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What’s wrong with the climate town hall being held at Hudson Yards?

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The Manhattan megadevelopment was designed to be green, but the overall success of Hudson Yards as a sustainable community has been widely criticized

Several tall buildings with glass facades surround a landmark that is shaped like a beehive and made from steel.
Hudson Yards in March 2019.
Max Touhey

After months of pressure from advocates who claim climate change isn’t being covered as extensively as other issues, CNN is hosting the presidential campaign’s most comprehensive climate change coverage so far: a seven-hour town hall exclusively focused on the climate crisis, airing live tonight.

During the event, which starts at 5 p.m. ET, 10 qualifying candidates will take audience questions and be interviewed one-on-one by CNN anchors. All 10 candidates have said that they support the Green New Deal, a framework promoting sustainable, equitable strategies for eliminating U.S. carbon emissions that was proposed by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens. Eight of the 10 candidates have their own climate proposals for transitioning the country to a zero-emission future.

But the location of town hall, which will reportedly be held at New York City’s Hudson Yards, has been publicly questioned by advocates who believe the megaproject does not align with the values of the Green New Deal. Hudson Yards is technically one of the greenest developments in New York City, however, it was funded heavily by tax breaks and created for mostly wealthy residents, luxury tenants, and large corporations—like CNN, which is headquartered there.

Climate groups are also expressing concern about the connection between Hudson Yards’s billionaire developer and President Donald Trump, whose administration’s roll back of environmental regulations have caused emissions to rise again. Related Companies’s CEO Stephen Ross is a longtime friend of Trump who recently held a $100,000-per-plate fundraiser for him in the Hamptons.

Representatives from CNN and Related Cos. did not respond to Curbed’s requests for confirmation of the town hall location, although attendees have confirmed the location on social media, and groups including 350ActionNY and the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America are coordinating protests at Hudson Yards during the town hall.

Hudson Yards is one of New York City’s most sustainable new developments

Press releases for Hudson Yards call the project “a city-within-a-city,” a tagline that has been repeated in multiple stories. The megadevelopment was designed with a number of sustainable measures that allow the project to remain independently operational during a natural disaster or other major city-altering event.

The 28-acre development, which is spread out across two parcels—the Eastern Yards, which opened earlier this year, and the Western Yards, which is still in the works—has its own microgrid that ensures it will keep running should, say, another Hurricane Sandy-level storm hit the city. There are also two co-generation plants that will reportedly reduce the megaproject’s greenhouse gas emissions by 24,000 metric tons each year. Other sustainable measures include a collection tank that will recycle up to 8 million gallons of storm water each year, and a garbage plant built to “use grinders and dehydrators to reduce food waste by 20 percent,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

And while New York City mayor and Democratic presidential hopeful Bill de Blasio—who did not qualify for the CNN town hall—pointed to Hudson Yards’s skyscrapers as “examples of the wrong way to do things” when it comes to building construction, the towers are actually designed to be extremely energy efficient. The megaproject’s first building, 10 Hudson Yards, was certified as LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council; 30 Hudson Yards, the skyscraper where CNN has its headquarters, was designed to eventually receive LEED Gold designation.

For all of the other critiques of Hudson Yards, its design—dense, transit-oriented, and with an eye toward long-term sustainability—is an example of how the growing threat of climate change has forced planners to think differently about construction and neighborhood development.

But the project doesn't deliver when it comes to equitable development

Although the buildings themselves are engineered as high-performance, low-emission machines, the overall success of Hudson Yards as a sustainable community has been widely criticized. Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of the New York Times, called it a “supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.”

Wealthier households produce more carbon pollution than lower-income households. Hudson Yard tenants include a mall filled with mostly luxury fashion brands. The fashion industry is incredibly carbon-intensive, with an emissions footprint that’s greater than the airline industry. A recent study by C40, a coalition of cities focused on reducing emissions, demonstrated that the carbon footprint of consumption patterns, like the shipping of goods that are bought in cities, is massively underestimated by city leaders when putting together their climate plans.

