in New York City except the Empire State Building, and it’s the fourth tallest building in the United States. Given the super-tall buildings either completed or under way in Asia, these numbers aren’t quite as impressive as they once were, but it’s still a very big building.

The bank occupies 34 of the 51 floors, “with approximately 4,000 associates relocating from several Manhattan offices.” Rest assured these are not associates in old sense of the word; they’re clerks and their overseers. But it’s not their labor practices that B of A is trumpeting — it’s the building itself. Said the bank:

From construction using recyclable and renewable building materials to energy, air and water systems designed to promote health and conserve precious resources, the tower will be one of the most environmentally responsible high-rise office buildings in the world. It is the first skyscraper to strive for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum designation.

LEED, for those who haven’t known the term, is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™, which “encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”

LEED is an internationally recognized certification system that measures how well a building or community performs across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.1

B of A’s push for LEED certification got the building a raft of publicity, almost all of it very good. In fact, the business press gushed over the building almost as heavily as did the bank itself. In an uncritical description, Michael D. Lemonick wrote in Time magazine:

Almost everything about the Bank of America tower, a soaring skyscraper under construction near Times Square in New York City, has been designed to minimize the use of energy. Take the concrete. Making the stuff from scratch is very energy intensive, so the builders are using a mix of 55% concrete and 45% slag, a waste product from blast furnaces. Mixing slag with concrete saves energy and makes the concrete stronger.

The tower will save so-called gray water from washrooms and use it to flush the toilets. The building will also generate much of its own electricity from natural gas, a less potent carbon emitter than coal. These features will account for $3.5 million of a total building cost of $1.2 billion, but the owners expect to recoup that in a few years with all the energy they’ll save.2

Great, right? Well, maybe. Assuming that the figures and projections are accurate OBP does represent quite a resource saving over an ordinary 1,200-foot-tall glass office building. But the LEED award only means a reduction in resource use if a building of that size and capacity were going to be built on that particular site.

Completely overlooked in the Green evaluation is the fact that there’s now a gigantic building on a spot that once was the site of — among other low and medium rise buildings — the neo-classical 1918 Henry Miller’s Theater. Even if the Henry Miller turned the heat up all the way on a cold day and left the doors open, it would still have used only a fraction of the energy that OBP is using.

B of A decided to acknowledge the old theater by preserving the façade for the front of a reconstructed Henry Miller Theater inside the building. The new theater, however, will total approximately 50,000 square feet — more than triple the size of the old one. It’s hard to see how any energy efficiencies here can offset the huge increase in size.

But this is not primarily a theater, it’s an outpost of what is, for the moment, the largest banking empire in the United States, with over 250,000 employees, assets of more than $2 trillion, and annual revenue of over $100 billion.

Unlike the Durst Organization, the Bank of America doesn’t claim to be “at the forefront of the environmental movement since its founding in 1915.” Although in a sense it was founded 11 years before that date, it has no Green credentials prior to jumping onto the recent Green corporate bandwagon. But in recent years, it’s been Green all over the place. It encourages its employees to buy hybrid cars and funds Green building projects. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bank of America initiated “its own green card, Brighter Planet Visa, which matches every dollar spent with one point that can be accumulated and traded in for ‘carbon offsets’.”3

For the time being, B of A continues to tout its Green program, and OPB most of all. It would be nice, though, if the bank would publicly admit that this huge pile of Green was largely funded from the green of New York taxpayers. When OBP was being planned, B of A was only the third largest bank in the U.S., but even so, you would think that adding one more office tower to the 20 they already had would be within their budget. But no, they had to squeeze most of the money out of the city and state.

The New York City Industrial Development Agency approved $38.5 million in tax benefits and $3.5 million in energy givebacks. But that was just tip money compared to the $650 million in tax-exempt, low-interest, risk-free Liberty Bonds. These were created by the feds in 2002 to help businesses in New York City — primarily Lower Manhattan — recover from the 9/11 attacks. Admittedly, B of A did lose three employees in the catastrophe, but $650 million seemed like a lot to help them over their grief. Moreover, B of A is renting out the top half of the building, which will probably cover their Liberty Bond payments, so it sounds like a very convenient deal for the bank. In return for financing a mortgage lender’s building, the city expects something in return. What they get is 3,000 new jobs . . . over the next 25 years. Even if the bank added the 3,000 jobs immediately and kept them for 25 years, the city’s take in income taxes would amount to something like $100 million. Add sales tax, deduct services, and it doesn’t seem much like an equitable deal.

Then, there’s the matter of the jobs themselves. Bank of America is one of the country’s top consumer lending organizations, having recently absorbed FleetBoston Financial and credit card giant MBNA (for $35 billion). In fact, B of A gets slightly over half its revenue from credit cards. As Bruce Hammonds, president of Bank of America Card Services, said immodestly in 2007:

In the retail world, Bank of America serves more than 52 million consumer relationships — nearly half of all U.S. households. We operate more than 5,700 local banking centers and 17,000 ATMs, in 30 states and the District of Columbia. . . .  We are the second largest payment processing provider for small businesses. And, as you may know, we are one of the largest credit card companies in the United States.

