Hunts Point’s pioneering green roof

Sustainable South Bronx's green roof.

By Emily Taken-Vertz

Last year, the environmental organization Sustainable South Bronx planted a secret garden on the roof of the sprawling American Banknote building, which covers the better part of the block bounded by Tiffany and Barretto Streets and Garrison and Lafayette Avenues.

The rooftop resembles a weedy vacant lot rather than a flower bed, but it has placed Hunts Point at the center of a new environmental movement, aimed at cleaning up waterways and saving energy.

A 2,500 square foot section of the roof has been prepared for planting. Rows of black plastic containers no more than a couple of inches high hold a thin layer of soil from which large and small plants have sprouted. Called “green roofs,” such plantings have been sprouting in cities in Europe for some time, but have only recently begun to attract builders in North America.

Interest in green roofs rises

By Emily Taken-Vertz

When Sustainable South Bronx installed a green roof on the American Banknote building last October, it wanted to show New Yorkers what a green roof was like. Now it wants to help them create their own, as well as offering environmental education to high school students and job-training to residents.

This second phase of the Smart Roof Demonstration project will train workers to install and maintain green roofs and “cool roofs”— which use a reflective coating to bounce the sun’s rays back. And it will work personally with people who are interested in the idea of making their own roofs green.

“We are seeing a huge interest in this,” says Rob Craudereuff, project coordinator for the Green Roof Demonstration Project. “There are a lot of different steps in this process. It’s about helping people understand.”

The lack of background education and technical assistance are key factors in limiting interest in green roofs, Craudereuff argues.

Because the use of green roofs is not widespread in New York City, it is difficult to estimate how much energy they might save by reducing the need for air conditioning, or what impact their widespread use would have on air pollution and global warming, Craudereuff admits.

He points, however, to the research the Smart Roof Demonstration Project has done in preparation for its education program. Its findings will soon be presented to the city, in a letter to the mayor, as a set of policy recommendations, backed by findings on what 16 cities have done, including Toronto, Chicago, Portland, and Berlin.

“We’re not doing anything new,” Craudereuff said, noting the gains made by cities around the world that have aggressively supported green roofs.

The City Council is particularly interested in green roofs because they are being used in other parts of the country, said Peter Washburn, a spokesman for Councilman James Gennaro, chair of the council’s environmental protection committee. But he added that passing legislation on green policy is a lot more complicated than it may seem.

“Ultimately this issue has to be a combination of community desire and government assistance,” Washburn said, adding that the councilman is optimistic that the mayor’s advisory board on sustainable policy, set up this summer within the new Office of Sustainability, will recommend green technology.

A growing number of environmentalists and policy-makers view green roofs as a piece of the puzzle in efforts to find ways to relieve the strain that city life puts on the natural world.

They make buildings cooler, reducing the need for energy-guzzling air-conditioning; they cut down on air pollution; they attract birds; and they hold the potential to clean up streams and rivers.

Their impact on waterways may be their most important contribution, proponents of green roofs say, because it holds out the potential to save billions of dollars that would otherwise have to be invested in managing or treating sewage.

When it rains, water has only two places to go. It can be absorbed by soil and the roots of plants, in parks, gardens and the like, or it can run down the city’s streets into the sewers. Newer cities have separate pipes for storm water and what we flush down our toilets, but in older cities, like New York, the runoff and the sewage mix together.

Frequently during storms, the city’s water treatment plants become overwhelmed and are unable to clean up the water as fast as it comes in. The overflow of sewage and storm water is diverted past treatment facilities and rushes straight into the waterways, along with litter, oil and antifreeze that leaks from cars onto streets, and, in Hunts Point, the industrial chemicals used in the area’s many auto wrecking shops and small factories.

Among the schemes for dealing with the 25 billion to 40 billion gallons of sewage and storm water that are estimated to flow into the city’s streams and rivers each year was a plan to build a huge underground storage chamber on the banks of the Bronx River south of 177th Street. Up to four million gallons of storm water would be held in the chamber, to be pumped later to the Hunts Point Water Pollution Control Plant on the East River at Coster Street and Ryawa Avenue.

The Department of Environmental Preservation scrapped the expensive plan two years ago after concluding that it would provide no more than “limited benefits.” But the city’s current plans continue to call for spending $1.5 billion to capture storm water and to increase the capacity of sewage treatment plants to handle it.

Environmentalists have ridiculed the city’s approach, saying it fails to deal with the real root of the overflow problem: too much water rushing down streets for the system to deal with.

Building more holding tanks and upgrading sewage plants is like trying to deal with crime by building more jails or with traffic by building more highways, said Daniel Simon from the Gaia Institute, a Bronx-based not-for-profit organization devoted to environmental research.

An extensive network of green roofs, complemented by more plantings along roads and highways would deal with storm water nature’s way, many environmentalists contend.

Plantings capture, retain and filter water just as treatment plants do, but nature does this for free. Trees quickly suck up storm water and move it to the atmosphere through evaporation. The city could potentially save billions by reinforcing these natural processes, these environmentalists argue.

The Bronx has led the way in the city’s early steps toward a greener agenda. Following the lead of Sustainable South Bronx’s green roof on the Banknote building, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. unveiled a new green roof atop the Bronx County Courthouse in September. The County Courthouse project is the first green roof managed by the New York City Department of Citywide Administration Services and only the second on any city-owned building. Fourteen other green roofs in the Bronx have been funded through the borough president’s Bronx Initiative for Energy and Environment.

The Bronx is also the only borough to offer tax incentives, along with a New York State green building tax credit, for investing in green technology. And Carrion has used part of a $7 million grant from the State Power Authority toward creating a $2 million dollar revolving loan fund that makes interest-free loans for energy-saving improvements, including green roofs.

“Green roofs are really an emerging science and art, and they’re important,” Carrion told the Hunts Point Express. Testifying before a joint hearing of the City Council’s environmental protection and economic development committees on Nov. 14, he outlined a four-point plan, including increased tax benefits and education, to encourage green development in New York City.

“We have to make the process of green roofs and buildings easy,” he urged.

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