An investigation by CityLab revealed that Hudson Yards was also funded in part by exploiting a program intended to help economically distressed neighborhoods. The first phase of the development added just 106 affordable rentals to the community, and of its 4,000 planned apartments, only around 400 are expected to be below market-rate. The bulk of the condos that are currently on the market, meanwhile, are priced at $1 million and above. The office towers are occupied by large corporations, like the investment company BlackRock, which was offered $25 million in tax credits to move there.

Then there are the politics of the developer himself. Ross’s fundraising for Trump last month led to widespread boycotts of his properties, including Equinox and SoulCycle, the fitness brands owned by Ross. Advocates argue that by supporting Trump’s re-election, Ross is directly supporting the Trump administration’s climate policy, which has already gone against the recommendations of the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the U.S.’s own annual climate change assessment.

New York politicians wanted the town hall to be held in the outer boroughs

The pushback against Hudson Yards as a town hall venue isn’t focused solely on the megaproject’s billionaire owner. A contingent of local elected officials argued that CNN should call attention to the climate crisis by holding the event in an area that has already been impacted by climate change—like one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Queens that have been transformed by rising sea levels and sunny-day flooding.

In an August 8 letter to CNN president Jeff Zucker, more than a dozen city and state officials called on the network to, as the letter reads, “have a meaningful discussion on fighting climate change in places where it matters the most.”

And indeed, many neighborhoods on the fringes of New York City were hit the hardest during Hurricane Sandy, the catastrophic 2012 superstorm. In Breezy Point, a community at the tip of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, more than 100 homes were destroyed. As seawater streamed into homes, it came into contact with electrical wiring, starting a fire in one home that eventually spread throughout the neighborhood. While many homes have been rebuilt, the area is expected to be underwater by 2100.

Or take Coney Island in Brooklyn, which was inundated with floodwaters during Sandy. While some barriers have been put in place to protect the area from the Atlantic Ocean, there are no similar measures currently in place along the Coney Island Creek, which surged into the neighborhood during that storm. There’s a plan in place to build a new bulkhead, but critics argue that it won’t protect the area from catastrophic storms. “In another major storm, much of Coney Island would flood again,” Curbed columnist Nathan Kensinger recently wrote. (And we haven’t even touched Staten Island.)

“Climate change is the defining issue of our lifetime. It will influence our national security, our economy, and our health,” City Council Member Costa Constantinides, who heads up the council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and represents parts of Queens, said in a statement that accompanied the letter to Zucker.

But, he argued, “these candidates should have to answer directly to the people most at risk of climate change—so we have to take this show beyond the bright lights of Broadway.”

Does the location of the town hall ultimately matter?

Since the Democratic National Committee has ruled out holding an official climate debate, town hall events like CNN’s will prove essential in sorting out policy differences between candidates. But is where the event being held more crucial than the fact that a network is devoting seven prime-time hours to a conversation focused exclusively on climate?

In previous presidential debates held in Miami and Detroit, the venues themselves—a performing arts center and a historic theater—did not generate any controversy, although there were organized protests outside both events. And the moderators did address local issues as they related to climate change, particularly in Miami, which had just faced historic heat in addition to increased flooding due to sea-level rise. The next general debates will be held September 12 in Houston, where climate change is sure to come up in the context of how the city has fared after Harvey and how federal regulations can help in addressing future flooding.

As Hurricane Dorian approaches the East Coast, a New York City location does provide a timely opportunity to engage with the region’s recovery efforts post-Sandy, and its own Green New Deal-style plan to slash the city’s production of carbon emissions.

And perhaps the Hudson Yards venue is the perfect place to point out that building a “city-within-a-city” to withstand an extreme weather event doesn’t matter much if cities can’t incentivize policies that will protect everyone from disaster—no matter where they live.