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Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Civilization and its discontents
Topic: environment

I had a great ride through Scottsville, Rush, and Henrietta yesterday. It was almost as if my bike took over and was steering me down the Genesee Valley Greenway and then over to the Lehigh Valley Trail; but if that’s so, it’s because the bicycle is the kind of natural machine that seems animated, in the most basic sense of the word – ensouled, if I may take back a word from the perverted vocabulary of the anti-abortionists. Yes, there’s some element of soul-force, to borrow a word from Gandhi, that is translated into pure motion.

Not that my ride was totally transcendent. I found challenges to the spirit here and there. First, the Greenway is still suffering from an “improvement” made some time ago: the surface, an old cinder railbed from which the rails and ties had been removed many years ago, was scraped down to remove a shallow accumulation of dirt, grass and weeds. The scraping not only removed some soft material that cushioned the ride; it also dislodged many clinkers that had been long buried. The latter, some of them big as a fist, now litter several miles of the trail south of Ballantyne Road. And this makes for a bouncy ride, even if you’re using wide tires.

I’m not complaining too much. I understand that the Greenway depends on volunteers and member donations, and it’s tough for even the best organization to keep up with the demands of a 90-mile trail. But I wonder about transportation priorities. For state and local government, trail maintenance and upgrade costs would be a drop in the bucket, compared to what’s spent on highways and streets – yet it’s like pulling teeth to get adequate funding for trails and other non-motorized facilities. (An egregious example: despite its high reputation, the Greenway still lacks a vital bridge over a railyard just south of the airport. This lack forces riders out onto Scottsville Road, whose heavy truck traffic and general scuzziness will intimidate many inexperienced cyclists.)

Later in my ride, I came to a sign just off Fishell Road that said a central portion of the Lehigh Valley Trail would be closed between late May and early July. Here you have another common predicament: a trail declared off-limits precisely at the time it would draw the most users. Okay, there’s construction going on. But if work gets behind schedule, as frequently happens, the trail could be out of service for practically the whole summer. If situations like this come up on the highways, strings get pulled and things are taken care of fast – but if you’re talking about a trail, like, who cares?

The rest of my day continued these themes. Back in the city at last, I went to a meeting at the Monroe Y about the latest plan to plunk a new Rite-Aid on the corner of Monroe Avenue and South Goodman Street. Somehow the developer has gotten City Hall to cave, and soon we could see the Monroe Theater, all but its façade, get bulldozed, along with the three-dozen-unit apartment building at the corner. And what would we get in partial compensation? Another freakin’ big box drugstore and gobs of parking spaces. Not too long ago, Buckingham Properties, a ubiquitous developer, wanted to restore the theater as a performing arts space and complement it with new residential units and storefronts. The plan had the backing of neighborhood activists, too. Now the city has told the activists and preservationists to get lost. Well, some cities these days are greening; Rochester, under the increasingly dubious Duffy administration, seems to just be courting the green stuff – that is, City Hall now views any investment in urban neighborhoods as inherently good, no matter how dumb or ugly the project, or how much social and financial disinvestment it will ultimately produce.

Speaking of which, did you see that Buckingham Properties, in its new manifestation, tore down the former Raj Mahal building, an 19th century brick and frame structure on the northeast corner of Monroe and Alexander? The screwballs don’t even have a construction plan for this add-on to the Genesee Hospital demolition-derby; they were just clearing the site and are now angling for proposals. The poor corner has lost the last of its urban character. The four corners sport a utilitarian fire station, a Dunkin’ Donuts, an Arby’s, and a pile of rubble. Thanks for nothing, BuckProp.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 23:00 EDT
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Sunday, 13 May 2007
Wrongs of spring
Topic: environment

News comes that Wilmorite has teamed up with Rochester Institute of Technology to bring light unto the darkness of Jefferson Road. Now there’s a corporate marriage made in heaven, or more likely in a location due south.

The happy couple, which share prime responsibility for the long decline of the Genesee River-Red Creek watershed along the Brighton-Henrietta border, have launched a so-called “Collegetown” on 60 acres (now owned by Wilmorite) at the northeast corner of the campus, near the corner of Jefferson, John Street and B-H Town Line Road.

On May 1, as if to heap dirt on the very notion of spring as natural rebirth, the heavy equipment arrived to put the long-gestated plan into action. Within a few days, what remained of fallow pastures, including some significant hardwood stands, had been scraped clean of life.

