Friday, September 19, 2008

A bright idea: Flint planners want to use wind power to light up Buckham Alley

by Elizabeth Shaw | The Flint Journal
Thursday September 18, 2008, 4:23 PM

FLINT, Michigan -- Chicago might be the Windy City, but Flint could put its own "green" spin on the phrase, with an innovative downtown lighting system powered by wind.

The Flint Downtown Development Authority is working with Rowe Professional Services Co. on ideas to reenergize Buckham Alley and Riverbank Park as vital nighttime spaces. The plan is still in the conceptual stage, but a fundamental element would be after-dark lighting powered by urban wind turbines.

"How it'll all look is still up in the air. But part of the overall concept is to fit in this idea of alternative energy," said Shaun Smakal, a graduate landscape architect at Rowe. "These ideas would cost more upfront but over time would reduce maintenance costs and demands on energy, making the project more economically sustainable in the long run."  It's the latest in Flint's growing green makeover -- including a proposed Swedish biogas plant, a fuel cell incubator at Kettering University and the Chevy Volt engine plant expected to break ground this year.

"There are those who say 'green' is just the big buzz word for now and it will go away, but that's nonsense," said Larry Ford, the DDA's chief operating officer. "We have to get away from the absolute total insanity of dependence on foreign oil. This is one more way of doing that and every little piece helps."

A feasibility study would come first, with meters set up at various heights and locations, to assess the energy-generating capacity of Flint's downtown winds. 

"We're really starting to see the fruits of the labor of all this new downtown development. We can ill-afford to let our infrastructure languish in the 19th and 20th century in the face of all that," said Ford.

Unlike the familiar "wind farm" pedestal turbines, urban designs are typically configured for walls or rooftops. The turbines and the lights they power would themselves be a visual element of the new cityscape.

"Think of the Citizens Bank weather ball or the Capitol Theatre marquee -- well-lit focal points people can recognize from a distance away. We want to capture that kind of highly visible artistic element to help frame the alleyway as sort of a downtown district in itself," said Smakal.

"It's more than a lighting project. It's a wholesale improvement of the alleyway and riverfront," said Doug Schultz, Rowe's director of landscape architecture. "It's a high-profile element that grabs people's interest. We're looking to make Flint a model for this type of work. It's a whole big picture beyond just a biogas plant."

The alley and park design is an extension of the DDA's $7.5-million parking ramp project now underway at Kearsley Street, Beach Street and Buckham Alley. 

"We wanted to create a grand plan that helps connect businesses and pedestrians from downtown into Riverfront Park, and to activate those spaces with people," said Schultz. "Everyone's familiar with the arches on Saginaw Street, and we want to leave that as the historically lit corridor. Buckham would have its own unique look with color and lighting elements that are more eclectic." 

The Riverbank Park redesign would be approached in quadrants on each side of the river at Saginaw Street, Smakal said. The main goals would be to soften the existing hard-edged concrete geometry with wood and plantings, and to open up the access and view from the street and surrounding properties.

"I'm a microwave guy. I'd like to have it all tomorrow. But you've got to creep before you crawl and crawl before you walk," said Ford. "Right now we don't even have a bottom line dollar figure attached to this and I woudn't even hazard a guess what the total cost might be. 

"But we're hopeful and feel good enough about it to start talking about it now. My guess is the thing will firm itself up by spring of next year. In the intervening time we'll be talking to some people hopefully interested in helping us fund this operation."

No comments: