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State bird-friendly buildings bill hits roadblock as city mulls design solutions

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Gov. Cuomo vetoed a bill this week that aimed to promote bird-centric construction

Thousands of birds fatally collide into New York City buildings each year.
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State legislation that sought to promote bird-friendly building facades was shot down by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who vetoed the “problematic” effort this week.

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly member Steven Englebright, would have created a “Bird-Friendly Building Council” with the goal of making new and existing buildings across the state less likely for birds to fatally collide into their reflective glass. New York City Audubon estimates that up to 230,000 birds crash into mirror-like building surfaces across the five boroughs each year.

But on Wednesday, Cuomo said it would be “wholly unnecessary” to give the prospective 15-person panel of appointed members the ability to craft rules and regulations toward building bird-centric structures and said such a panel would be too costly an undertaking for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The desire to prevent bird mortality from buildings is a laudable pursuit. However, having a new council within DEC re-study the impact of buildings on bird mortality will not advance the state of science in this field,” Cuomo explained in a memo on the veto. “In this respect, it would require DEC, at great expense to confirm what experts in the field have already established.”

The issue of how to build structures to reduce avian deaths is one at the intersection of urbanism and ecology with no one-size-fits-all solution. Different fixes are necessary for different structures and habitats, and though there are relatively painless ways to bake bird-friendly design into new structures, it can be a mammoth expense to retrofit existing ones. The Javits Center, for instance, went through a half billion dollar renovation to install glass panels imprinted with patterns to ward off birds; collisions have since been slashed by more than 90 percent.

If the feathered flyers who crash into buildings aren’t instantly killed, they typically suffer from concussions, broken wings, and internal injuries. The Upper West Side-based Wild Bird Fund, which treats hundreds of birds annually who have suffered such traumas, often sees the animals succumb to their wounds.

In a statement to Curbed, Hoylman, who represents part of Midtown, noted the rapid decline of birds in North America over the last half a century, and says he is “committed to continuing this fight to protect our natural world with new legislation this year.”

Urban wildlife advocates and architects in support of the Bird-Friendly Building Council pushed the panel as a tool to help more “environmentally-embracing buildings” go up across the city and state. Kathryn Heintz, the executive director of New York City Audubon, says the news is disappointing but “by no means the end of the conversation.”

“We do think the [financial] stretch would have been worthwhile, but without it we drive on,” says Heintz. “There is a solution for a better, greener, environmentally-embracing city, and we’re going to get there. This is a long game.”

The state bill may be back to square one, but City Council legislation introduced in March would require all new construction or modifications to buildings below 75 feet—where most bird collisions occur—within the city to use bird-safe measures.

That could amount to using glass imprinted with patterns that are more visible to birds, or adding decals to existing facades. Department of Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca told the Council at a September hearing on the bill that the agency “shares the Council’s goal of reducing the potential for bird collision with glass.” The bill is currently being refined and has not been scheduled for a vote.