Monday, December 10, 2007

Going Green in Harlem


Going Green in Harlem
Posted on December 8, 2007 by hermanwong

The limestone bricks of the four-story townhouse at 459 West 140th Street have faded to a muted brown and gray. Its windows have been boarded or cemented shut with cinder blocks, the front entrance is shuttered with a metal gate, and its locks are a rusty green. The weeds springing from the cracked steps are the only signs of life. To pedestrians, the abandoned house reeks of decay, but change is coming.

The owners of the townhouse, the Harlem-based environmental group West Harlem Environmental Action, or WE ACT, have ambitious plans to make the 19th century house into a 21st century center for environmentalism. Eco-friendly buildings have sprung up throughout the city, but often at addresses far south of Harlem. WE ACT’s new headquarters, to be called the Environmental Justice Center of New York, will bring Harlem its first green non-profit community center when it opens in 2009, and only the second green building in West Harlem (the other is a residential complex). But instead of another monument to the Toyota Prius school of environmentalism — where buying green products and going carbon neutral has become the latest in lifestyle choice — the converted townhouse aspires to reflect the unique concerns of environmental activism in West Harlem, where warding off climate change takes a back seat to the more immediate realities of pollution and health.

“At every turn we make an effort to make sure people understand we’re not doing this because it’s chic and the green thing of the moment to be doing,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, 37, WE ACT’s director of programs. “We understand that this community is literally struggling to breathe because of all the diesel bus depots or the sewage treatment plant or whatever else is in the neighborhood.”

The plans for the new headquarters promise to bring the latest in green technologies to Harlem. The roof features a system to collect rainwater for reuse in the building, saving water. The glass atrium channels light inside while a geothermal heating and cooling system keeps the facility at a moderate temperature, cutting power consumption. An energy efficient elevator carries visitors to the two new floors, which expand the house from its current size of slightly over 6,000 square feet to 7,100 square feet.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of the local community board, welcomed the new building. “It’s a good example of what our constituency can do to be green,” Reyes-Montblanc said. “We hope [WE ACT] can be copied by more people.”

WE ACT took title of the townhouse in 2004 from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The cost of construction is estimated at between $2.5 to $2.7 million, with raised $1.2 million so far. Most of the money has come from current and former elected officials with Harlem connections, such as former borough president C. Virginia Fields and council member Robert Jackson. WE ACT is still reaching out to officials and also residents.

In Harlem, environmental activism often rises from health concerns. New York City’s asthma rate has always been higher than the national average, but residents of Harlem face a more severe problem. In 2005 the Harlem Hospital Center found that the disease afflicted nearly a third of the children under 13 that it tested within a 60-block radius, twice the national average.

WE ACT believes the high asthma rate comes from the poor air quality in the neighborhood, and has waged air pollution campaigns against the local sewage treatment plant and fought New York City’s transportation authority over the number of bus depots – six of the city’s seven – in Northern Manhattan.

The environmental group will connect the new building to the realities of people living in the community, Corbin-Mark said. It hired Harlem-based AQC Architects, an architectural firm, for the design, and wishes to use local workers in the construction. The center will have non-toxic materials and paints so that visitors with certain allergies and chemical sensitivities can breath easier. There will be youth center and a library shelved with books on the environment and health. The building’s innovative technology and design, from the rainwater collection system and solar panels to the central light shaft that will bring in natural light, will be models of conservation and an environmentally friendly living space in Harlem.

“LEED Gold doesn’t mean anything to most residents in Harlem,” said, Corbin-Mark, who has lived his entire life at Convent Avenue and West 142nd Street, two blocks from WE ACT’s townhouse. “But if you say this building will reduce the number of asthma attacks that your kids have when they come here, that makes sense to them.”

Betty Case, 67, who has lived for 43 years in an apartment half a block from the proposed site of the new center, had heard of WE ACT, but was not aware of the coming headquarters. Case doesn’t know anything about green buildings or much about global warming. “It has something to do with the weather, right,” Case said. But she is open-minded about the center. “If it’s going to improve the neighborhood, I think it’s nice,” Case said.

The house has been abandoned since the 1980s and looks it. Bordering the campus of City College of New York, the townhouse at present is as far from green as imaginable. Fragments of plaster cover the floors, a shelf of disheveled books sits long untouched and dusty, and a shopping cart rests by the living room fireplace. The only light filters down from the hole where the roof collapsed in the back of the house.

WE ACT plans to restore what it can. To earn the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, WE ACT will reuse all salvageable materials to produce less garbage. And a preservation motive will ensure the façade and the existing fireplaces and skylight will be part of the new center.

“We don’t want to rob the historic character of this building in our effort to make this a 21st century facility and office,” Corbin-Mark said. “We are committed that what is part of the historical fabric of Harlem is still preserved as well.”

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