Sometime in 2008 , Bank of America, the country’s largest commercial bank, will open the doors of its new 52-floor, 2 million-square-foot office building in Midtown Manhattan. No ordinary 945 foot-tall, 1billion-dollar hulk, the Bank of America Tower will be as green as it can be.
According to the bank, “The project incorporates innovative, high-performance technologies to use dramatically less energy, consume less potable water and provide a healthy and productive indoor environment that prioritizes natural light and fresh air.”
Douglas Durst, of the site-developing Durst Organization, put it in stronger terms. “We look forwar to creating not just a spectacular visual experience, but also the most environmentally responsible building possible."
Imagine that! A billion dollars of cutting-edge environmental responsibility. I can suggest, however, a project that uses even less energy, water and air: a vacant lot. New York would make out better, the air will be that much cleaner and the country will benefit from one Bank of America project fewer. Bank of America shows us how green technology, in and of itself, is no answer to environmental woes.
What’s wrong with advancing tall building technology?
What's wrong is to what use the technology is put. And what it costs. And who profits. In this case, it couldn’t be more wrong.
For one thing, there’s the matter of the financing.
Bank of America is the third largest bank in the world, with assets of $1.4 trillion, and annual profits of $21.3 billion. You would think that adding one more office tower to the 20 they have already would be within their budget. But no, they had to squeeze most of the money out of the city and state.
The New York City Industrial Development Agency approved $38.5 million in tax benefits and $3.5 million in energy givebacks. But that was just tip money compared to the $650 million in tax-exempt, low-interest, risk-free Liberty Bonds. These were created by the feds in 2002 to help businesses in New York City—primarily Lower Manhattan—recover from the 9/11 attacks. Admittedly, B of A did lose three employees in the catastrophe, but $650 million seems like a lot to help them over their grief. Moreover, B of A intends to rent out the top half of the building, which will probably cover their Liberty Bond payments, so it sounds like a very convenient deal for the bank.In return for financing a mortgage lender’s building, the city expects something in return. What they get is 3000 new jobs…over the next 25 years. Even if the bank added the 3000 jobs immediately and kept them going for 25 years, the city’s take in income taxes would amount to something like $100 million. Add sales tax, deduct services and it doesn’t seem much like an equitable deal.
Then, there’s the matter of the jobs themselves. Bank of America is one of the country’s top consumer lending organizations, having recently absorbed FleetBoston Financial and credit card giant MBNA (for $35 billion). In fact, B of A gets slightly over half its revenue from credit cards. As Bruce Hammonds, president of Bank of America Card Services, said immodestly:
In the retail world, Bank of America serves more than 52 million consumer relationships— nearly half of all U.S. households. We operate more than 5,700 local banking centers and 17,000 ATMs, in 30 states and the District of Columbia…We are the second largest payment processing provider for small businesses. And, as you may know, we are one of the largest credit card companies in the United States.
I say immodestly because Hammond was speaking from the witness chair at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Hammond and other bankers on March 7 to explain the extortionate rates they increasingly charge cardholders. Observed Levin unkindly, “The credit card industry thrives on the confusion and powerlessness of consumers to both nickel and dime the average card-holder and to commit highway robbery of anyone who slips up even in the slightest.”
The result of these practices is not beneficial. In 2003, the Federal Reserve calculated that Americans owed $2 trillion in consumer debt, or about $18,000 per household. That amount does not include mortgages, which B of A also sells. Since the Fed also discovered that almost half of all U.S. households spend more than they make, it’s unlikely that Bank of America will see a drop in income any time soon.
B of A plans to house its global consumer credit operation in New York, among several other divisions. So, it’s safe to say that a lot of the new jobs the bank is bringing to New York will be engaged in the process of enticing other working Americans into debts they can’t afford and interest rates that rob them of any chance of ever getting out from under the debt. That, in turn, will prompt more people to work more, using more energy and resources.
So, no, I don’t think that the spanking new glass-and-aluminum, climate-sensitive Bank of America Tower is a step in the right direction—even environmentally. In fact, I think a hole in the ground would do more for America than this monstrosity will. It would certainly be more environmentally friendly.
| Thursday, March 15, 2007 4:05 PM