It was sickening to see the rich soil bulldozed into high berms along Jefferson Road, soil that had been untouched for decades and thus was ripe for real development - as, say, part of an organic educational farm or a wetlands study area.

All over academia these days, you hear pious talk about “sustainability.” Collegetown is just one piece of evidence that in institutional terms, this is just hot air, the moral equivalent of a greenhouse gas.

A sheaf of permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation will minimally protect some of the beautiful wetlands on the Collegetown site – I say minimally because the uplands, paved and chemically landscaped, will feed a steady diet of toxic substances into whatever wet areas remain. Instead of being preserved as habitat for amphibians, reptiles, waterfowl and small mammals, the wet areas will turn into mere retention ponds.

You can see the result at the fringes of Marketplace mall or at RIT right now. The other day on campus, I passed a roadside “pond” that occasionally attracts geese and ducks; the water was a deep, almost painterly blue-green – I assume this was the result of run-off from the sports arena just uphill. (You often see the chemicalized ice scrapings from the arena piled at the edge of a nearby parking lot.)

I should also mention that the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency is providing $7.9 million in tax breaks over the next ten years for the project. In a recent Democrat and Chronicle story, reporter Matt Daneman repeated a claim that Collegetown “is expected” (by whom?) to pump $10 million in tax revenue into local government coffers over the same period. Daneman made no attempt to figure if some or all of that $10 million would have been collected anyway. And he certainly made to attempt to discover what the manifold value(s) of a 60-acre preserve might be – over many decades, and well beyond dollars and cents.

Some are claiming that Collegetown will bring energy benefits by offering RIT students and staff an alternative to driving down Jefferson Road for a burger and fries. But the site is a long haul from the action – roughly a half mile from even the nearest portion of the RIT/NTID building complex. So most of the target patrons will end up driving over there anyway. Besides, there’s plenty of room within the developed areas of the campus for the kind of services Collegetown will provide. But of course, putting services there, within a pedestrian framework, won’t put cash into the Wilmorite account.

Such a shame. The Collegetown site had so many green possibilities until the white-collar destroyers descended. All RIT and Wilmorite (and COMIDA) needed to do was nothing – that is, to leave the site alone. But they just had to get their hands dirty.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:37 EDT
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Tuesday, 13 March 2007
Wind mills - outstanding in their field, maybe not so good in yours
Topic: environment

On the way home from Montreal a few weeks ago, I stumbled on what’s billed as the largest windmill installation east of the Mississippi. Maybe “stumbled” is not quite the word. It felt like driving through a 21st century Oz, with 250-foot-high towers churning in every field, and route 177 seeming like a narrow ribbon indeed as it rose and fell, gradually descending toward Lowville, Lewis County.

The Maple Ridge Wind Farm, which eventually will have 190 wind towers and a generating capacity of some 300 megawatts, is no shrinking violet. The towers dominate the landscape completely, and the thousands of dollars in annual lease payments that go to local landowners for every operating tower have a decisive economic effect in this chronically depressed agricultural area.

On balance, I think Maple Ridge, which reportedly can meet the electricity needs of 60,000 homes, is a good thing for the North Country. Similarly, wind power will help the country as a whole, indeed the planet, do what’s necessary for minimizing the effects of global climate change. This form of power is about as clean as they come. But some questions remain.

As I read the official New York State wind maps (available from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, et al.), Maple Ridge is not optimally located. Unless the grand plan is to exploit every usable site, not just the best ones.

The wind resources on the northwestern fringe of the Tug Hill Plateau, measured in average wind speed and steadiness, are pretty good, as anyone who’s spent time there can attest. I’ve battled some very worthy Tug Hill winds on my bike trips, and to be fair, I’ve also coasted for many easy miles with such wind at my back. But the winds there are not the best New York has to offer.

For the really potent stuff, you have to go to the offshore areas of eastern Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, as well as off the south shore of Long Island. The next best resources are found in the Southern Tier, especially a small pocket northwest of Binghamton, and a few high mountain areas in the Catskills and Adirondacks. Northwest Lewis County doesn’t match up. So why has a major wind installation like Maple Ridge been sited where the wind doesn’t blow the strongest? (Please note: The Catskill/Adirondack Forest Preserve, and any spot within sight of it, must be kept free of wind farms. The state constitution’s “forever wild” does provide protection, but with a host of greedbags on the loose, you never know…)

I won’t try to answer this question fully right now, but I can say this much: Various siting problems flow from defects in the economy and the political process. Wind farms are located where private concerns decide to put them, helped before the fact by state agencies like NYSERDA, and (minimally) regulated after the fact by local governments. Private developers don’t just look at things like wind speeds; they also look for weak spots in the armor of regulatory bodies, etc. They love nothing better than a small town or rural with a sagging economy, high unemployment, and few options. And among the things they avoid like the plague are lakeside scenic mountain communities with high concentrations of well-positioned weekenders and political influence.

