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November 22, 2014

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Downtown building owners: Overly restrictive code regulations have got to go

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Bob Beers

As the owners of the recently opened Mingo Kitchen and Lounge set about turning the former garage in Las Vegas’ downtown Arts District into a chic eatery, they hit an unexpected and expensive snag.

The aging block wall building, located at 1017 S. 1st Street, didn’t meet the city’s energy efficiency standards and would need insulation and drywall installed at a cost of $17,000 to comply with code.

But because of the open-air layout of the restaurant — the large bar straddles both the indoor and outdoor seating areas — co-owner George Harris said the insulation won’t do anything to lower the building’s energy consumption and was a “waste of money.”

Harris said he’s “angry” about the unnecessary costs, which totaled $34,000 on a total project budget of about $1 million, and thinks the high price of code compliance could hinder development downtown, which is littered with dozens of older buildings with the potential for rehabilitation.

Because of complaints from Harris and other downtown business owners, the city is looking into tweaking its energy standards to exempt older buildings from the requirements.

“At the end of the day we’ve got businesses that have been through the experience telling scary stories about having to invest their capital senselessly,” said Councilman Bob Beers, who is sponsoring a bill that would change the city’s energy standards. “That is going to lead to the next operator saying ‘Maybe I won’t do downtown. Maybe I’ll do it instead up in Summerlin or I’ll do it instead out in Clark County.’”

Beers is chief financial officer at Mundo, another downtown restaurant co-owned by Harris.

The city’s energy codes are similar to those in other local jurisdictions and are modeled off an international set of guidelines that have been amended to fit Southern Nevada’s unique climate and environment. The code governs windows, mechanical systems, insulation and other parts of the building envelope.

All new buildings must follow the code and any renovations or expansions to existing buildings must also meet the outlined standards, but only for the portion of the building undergoing construction.

Under Beers’ proposed bill, any building built before 2009 undergoing a renovation would only have to meet the energy code requirements at the time of initial construction, not the current, stricter guidelines.

The bill drew strong opposition during a hearing Tuesday morning from more than a dozen people, including green building consultants, energy auditors and architects, who called the bill “short-sighted.”

Loosening the energy efficiency standards would be a “giant step backwards” for the city after years of working to become more sustainable, said Randy Levigne, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Nevada chapter. Levigne said the current energy code is flexible and allows businesses to meet the standards in a reasonable and cost-effective way.

“Being an outstanding city does not come for free or by using cut-rate, backwards or short-cut methods,” she said. “In some instances the code requirements will cost more initially, however it’s important to remember the true expense is in the energy costs over the life of a building.”

The bill was approved by the Recommending Committee Tuesday on a 2-1 vote, with councilmen Bob Coffin and Stavros Anthony in favor and councilman Ricki Barlow opposed. It will come before the full council for a final vote on June 5.

Barlow said he thinks the city’s energy code can be improved to lessen the impact on businesses, but that he doesn’t want to see the modern energy standards thrown out entirely for older buildings.

“This is too big of a step in the wrong direction for me to support,” he said.

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  1. Requiring decades-old buildings to meet 21st century energy (and other) code has already resulted in the quashing of several projects slated for old buildings downtown. Even cities like San Diego, which Oscar Goodman (rightfully) held up as prime examples of downtown revitalization, allow old buildings to maintain some aspects of their era in order to preserve the feeling of place -- something very difficult to do in LV. One factor not alluded to here: Under current energy code requirements, more old buildings will definitely be torn down and replaced as this goes forward. Sometimes it is simply more tme and cost effective to raze and rebuild -- something the enegrgy efficiency codes were likely meant to encourage.

  2. "The aging block wall building, located at 1017 S. 1st Street, didn't meet the city's energy efficiency standards and would need insulation and drywall installed at a cost of $17,000 to comply with code."

    Another example of government getting in the way of job creation.

    "Requiring decades-old buildings to meet 21st century energy (and other) code has already resulted in the quashing of several projects slated for old buildings downtown."

    James_P -- it's called the tail wagging the dog. Government is the people's servant, not the other way around. Harris is likely right on how stupid the code is. Government needs to get out of their way and let these property owners rebuild and open for business!

    "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force." - Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

  3. Of course the people against relaxing the codes are NOT the ones putting their own money into the buildings.

  4. This particular regulation probably needs adjustment to take into account open air situations. But this job killing argument, as always, is specious.

    1) How does a restaurant owner know what does and does not affect the overall energy efficiency of a building.

    2) Because of city regulation "next time they might go out to Summerlin." Summerlin is still in the city of Las Vegas.

    They may have a good point but so far they have not stated any facts.

  5. I consider myself an environmentalist, BUT

    I think new businesses opening in old buildings should be given a monetary incentive or offered cheap financing to upgrade the efficiency of old buildings, but requiring it seems damaging to older areas such as downtown.

    An energy inefficient building with a business in it is better than an energy inefficient building that sits empty.