NYC Boutiques Are Cooling the Sidewalk While the Planet Burns

ByGabriel Grand

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

As a brutal wave of heat and humidity continues to fry the metropolitan area, some New York City shops are adding fuel to the fire.

Strolling down Broadway one recent muggy summer afternoon, I was struck by the number of stores whose wide-open entryways were spilling cool air onto the sidewalk. Although I felt a certain guilty appreciation for the occasional blast of cold, I was deeply disturbed by the wasteful implications of such a prevalent open-door policy.

Though energy use spikes around this time every year, this summer has been particularly bad. Con Edison reported that electricity usage in its coverage area "fell just short of an all-time peak" on Thursday. Meanwhile, power outages due to energy-guzzling AC units have affected New York and Washington, D.C. this week. Though Con Ed has urged customers to conserve as much as possible, it seems as though many of NYC's retailers are ignoring that message.

I did some research, and it turns out that I'm not the only New Yorker concerned about squandered air-conditioning. In 2008, the city passed a law creating fines for establishments that feel the need to leave their doors open to the sweltering heat while maintaining an Arctic climate inside.

The law extends to stores that are larger that 4,000 square feet and franchises that have more than five locations in the city. The Department of Consumer Affairs is in charge of issuing warnings. The penalty for failing to comply is $200, with a doubled fine for repeat offenders of $400.

Evidently, the threat of what amounts to a traffic ticket isn't enough to discourage some stores from leaving their doors open to the heat. On Friday morning, the overworked AC unit at PolicyMic's office finally died of exhaustion, so I decided to take my story to the streets of New York.

As mid-day temperatures peaked at 100 degrees, I scoured the Upper West Side in search of open doors and guilty stores. While most of the larger retailers like The Gap and Modell's were innocently sealed, many of the high-end boutiques had their doors propped open shamelessly.

L'Occitane en Provence, which sells "natural beauty products" like little tins of shea butter and scented facial soaps made with organic fair-trade almonds harvested directly from the French Alps, was particularly flagrant. I spoke to the manager of one of their stores on Columbus Ave., who told me that leaving the door open was "a company policy" designed to invite customers inside.

The manager admitted that he knew his store was breaking the law. "We actually do get ticketed, but we do it anyway," he said. When I pressed for further information, the manager told me that his store has been fined more than once this summer, but said that he wasn't allowed to disclose the exact number of times.

"We get people in here every day" asking about the open entrance, he stated, adding that the policy was the result of a decision by the company's president. "It's either my head or his."

I thanked the manager and continued on my way. Within 10 minutes, I was confronted by a familiar sight.

I snapped this photograph of a different L'Occitane store on Broadway which had not one, but two doors open and was virtually vomiting AC out onto the sidewalk.

This time, the manager was not nearly as cooperative. When I pointed out that his store's wide-open doors were wasting AC, he responded with an uncaring shrug. "So?"

After deflecting a couple probing questions about the cost-benefit analysis of being an environmental villain (e.g., "Do you think you sell enough overpriced body lotions to make up for the dozens of dollars you waste every hour by leaving your doors open?"), the manager had had enough.

"I don't think I'm interested in answering any more of your questions," he responded before he ordered me to have a nice day.

And so went most of the conversations I had with defensive store managers who, torn between breaking the law and violating company policy, had chosen the greater of the two evils. But at one store, I was in for a surprise.

I marched into Theory and began my usual routine, asking the manager whether she was aware that her store's door was open.

"It is? We don't usually have our door open when it's like 1000 degrees," she replied with genuine concern. "Let me go close it for you."

Gabe Grand is an editorialist for PolicyMic who fights climate change one door at a time.

Follow @gabethegrand

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