Brian Bernardoni from CAR

CHICAGO—The city council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards voted yesterday to send Mayor Rahm Emanuel‘s energy use benchmarking ordinance on to the full council, which will probably take a final vote today. The ordinance met opposition from some in the real estate community including BOMA/Chicago, which wanted the city to drop a provision that will allow the public disclosure of buildings’ energy efficiency scores. The Chicago Association of REALTORS® took a sterner line, and asked the committee to defer voting on the ordinance, proposed by the mayor on June 26, and instead design a more limited, and voluntary, neighborhood-based pilot program.

“We came up with what we thought was a reasonable solution,” said Brian A. Bernardoni, the association’s senior director of governmental affairs and public policy. The realtors fear the proposed program, which will require municipal, commercial and residential properties with more than 50,000-square-feet to track and publicly report their energy usage, will eventually impose costly mandates on building and condo owners. In his testimony, Bernardoni said he worried that the energy use ordinance would follow the path of a mid-nineties era ordinance that concerned building façades. “That ordinance; as some of you may recall, had to be redone several times; with different processes for the owners to comply with and tenants to pay for. Creating green buildings should not create red ink.”

The realtors seem especially irked that their representatives were not included in the lengthy negotiations with the mayor’s office which produced the legislation. “We were never called,” Bernardoni says. “BOMA was brought in early,” he adds, since they represent downtown business interests, but the realtors did not get to fully outline their concerns until a July 17 meeting with Commissioner of the Department of Buildings Michael Merchant. “BOMA represents where people go to work every day and I represent the buildings where people go home to every night.”

“Some of our concerns have been met,” Bernardoni admitted. Officials agreed to allow judicial discretion on possible sanctions for noncompliance, and give owners a chance to plead their case at a hearing, he said. “That’s an important change.” The city also agreed to adjust some technical language the realtors found incorrect and confusing.  

In his testimony to the committee, Commissioner Merchant sought to sooth some of the tension. He called the proposed ordinance “a light touch in benchmarking and disclosure.” To track energy consumption, for example, it requires the use of the Environmental Protection Agency’s industry-standard online tool, ENERGY STAR ® Portfolio Manager, a system already in wide use throughout Chicago. And the city will stagger the disclosure requirements. The largest buildings, those with more than 250,000-square-feet, don’t have to report their energy data until June 2014, and the rest get a reprieve until 2015.

And many of Chicago’s largest commercial real estate firms have come out strongly in favor of the mayor’s proposal. Robert Best, an executive vice president of Jones Lang La Salle, a company that takes great pride in its efforts to increase energy efficiency, told council members that the disclosure requirements were essential. JLL has been tracking energy use in buildings they operate, but attempts to promote efficiency were not fully-successful until they began sharing the data and all the occupants of a building could see not only how well they were doing, but how well their neighbors were doing. “That’s what makes it work,” Best said.

But like his counterparts at BOMA, Bernardoni remains concerned that publicizing the data will stigmatize older buildings, turn off potential tenants and saddle them with a competitive disadvantage.  “A lot of the buildings we represent don’t have the capital to make changes. We don’t want to see these buildings go dark because of a well-intentioned mandate.”

Some condo owners also showed up to critique the proposal. “We are constantly seeking to reduce our energy costs,” said Mark N. Lundgren, a planner and real estate consultant who heads the 3900 N. Lake Shore Dr. Condominium Association and worries the new requirements will be unnecessary and expensive. He claimed his building had incurred $6 million in city-mandated costs over the past few years. Enrique G. Perez, the president of the Transportation Building Condominium Association at 600 S. Dearborn in the South Loop, strongly agreed. “Condos are suffering enough; we need to catch our breath.”       

A few aldermen, especially those from the condo-heavy lakefront wards, echoed several of these concerns. “I don’t exactly get why we’re rushing,” said 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith, who attended the meeting but does not sit on the zoning committee. “[Condo owners] are doing everything they can to save money,” but may feel nervous about a new government requirement they only just heard about. Although Smith said she strongly supports energy efficiency, she advised deferring this ordinance for 30 days. 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly also supported a delay, not because he opposed the bill, he said, but to give the mayor time to meet with homeowners and assuage any fears.

Minutes later, however, committee chair Ald. Daniel Solis called for a vote and the “ayes” overwhelmed the other committee members. In the end only Reilly and 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman, another member from the lakefront, wanted a delay.

Afterwards, Bernardoni said he expected the full council would approve the ordinance on Wednesday. He remained determined, however, to keep pressing the issue. “We’ll let people know how their alderman voted.”