I say immodestly because Hammond was speaking from the witness chair at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Hammond and other bankers on March 7, 2007 to explain the extortionate rates they increasingly charge cardholders. Observed Levin unkindly, “The credit card industry thrives on the confusion and powerlessness of consumers to both nickel and dime the average card-holder and to commit highway robbery of anyone who slips up even in the slightest.”

At this writing, Congress is working on a program of consumer credit protection — presumably one that won’t anger the banks too much. But until it’s signed into law, the credit card companies continue to raise their usurious rates and impose punitive fees.

The result of these practices is not beneficial. In 2003, the Federal Reserve calculated that Americans owed $2 trillion in consumer debt, or about $18,000 per household. By 2009, consumer credit spiraled downward at about 7 percent annually, and reduced the outstanding debt to about $1 trillion. Even so, the number of credit card holders was expected to hit 181 million (out of a population of slightly over 300 million) by 2010, recession or no. According to the New York Times, “A stack of all those credit cards would reach more than 70 miles into space  — and be almost as tall as 13 Mount Everests. If this number of credit cards were thrown away every three years, the stack of credit cards would reach almost 43 Everests high after a decade.”4

B of A issued at least a few Everests of them. As of spring of 2009, B of A held $150.82 billion in outstanding credit card debt. B of A is housing its global consumer credit operation in New York — most of it in OBP. So, it’s safe to say that a lot of the new jobs the bank is bringing to New York will be engaged in the process of enticing other working Americans into debts they can’t afford and interest rates that rob them of any chance of getting out from under the debt.

So, what’s all this got to do with Green? Because, personal consumption has increased to 70 percent of the U.S. economy, and much of that is directly tied to the ubiquity of credit cards. Items of personal consumption are ephemeral and must be constantly replaced, putting an undue strain on energy use and the environment. Making buildings and products greener is not going to affect that equation enough to avoid environmental collapse, but it will make us feel better while it’s happening.

It’s not that corporate use of Green is uniformly false — although in many cases it is. Rather, it’s insignificant in any serious effort to reduce consumption and pollution. It’s become a giddy end in itself, without any sober look at the true consequences of industrial growth, Green or otherwise.

While individual reporters sometime note this shortcoming, the media in general has become a cheerleader for corporate efforts to outdo each other in Greenness. Take, for instance, Newsweek’s 2009 “The Greenest Big Companies in America: An Exclusive Ranking.”5

Not surprisingly, those at the top of the list are high-tech companies — such as Hewlett-Packard (ranked No. 1), Dell (2), Intel (4), IBM (5), and Cisco Systems (12). Hewlett-Packard sits at the very top with a Green Score of 100, and at the absolute bottom is the Peabody Energy, formerly Peabody Coal, with a rating of 1. HP shares the top 5 with other computer companies, such as Dell, Intel, and IBM, while other energy companies vie for the lowest spots.

But there are two glaring problems with these ratings. One, electronics companies, not surprisingly, emit fewer pollutants than do heavy industries and extractive companies. But Green computer companies create products which now account for 8 to 10 percent of all energy consumption. And, it isn’t as though that percentage filled a gap in energy use, it simply added to existing consumption. Of course, producing computers and related equipment uses the products of low-Green manufacturers. The list is further skewed when the ratings are compiled using pollution data of the United States. Computer companies get around this by off-shoring their manufacturing, and, where they recycle their rapidly obsolescing hardware, that, too, creates environmental havoc in other, generally Third Word, countries.

This doesn’t mean that some Green ratings are meaningless. Just that they’re extremely limited in scope. Pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, is a worldwide phenomenon, created by a massive industrial infrastructure, not the output of one or several sectors. You can’t evaluate what the pollution consequences of technological activities are simply in situ; they have to be viewed as a role in this vast web of polluters.

Just remember that the next time a company like Bank of America trumpets the virtues of its Greenest Building in the World.

1  From U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

2 “Build a Skyscraper,” Michael D. Lemonick, Time, Mar. 26, 2007

3  Carolyn Cui, “Credit Cards’ Latest Pitch: Green Benefits,” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2008

4  Laura Shin, “Making Credit Cards Landfill-Friendly,” New York Times, February 23, 2009.

5  Daniel McGinn, “The Greenest Big Companies in America,” Newsweek, September 21, 2009.

Alec Dubro is a veteran writer, researcher, and editor who lives on Capitol Hill in DC, where he tries to ignore Congress. He’s a former rock critic, investigative journalist, and labor communications specialist, and is past president of the National Writers Union.