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It's not easy to be green -- especially in Buffalo City trails Niagara Falls in energy conservation efforts

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster views his city's future through green-tinted glasses.

During his first year on the job, Dyster pushed programs to conserve energy, in both city government and the private sector. He's also taken steps to start rebuilding Niagara Falls' industrial base around renewable energy, starting with a 500-job factory that will produce silicon for solar panels.

The mayor regards an aggressive, smart response to global warming as key to the city's fate. Global warming is not a fad, he said, and cities need to adapt in order to succeed.

"The cities that are the most nimble in addressing the challenges of their day will become more prosperous," he said. "Those that lag on this issue are going to find themselves increasingly impoverished."

Down the road in Buffalo, such strategic thinking and bold action are largely absent under Mayor Byron W. Brown, according to leaders in the local green community.

While there have been halting signs of progress, particularly in efforts to clean brownfields in South Buffalo, most environmental leaders interviewed for this story said the Brown administration has been slow out of the gate.

"I think we're still substantially behind most peer cities. If you look at a Milwaukee, a Cincinnati, they've got a lot more going on," said Sam Magavern, an instructor at the University at Buffalo Law School and primary author of a report released this spring called "Greening Buffalo: What Local Governments Can Do."

City Hall has no staff dedicated to deal with green issues and most of the stubborn problems remain largely unaddressed: recycling rates are low and the city isn't attempting to build to green standards as it spends nearly $1 billion to reconstruct its public school system.

Brown refused to comment for this story.

"I'm definitely disappointed," added Walter Simpson, UB's former energy officer and co-founder of the Western New York Climate Action Coalition.

"For a major city to ignore the most serious environmental problem we're facing is unforgivable."

Suffice to say, Buffalo is not going green under Brown. At least not quickly.

Three years ago, cities across the nation began to pledge to combat global warming in the wake of the U.S. refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. The initiative's objective is to reduce carbon emissions in their cities by 2012 to 7 percent below the levels present in 1990.

More than 500 cities, including Buffalo and Niagara Falls, have signed on to the initiative sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Many are finding that, in cutting carbon, they're finding ways of controlling costs in this era of soaring energy prices.

>Green-collar jobs

Much of the emphasis has been on energy conservation: fuel-efficient vehicles, energy-efficient buildings and lighting, purchase of clean energy, and sustainable building design.

Dyster said he has several reasons for his green emphasis.

For starters, he said the 8 million tourists who visit the Falls "expect to find a green city here. Not just a green city, but the greenest of the green."

Beyond that, he said, going green is essential to stop global warming. For him, it's not just about saving the planet, but reducing energy costs, which consume a growing portion of budgets for not just the city, but homeowners and business owners.

Dyster has been boldest on the economic development front by challenging how the New York Power Authority allocates low-cost hydropower to local industry.

This power, which saves about 100 companies in Niagara and Erie counties more than $200 million a year, has been treated as a birthright by many recipients, some enjoying allocations since the early 1960s.

The problem: subsidies in some cases are extremely generous and go to fading industries.

Dyster has pushed for allocations to develop an industry sector in renewable energy. He successfully lobbied state officials to award a large 40-megawatt allocation to Globe Metals, which is retrofitting a plant off Highland Avenue to produce silicon used to to manufacture solar panels. A quarter of the plant's production will be earmarked for solar panel manufacturers in New York State.

Dyster also is working with Northern Ethanol, which has received a discounted power allocation from the Power Authority, to build a bio-fuel plant in Niagara Falls. He's also advancing plans to develop restored brownfields into a green industrial park.

>Push for conservation

Dyster also has focused on the nuts-and-bolts of city operations.

In an effort to reduce energy consumption, the city is starting to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, such as hybrids, and is participating in a trial program working with a company whose fuel additive is supposed to reduce pollution and improve mileage.

To reduce energy consumption in buildings, energy audits are being reviewed with an eye on making improvements, and work has begun to retrofit facilities with high-efficiency compact florescent light bulbs. Dyster's office was the first place they were installed.

The mayor asked the Power Authority to lend its expertise in energy conservation to two city projects, a $47 million courthouse that started construction before he took office, and the outdated Hyde Park Ice Rink. The courthouse was not designed to meet green building standards, which Dyster termed "irresponsible," and he expects to retrofit the building on the fly to make it more energy efficient.

On the transportation front, Dyster has jump-started plans to relocate the Amtrak train station near the Whirlpool Bridge, in conjunction with the development of a multimodal center in a Civil War-era building that was part of the Underground Railroad. Plans call for the station to open in 2011.

Looking to the future, Dyster contemplates several major initiatives to conserve energy. One would provide loans or grants to businesses that reduce energy consumption. Another would provide loans or grants to go beyond simply weatherizing houses to making energy retrofits that result in greater efficiencies.

Dyster is also weighing legislation that would require new construction to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), or green, standards.

Much less is going on, or contemplated, in Buffalo.

>Brown standoffish

Many of the environmentalists interviewed for this story, while generally critical of Brown's efforts, said the administration is nevertheless better on the issue than previous ones. They also note an uptick in activity over the past year, in part because of the hiring of Brian Reilly as the city's economic development chief.

