Sunday, June 16, 2024

Construction at 907 Main in Central Square in September 2019. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Business leaders continued to express dismay Tuesday over how Cambridge’s Building Energy Usage Disclosure Ordinance has been implemented, and the potential for them to face earlier deadlines to comply. Condo owners, on the other hand, are getting more time to meet the law’s requirements.

The meeting of the Economic Development and University Relations committees continued one from November that included representatives from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and business leaders wanting input on changes to the regulation. The conversations now also includes Eversource, Cambridge’s electricity distributor.

The Community Development Department submitted amendments in 2021 to Beudo that add emission reductions requirements. It was part of a planned review of the 2014 regulation, which required disclosure of emission levels for certain large buildings in Cambridge but did not have the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The City Council has proposed an amendment making the required date that business buildings become net zero 2035 instead of 2050. 

Building owners, however, will need to start paying penalties as early as 2025 if they don’t manage to bring net emissions down to 80 percent of what was measured in 2018 and 2019 for existing buildings, with further reductions required year over year. If the buildings became occupied later, they would be required to start paying penalties four years after the initial two-year measurement period. They will be allowed to use offsets to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions, but only until 2045.

Non-residential buildings will be expected to be net zero by 2035, followed by affordable housing and existing market-rate housing in 2050.

Patrick Barrett, who represented the Central Square Business Improvement District as owner of its Sonder 907 Main hotel and developer of a new Middle East nightclub complex, was the meeting’s most vocal critic of the regulation and amendment process. He is concerned that the conversation over the new requirements does not make it clear that building owners need to start paying penalties in 2025. 

“The Beudo man cometh,” Barrett said. “And we’re terrified of this.”

He said he was not made aware of Beudo – neither the reporting or new penalty section of the ordinance – during the design stage of 907 Main, which opened in 2020. Friends who are developing buildings right now haven’t been made aware of Beudo either, he said Monday.

Condo owners also only recently learned of their Beudo requirements, and have begun complaining. But the deadline on their compliance has been rolled back to 2050 from 2035, city councillor Patty Nolan noted Monday, with the city promising access to a source of carbon-free electricity by that time. If it’s impossible for condo owners to meet Beudo requirements at that time, they won’t be penalized, Nolan said.

Carrots and sticks

Beth O’Neill Maloney, the executive director of the Kendall Square Association, said she prefers incentives over what she called draconian penalties – but appreciated the conversation.

“Bringing everyone here to the table is critical,” Maloney said. “Because I think everybody’s goal here is to combat climate change.”

David Maher, president and chief executive of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and a former mayor of Cambridge, said the “business community is a willing partner” in addressing climate change that has “outdone the city.” 

Nolan shot back at Maher, Maloney and Barrett, saying that emissions have gone up.

“So while we’ve tried, I believe in carrots and sticks, because carrots haven’t worked,” Nolan said. “Having no sticks hasn’t worked, so I just want us to move forward with incentives and some kind of requirements.”

Siting electricity infrastructure

The tensions between lawmakers and property owners was only a small part of a meeting dominated by conversation about increasing the amount of electricity in Cambridge to allow for a transition away from using fossil fuels in buildings.

More electricity infrastructure will be needed, including substations that will take a minimum 10 years to build, said Maija Benjamins, director of strategic project development transmission for Eversource. The most challenging part of the process is working with the state Department of Public Utilities, she said.

“If we continue to partner with the city and make sure that we’re addressing the environmental justice concerns in the future development that’s projected, that would help streamline the process, especially when we have vocalized support from the City of Cambridge,” she said. 

Identifying city property to host Eversource infrastructure would help, Benjamins said, but Gerhard Walker, Eversource’s manager of distribution and planning, noted that location matters. Putting power infrastructure on municipal property that’s far from where the electricity is needed  “doesn’t help that much,” Walker said.