I believe that if public, democratically-controlled entities were in the driver’s seat – and crucially, if localities directly ran the siting process and owned and managed the windmills – we’d see less friction and controversy and more rational siting decisions. Look for this angle to be developed further in upcoming posts, including one I’m working on about a windfarm proposed for farmland in western Monroe County.



Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:12 EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 13 March 2007 21:14 EDT
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Thursday, 25 May 2006
Olmsted, wear your earplugs
Topic: environment
Much is made of Americans’ petroleum addiction. And that’s a good first step toward reforming the addict. But why don’t more people talk about the companion vices – brute force and dominance and the swaggering loudness that goes with them?

I thought about this while taking a little experimental jaunt yesterday to Genesee Valley Park, towing my canoe by bicycle. (My Dahon folder is just the right height for a workable hitch to an Instep brand kids trailer.) The weather was beautiful. People were all over the Genesee River Trail and the park lawns, especially south of Elmwood Avenue, and several women’s crews were rowing downstream like mad. Everything went according to plan, and I had a fine time, even when occasional stiff gusts made “rounding the Horn” from the river into the Erie Canal a little tricky.

But along with the wonderful sensations of late-afternoon sun and warm breezes came the usual outbreak of an environmental plague: machine noise. As most of you know, Genesee Valley Park is severed by I-390, which crosses the Genesee above the canal-river intersection. There was a political battle decades ago over this stretch of expressway. One side saw completion of the Outer Loop as essential to “modernizing” our local transportation “infrastructure.” The other side understood that the project (as well as the jargon used to justify it) was yet more evidence of corporate-driven loopiness.

Eventually a compromise was reached: The x-way was built through Brighton farmlands and GV Park, and the bridge was thrown across the river; and on the other end of the scale, minimalist sound barriers were attached to the bridge and the multi-use Canal Trail got built. In other words, the compromise was typical of such things in Petro-Amerika: the horsepower guys got everything they wanted, and the environment got a couple token “enhancements.”

So now, and effectively forever, the park will suffer night-and-day assaults from traffic noise – so much so that offensive sounds from the county airport nearby hardly make a difference.

What would Frederick Law Olmsted do? The social visionary who designed Genesee Valley Park couldn’t have anticipated the psychic horrors of modern machine noise – he probably thought the loudest thing heard there would be the patter of hooves – but he knew the terrain.

As Transportation Alternatives (TA), a NY City-based group pointed out a few years ago, Olmsted believed his masterpiece, Central Park, “should present an aspect of spaciousness and tranquility...thereby affording the most agreeable contrast to the confinement, bustle, and monotonous street division of the city." Concepts like tranquility and protection from "bustle" fit the TA agenda perfectly: It was November 1999, and the rgoup was observing – mourning - the 100th anniversary of the automobile’s first appearance in Central Park. TA is still pushing for a car-free park and making some headway against blasts of hot air from the usual lobbies.

You can’t stop me from dreaming of a car-free Genesee Valley Park, starting with the ground-level park roads, which are defiled by motor vehicles (including some substantial trucks) making shortcuts. But the dream will mean little if I-390 is left to pour out its noise and filth.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 12:20 EDT
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Sunday, 12 March 2006
Water and sprawl: the pipes are calling
Topic: environment
You may have read in City Newspaper this past week about a new report the local Sierra Club just released on water systems and their relation to sprawl. The report is part of an ongoing Club educational initiative about the potential downside of the Monroe County Water Authority’s geographical expansion of service.

The report’s premise, one long promoted by activist and Club officer Hugh Mitchell, is that extension of infrastructure encourages developers to tear up farmlands and woods for new subdivisions and malls. The evidence is all around us, unfortunately.

The City item leaves out some basic information; for one thing, it neglects to say that I wrote the report for the Club. More seriously, there’s no response from the Water Authority. Also, the URL for the Club website, where the report is now available, was left out.

So for the full scoop, go to - you’ll find the link on the homepage. And while you’re surfing, check out the whole environmental picture, including other items about sprawl, at the area’s premier eco-site,

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:14 EST
Updated: Sunday, 12 March 2006 14:15 EST
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