Reilly has green credentials, including his role in the redevelopment of a brownfield in Milwaukee into an industrial and mixed-use district. That's given some environmentalists hope, but it comes against a backdrop of an administration that they said hasn't done much to date.

A common complaint is a lack of staff dedicated to the issue. There's little in-house expertise, and those with knowledge are overextended, said Joe Gardella, chairman of the city's Environmental Management Commission.

Something akin to a sustainability office is becoming increasingly common in city governments across the country. As a first step, Brown and the Common Council added a job in this year's budget to deal with energy issues, but no one has been hired yet.

Meanwhile, an energy audit of City Hall done during Mayor Anthony Masiello's final term continues to be largely ignored. The city has taken modest steps on other fronts, however.

More fuel-efficient vehicles are being purchased, as well as smaller engines used to power heavy equipment. More energy-efficient air conditioning units have been installed in several city buildings. The city has stepped up efforts to plant additional trees, especially after the surprise snowstorm in October 2006.

Gardella, a chemistry professor at UB, sees other signs of improvement.

The city is doing a better, though not great, job in assessing the environmental impacts of new development. It also asked Niagara Mohawk to consider installing more energy-efficient bulbs in street lights.

Gardella said he's seen a marked improvement in the city's approach to dealing with brownfields.

"Buffalo has been better under the Brown administration in obtaining state support for planning and implementing that planning," he said.

Still, Gardella said, the city could and should be doing a lot more.

"This is a time where you could gain a lot if you were more aggressive," he said.

"They need to be more proactive," added David Hahn-Baker, president of Inside/Out Environmental Consulting and a leader in the city's environmental justice movement.

Reilly said he is working on a couple of major initiatives.

City officials have embraced a proposal by Greg Stevens -- president of RiverWright, a company working to develop an ethanol plant along the Buffalo River -- to restore and develop a 1,900-acre brownfield in South Buffalo as a sustainable technology corridor.

Reilly is also working on plans to convert contiguous vacant residential lots into small parks and retention ponds, as a way of greening neighborhoods while addressing the twin problems of unemployment and vacant property in the inner city.

>Recommended action

Simpson and Magavern outlined a number of steps they think the city should take beyond what Reilly has in mind.

Simpson said the city should focus on energy conservation. This would involve making public facilities more energy-efficient, purchasing renewable fuels, strengthening building codes to require more sustainable designs, and working with residents and businesses to help them conserve.

"We've got seven to eight years to turn the corner on climate change, and that means doing it now," said Simpson, credited with helping to make UB the greenest institution in the region.

Magavern said the city needs to hire a small staff to focus on sustainability issues and develop a plan for the city.

"We need to set measurable targets and set strategies to achieve them," he said.

Magavern cited a handful of initiatives the city could undertake that could be relatively easy to achieve, starting with recycling.

Presently, about 7 percent of the weight of curbside trash is recycled in the city. That rate was as high as 13 percent in the middle of Masiello's tenure as mayor. Recycling rates in the suburbs range from 15 percent to 25 percent, depending on the town.

The city has done some small recycling initiatives under Brown, such as placing recycling containers at public events such as the Allentown Arts Festival. But there's been no major initiatives.

Another achievable initiative, Magavern said, involves greener building policies. He suggested focusing on rehabilitating and weatherizing existing housing rather than building new. Recycling wood, bricks and other materials from demolitions. And taking down more houses by dismantling rather than demolishing them, in order to recycle material. Right now, debris from demolitions goes straight to the city dump.

A third initiative would ease the stress on the city's aging sewage treatment system by reducing storm water runoff entering the system. Among his suggestions: disconnecting down spouts to sewer lines, promoting green roofs on commercial buildings, and designing parking lots that allow for absorption of surface runoff.

"There are a lot of things you can do that are low cost or actually save you money in the end," he said.

While environmentalists like Magavern and Simpson contemplate the possibilities in Buffalo, Dyster continues to move his green agenda forward in Niagara Falls by making it a subtext to much of his planning.

"Green has to permeate every aspect of your decision making," Dyster said. "It's a different paradigm of looking at public policy."

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

***

Tale of two cities

Niagara Falls is taking more initiative than Buffalo in dealing with climate change

>Niagara Falls

*Mayor Paul A. Dyster has made green considerations central to his decision making.

*Has pushed to use low-cost hydropower to help fledgling industries in the renewable energy sector, including plants to produce bio-fuels and silicon used to build solar panels.

*Is working to reduce energy consumption, both in and out of city government. Retrofitting courthouse under construction to be more energy efficient and weighing proposals that would provide loans or grants to businesses and homeowners that make improvements to reduce fuel consumption.

*

>Buffalo

*Mayor Byron W. Brown has shown little initiative and has no staff dedicated to dealing with green issues. Most green advocates are disappointed in his performance.

*Recycling efforts lag behind the suburbs; reconstruction of city schools does not incorporate green design; findings of energy audit largely ignored.

*Efforts to revitalize brownfields in South Buffalo considered a plus. City's new economic development chief has green credentials and there are signs of growing sensitivity to the issue since his arrival.

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