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Rochester, N.Y. Plans ’Green’ Parking Garage

Mon December 20, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

There are “green garages” that use green building methods and there are green garages with trees and plants growing on top. The rebuild on Rochester’s nearly 50 year old Civic Center Plaza parking garage embraces both colorful approaches using stimulus funding, in part, to help repair the aging structure.

The former concrete slab is becoming the city’s only downtown open air park.

Rochester’s Civic Center Plaza parking garage, built in the mid-1960’s, was never anything to write home about. While cars parked underground, the four acre site above the vehicles — bordered on two sides by county and city buildings, — was a vast sea of sterile concrete, punctuated by a few flag poles.

The plaza, where offices served the city and county’s criminal justice system was devoid of purpose. Just walking across that wide expanse of nothingness was enough to make a person feel uncomfortable.

Courtesy of $4.7 million in stimulus funding, an $8.7 million dollar rebuild is now under way. The new Civic Center parking garage will morph to become a downtown park (in Flower City) where visitors can sit, enjoy the trees and flowers, benefit from high-tech lighting, and be able to navigate up or onto Exchange Street directly from the park.

Of the four-acre site, 2.4 acres will be devoted to paths, trees, sedums, flowers and places to sit. Built to support occasional service vehicles and ambulances, the park will combine nature and utility. Beneath the greenery, parking goes on as usual minus the serious roof leaks that spawned the transformation from slab to grass.

The grand opening of the new Civic Center garage and Rochester’s only downtown park is scheduled for fall of 2011. The ribbon cutting will signal how thinking outside the box brought the possibilities of taking sixties architecture designed to hide the automobile and make something new out of it to benefit pedestrians.

Rethinking the conventional archetype of an underground garage has been the work of Monroe County’s engineering department. Joe Cardinali, Monroe County project manager explained, “There was a grid over the whole area. Every 18-inches there was a pipe buried under those pavers. All those pipes were connected to a heat exchanger. It was designed to take heat from steam and heat up an antifreeze solution. It would then be pumped through the pipes. The goal was that the ice would melt and people could walk around the plaza year around.”

Did the elaborate plan work?

“In the 17 years I’ve been here I have never seen it in use,” he said. “It may never have been used.”

The pipes did contribute to the serious leaks that are now being addressed.

“Unfortunately those pipes — so many penetrations — were also the source of the leaks.”

Uncovering a Secret Past?

As workers removed the top structural layer of the parking garage, Cardinali said it became apparent that there may have been other plans afoot when the plaza was first built; there is no written documentation remaining to back that up.

Cardinali said that as they uncovered the old roof, tearing through pavers and asphalt to the surface below, they began to see structural evidence that when it was built, planners may have imagined the space to be used as a public square for the city of Rochester.

He said that some structural details indicate the probability of a plan to bridge across Exchange Street to another building that was never built. Also a large number of tie-backs in several locations indicate that there might have been plans for the space to hold a stage. This too never happened.

Other than the roof leaks the building is structurally sound and well built, according to the manufacturer. Located at ground zero in the city’s downtown area, there is an urban legend that the Civic Center garage was built to afford considerable shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

An Unusual Project

On obtaining stimulus funding to help pay for the makeover Cardinali said, “They liked our plan especially well because we were giving people access to and from the park from Exchange Street.”

In its original mid-1960s design there was a large set of stairs built for that purpose, but it was blocked by a wall, so this approach was never realized.

The Green Innovation Grant Program supports up to 90 percent of eligible project costs for water conservation measures and for energy-efficient technologies for drinking water and clean water infrastructure. Projects include implementation of water conservation strategies, storm water management and making streets environmentally friendly.

By becoming greener, the structure is estimated to use 15 percent less electricity. The vegetation also may reduce the temperature around the plaza, which will make the area more pleasant, and reduce cooling loads in the buildings slightly.

In addition to sophisticated light-emitting diodes, which are energy-efficient and long-lasting, the new green garage has a major staircase to the plaza from the street. In the grand staircase to the green garage park, stones are quarried in North Carolina for a rougher surface providing better grip during the city’s intrepid winters. All pavers recovered during demolition will be re-used here and at other county sites.

“We’ve run into some bad concrete, but there haven’t been any real surprises,” said Cardinali. “Our original thought was simply to fix the leaky roof and save the taxpayer’s money. Then we thought, if we have to replace the roof, why not do something green and help pedestrians get away from traffic?”

Monroe County agreed to give $9.8 million for the project. Then grant proposals went out looking for stimulus funding. As the plan came together the costs were rising.

“We applied for $6.6 million,” Cardinali explained. “Our consultants worked hard on tight deadlines because plans had to be in place by January 2010.”

He said the green roof was ultimately not much more money than simply replacing the leaky pavers.

“This is not your typical roof. You can drive up on this one. We have to bring heavy equipment up on the roof for maintenance occasionally and, possibly, for safety reasons.”

“Even though the whole state only had $35 million set aside for stimulus funding, they liked our plan so much they gave us $4.7 million towards the total cost,” Cardinali said.

The federal funding comes through the Green Innovation Grant Program in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Other green features are the plans for collecting rainwater to water the vegetation. Water used for insecticides, fertilizers and ice melt crystals will have to be separated from water used to water the growing park features. Water normally sent into the city’s sewer system will be harvested and funneled into tanks to keep the roof top garden green instead.

Dwarf ornamental trees will be used, no taller than 10 feet.

“We don’t want anything that will clutter up sight lines, Cardinali said. “The park is near the Hall of Justice, so you want open space so people who are not getting along won’t feel confined. Plus deputies need open views.”

He said there are even considerations being given to avoid the possibility of weapons being hidden in the bushes. No swings or dog walks here. This park serves an especially surveillance intense neighborhood.

Tearing It Up From the Top Down

Crane Hogan is the general contractor on the greener garage. Efforts to recycle all materials in this project embrace modern green building practices. As the layers of pavers, sand, and inches of concrete were removed, workers finally got to the roof so that it could be removed and replaced. Due to careful timing, very little disturbance affected the income-producing, parking areas in the Civic Center garage beneath. CEG

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