Downtown New London, Connecticut is a well-kept secret. Passengers who arrive at the handsome Romanesque Amtrak railroad station, built in 1887, are often on their way somewhere else. The building (nearly torn down by 1960s urban renewal) is attached to a Greyhound Bus terminal, which offers nine daily trips to the nearby and very popular Foxwoods casino.
An aerial view of downtown New London. That's the garage at bottom left. (Credit: Neff Productions)
But just up the hill from Union Station is Bank Street, the heart of downtown and once home to a thriving whaling community. There are the inevitable eighteenth century homes turned into pubs and coffee bars, but Bank Street has a lively, unpretentious feel. It's a very walk-able street. A centerpiece is the Hygienic Restaurant, not an eatery at all but an art gallery (though retaining the former restaurant's stools and formica table top, complete with smooth spots worn by coffee drinkers' elbows).
After a $700,000 restoration, the Hygienic was fully transformed into a gallery space with artists' cooperatively owned lofts above. It is, in short, a prime example of a smart city project. But like most of downtown New London it doesn't get enough foot traffic. Maybe a new green city project can change all that.
New London owns, and a company called Propark America operates, a four-story parking garage downtown with space for 1,200 cars. It fills up in the summer, when New London hosts frequent festivals, but is half empty in the winter.
Chip Bochain, who heads New London's parking commission, occupies an office that looks out on the garage, and he couldn't help noticing the rooftop expanse of concrete the size of a football field. "Suppose we put solar panels up there?" he asked himself. "Then we could put in charging stanchions for the electric cars everybody's starting to drive." Bochain liked the environmental connection, but he also thinks the publicity might bring people downtown.
The idea has legs, not the least because the garage happens to be managed by Joe Celli, an unlikely occupant of the job whose background is as one of the country's most innovative arts administrators. Celli recently transformed a decaying bank building in gritty Bridgeport, CT into the bustling Black Rock Arts Center, and sponsored regular seasons of free outdoor concerts in several cities.
"We're lucky that the garage faces south and there's nothing directly blocking its view," Celli says. "We're also talking about small wind generators that can be attached to the ledge of the building. We think it might be possible to operate the whole facility off the renewable energy from the roof, and even put electricity back into the grid." The next step is applying for a grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which subsidizes renewable energy projects.
Propark, a national chain with more than 400 outlets, likes the idea. If it's successful, it could be replicated across the country. And others have had similar thoughts. California's Envision Solar is seeking to raise almost $2 million to put solar panels on garages, and is also talking about electric car recharging. Solar parking has also been championed by Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla Motors. Google is into the idea, too. Silicon Valley's Applied Materials put a 2.1-megawatt system over its lot.
Why did it take so long for this really smart green concept to get off the ground? It's time to let the sunshine in.
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