BRA considers climate effects

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is poised to approve a new regulation requiring developers of large buildings to submit plans Âaddressing potential flooding, heat waves, and other anticipated effects of climate change.

The regulation, to be taken up at a BRA meeting Thursday night, would force developers to respond to questions about how their buildings are designed to handle extreme weather events. While it does not prescribe specific building rules, the regulation could prevent projects from proceeding until those issues are addressed.

Officials said the new rule would ensure that Boston is prepared for the increased likelihood of flooding and other disasters related to rising sea levels and wide temperature fluctuations. A study last year by the US Geological Survey found that seas along the East Coast from North Carolina to New England are rising three to four times faster than the global Âaverage, and that coastal cities are increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

''We feel it's responsible and important to make sure we are building the most resilient Âfuture for our city," said Brian Swett, the city's chief of energy and environment. The regulation is meant to prepare buildings to last for generations and help them deal with extreme heat and cold more efficiently, he said.

But some representatives of the commercial real estate industry object to the regulation, saying developers are already taking steps to make sure their buildings are operating safely and efficiently.

Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said it is in the financial interest of developers to protect buildings against the threat of extreme weather. The new rule would needlessly add red tape to an already lengthy review process, he said.

''It fascinates me that bureaucrats have this vision of themselves as saving development, when it's the people who build these projects who are far more skilled at assessing the risks they face," Vasil said.

The regulation would affect all building projects over 20,000 square feet across the city. But it would arguably have the most direct impact on those built near the waterfront, such as Donald Chiofaro's effort to redevelop the Harbor Garage along Atlantic Avenue.

Executives at Chiofaro Co. said they were pleased the BRA had pursued the issue. "Given the realities of climate change and the prominence of our site, we expect to be a leader on this issue," said company cofounder Ted Oatis.

Swett and the BRA's chief planner, Kairos Shen, said Superstorm Sandy's impact in New York showed that commercial property owners are not always prepared to face a major tidal surge and other disasters. The storm, which landed in October 2012, caused more than $50 billion in damage and shuttered some businesses for weeks.

Boston has about $460 million worth of property along its waterfront. A recent study by the Boston Harbor Association asserted that nearly 6 percent of the city, including much of downtown, would have been flooded if Sandy had hit it at high tide.

''If you look at the experience of building owners in New York, those that protected their buildings beforehand fared much better than building owners who did not make that smart investment," Shen said.

He added that the new rules are designed to get developers to disclose their plans for addressing climate change and help them assess the best way to design and build their projects. "We think this is a set of guidelines to raise awareness and help people make the smartest investment decisions," Shen said. "People who are couching this as the city creating new regulations to require very specific results or decisions have not read the guidelines carefully."

The new rule would require developers of large buildings to fill out a lengthy checklist describing their plans to address potential flooding, heat waves, power outages, and other impacts that scientists say are more likely to affect the city in coming decades.

The checklist would be Âreviewed by the city's Interagency Green Building ÂCommittee, which is composed of representatives from the mayor's Âoffice, the BRA, the Environment Department, the Transportation Department, and ÂInspectional Services.

The committee could then submit comments about a developer's proposal, but would not have the power to block the project.

David Manfredi, a principal of Boston architecture firm Elkus Manfredi, said city officials should strive to ensure that developers are preparing for climate change without Âcreating unnecessary complications and delays.

''I completely understand and support the spirit of this," Manfredi said. "The question is how it gets folded into the Â1/8review3/8 process. You don't want something that's going to add time."