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Environmental > Stir It Up

Inside the loop

What greening is in store for Detroit's Cultural Center

 

Published 6/23/2010

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Right smack dab in the middle of town
I've found a paradise that's trouble proof
—"Up on the Roof" by Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Standing on the roof at 71 Garfield St. on a recent late afternoon, the sun beat down mercilessly on our small group and reflected off the white rubber roofing enough to make me wish I had sunglasses and a tall, cool drink. It was intolerably hot up there. But all that sunlight was a very good thing as we viewed and discussed some 1,800 square feet of photovoltaic grid using sunlight to generate electricity for the building. We also checked out part of the solar water heating system that raises a solution inside pipes to well above 100 degrees before it's pumped to the basement to heat water inside 200-gallon water heaters.

Although the bricks were brown, we were touring this green building during its grand opening in Midtown between Woodward Avenue and the Medical Center.

In my last column I wrote about the Midtown Loop, a greenway pedestrian-bike path under construction in the Cultural Center-Medical Center-Wayne State University area. This week, I step inside the loop to look at some of the development taking place there.

Between Woodward and John R, 71 Garfield St. is something of a showpiece for green development in the black residential-entertainment district established in the 1940s as Sugar Hill.

"The most important thing is that it's a demonstration of what's possible," says Diane Van Buren, a green sustainability consultant at Zachary and Associates, the developer behind the project. "The building could have easily been demolished, but instead, because it was integral to developing a link in the district, it was important to preserve. Then it became about more than preservation but about how to use green elements."

In addition to the solar display up on the roof, a trip to the basement reveals a maze of pipes — the visible section of a geothermal unit that will heat the building. A system of pipes dives 270 feet into the ground where the temperature is a constant 51 degrees. A solution is pumped through the pipes to deliver heat in the winter and coolness during the summer. With 51 degrees as a starting point, you get a leg up on heating and cooling costs. The solar and geothermal units will cut energy use by about half from more traditional heating and cooling systems.

Other green practices used in the building include using recycled materials, such as doors and the hardwood floor in the lobby, that were found at the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit. The lighting system uses natural light, LEDs and light sensors to keep electricity use down. A rooftop water collection system feeds a 3,000-gallon cistern that will irrigate a green walkway along side of the building.

"It's innovative and different," says visitor Melvin Clayton. "I certainly hope it can be successful."

Clayton is the co-owner of a New Center building that's to be converted into apartments. He was there to check out the geothermal system as a possibility for his building. "I'm looking at options," he says. "In the long term it's certainly a very cost-effective way to do it, but I've got to look at all the variables."

Putting these systems together is costly. The building's renovations ran about $7 million — with the lion's share going to more traditional brick-and-mortar-type construction costs. However, Van Buren says that tax incentives, rebates and grants cut about $3 million off the bill. The solar and geothermal systems — about $300,000, thanks to the incentives and other fiscal boosts — should pay for themselves in three years. Zachary and Associates intends to post the ongoing energy use and cost data on the sugarhilldetroit.com website.

But what's the purpose of all this beyond feeling virtuously green? 71 Garfield is envisioned as an artists' studio and loft building. There are 20 units (one and two bedrooms) to rent at rates around $600 for smaller units and $900 for the larger ones. There are no utility charges and there's free Wi-Fi throughout the building. Several artists were already in residence during the opening events, including architect Quin Evans, photographer Marvin Shaouni and fiber artist Sheila Palmer, who had responded to a call to create your dream loft last year. There are spaces for retail on the ground level, and a tea shop named SocraTea, featuring 40 different teas, is slated for the first floor.

There's a bigger vision at work here. 71 Garfield is just across the street from MOCAD and behind the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Arts. The greenway on the east side of 71 Garfield will lead to the N'Namdi Center, a gallery owner George N'Namdi has been working on for years. It will have several galleries, including his own, a performance space, a wine bar, a new Seva restaurant, a gift shop, an outdoor sculpture garden and a patio cafe. Another pedestrian greenway will lead into the development from John R. When it's all done, the area should be a walkable, livable, green artists' enclave. In fact, the theme used at the opening events was art + GREEN = COOL

"Artists and green buildings work well together," says Van Buren. "Hopefully you won't even need a car, living and working in the same building and being close to the [coming] Woodward rail line."

She's got to hope so. The plan here is to tie in to other developments to really make this an arts-themed neighborhood. (Cool cities anyone?) There's a vacant lot just east of 71 Garfield (I referred to the area as "tattered" in my last column) where a residential-commercial-parking structure building is planned. Van Buren says the light rail line on Woodward will be up and running in 2012. There are sufficient grocery stores, produce markets and restaurants nearby. And, dare I say, in case of a medical emergency, the Medical Center is but one-half block away.

"This is our walkable district," says N'Namdi. "The Sugar Hill project really ups the ante for this area."

The neighborhood is a designated historic district, and the Sugar Hill theme drives the marketing. Jazz historian Jim Gallert gave a presentation on the area's past at the opening, and blues singer Alberta Adams joined the Planet D Nonet to perform classic and new blues in traditional big band style.

Checking all this out gave me a pick-me-up. After watching petroleum swirling around in the Gulf of Mexico the past couple of months, it's good to see something right here at home that shows some promise for a future that that could really cut down on our use of fossil fuels while helping to revive a neighborhood. 71 Garfield may not be entirely trouble-proof, but what they've got up on the roof is certainly a hedge against rising energy costs and polluting practices. Indeed, that's enough to get you to hum an old song and let all your cares "drift right into space."

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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