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Apr 25

The Greening Of Ypsilanti

Comments (4) 1:00 PM posted by admin |

Just as calculus was developed independently by both Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century, the idea of a solar-powered Ypsilanti, too, has its genesis as two distinct ideas.

On March 13th, City Council was given a presentation by Honeywell wherein the City could save a significant amount of money in energy costs provided we took out a loan in the amount of $3.1M in order to pay for it all. The idea, called performance contracting, is that by making City buildings more energy efficient, guaranteed savings can be had as the result of using less energy after all upgrades have been implemented. In addition, less maintenance may be required to facilities generating even more potential savings. Honeywell has implemented this program with many other customers such as Eastern Michigan University, the City of Livonia, Mt. Pleasant Public Schools, the City of Mount Clemens, and Wayne State University among others.


The presentation (which may be found HERE [WARNING: 30Mb) detailed improvements such as lighting upgrades, low-flush toilets, window replacement, HVAC replacement, weatherstripping, and caulking. What the project did not include were alternative energies as part of the solution. My 3rd Ward colleague, Council Member Brian Filipiak, and myself both mentioned the success of the Ypsi Food Co-Op as an example of alternative solutions at play in Ypsilanti.

Unbeknownst to both Council Member Filipiak and myself was that local solar folk hero, Dave Strenski, had set up a meeting with the mayor to discuss placing solar panels on the south-facing wall of City Hall. THIS was Dave’s first draft of the project. It called for thirty-seven 51″ X 35″ panels. It was then updated and expanded to include sixty-eight panels at a cost of $90K.

Director of Public Works head, Bill Bohlen, quickly organized a meeting between Honeywell, Mr. Strenski, and those from Council who wished to attend. It was productive. Honeywell even suggested they may be able to donate the panels to the City provided they could reap the PR benefits such a project would produce. Realistically, it would be borderline insane for the City to spend money on the project because the payback is so slow. The money would be better spent on insulation than it would be on alternative energies. However, the public relations impact this could have on the City of Ypsilanti would be immeasurable. If Chicago can transform itself from the hog-butcher to the world to a Green City, then Ypsilanti can too. We should be advertising Ypsilanti, and this should be part of that goal.

That’s where you people enter the picture.

The City Hall solar panel project was quickly branded the Ypsilanti People’s Solar Initiative because acronymns are the key to everything. I wondered out loud if we could raise money for the project by asking community members to kick in some cash.

City Planner and private citizen, Richard Murphy, took the fundraising a step further. He created a PledgeBank page committing to donate $50 to the project if 200 other people do the same. In a little more than a week, 13 people have signed, pledging $650 towards the cost of the project.

Here’s where all of this gets tricky.

There is already a move afoot to kill this project. People are throwing around fighting words like “cheese-grater” as if this project would be similar to the old aluminum siding-covered façade the City spent $1.5M removing. Not only is that short-sighted thinking. It’s an affront to engineering.

Function is beauty.

The Historic District Commission would have to rule in favor of allowing this project to move forward. Despite being quite progressive, the HDC already ruled once against the Ypsi Food Co-Op putting solar panels on an exterior parapet wall. However, when you look out the window of your historically-plaqued home, you probably see power, telephone, and cable lines, satellite dishes, and other such ilk. Historically significant? I think not. Perfectly acceptable? Absolutely.

But the point here is not to go to war with the HDC. The point is to convince them this project does not contradict the tennents of historic preservation.

The story about how One South Huron came to become City Hall is better left to cynical, local historians, but it’s an excellent example of adaptive reuse. The original use of the structure (bank) was no longer required, so it’s primary use was transformed while retaining the architectural details that made the building so unique in the first place.


When it comes to the City Hall Solar Project, it should be noted this proposal calls for one row of solar panels on a wall that has only two windows. One could hardly argue this wall is “character-defining” or an architectural element to the building that should be retained at all costs. In fact, one would be hard pressed to make a substantial argument that the project would violate any of the HDC’s review criteria. Specifically, the project would:

  • not destroy the original character
  • preserve distinctive features
  • [contemporary designs shall ] be compatible and shall not destroy significant original material
  • [new work shall] be removable

The project has been scheduled to appear before the Historic District Commission on May 1st at 7PM in the lower meeting room at City Hall. I would encourage everyone to attend and show your support for this project. I would love to join you, but I have been temporarily banned.

But the most important thing to take away from all of this is that we need your money. Go to the YPSI Solar PledgeBank page and sign up. Do it. You don’t have to give any money now. Your pledge is entirely dependent upon reaching the goal of 200 other pledges.

You have nothing to lose, but everyone has something to gain.

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  1. Comment by brenda
    May 12, 2007 @ 7:58 pm

    RE: “The Greening of Ypsilanti”, Wednesday, April 25, 2007

    First, I should point out that the comments below are written as a private citizen, and I do not speak for the rest of the Historic District Commission by any means. Second, I am a preservation architect, with 10 years of experience, and I am LEED* certified, which means I have specialized training and experience in sustainable design, particularly energy efficiency.

    Your recent article unjustifiably characterized the City of Ypsilanti’s Historic District Commission as a roadblock to the “Greening” of City Hall via the installation of a solar panel array on the south side of the building. This project was presented as a “study item” at the HDC meeting of May 1. The Commission has not ruled out this project based on rigid preservation or aesthetic issues. To the contrary, the Commission is taking this opportunity to recognize that alternative energy generation will have an increasing impact on our urban landscape. We are currently studying how other historic districts and the State Historic Preservation Office are responding to requests for installation of solar panels and windmills. The goal of this research is to develop one of our “fact sheets” to guide residents and business in selecting appropriate installations.

    The article notes that the HDC denied an application from the Ypsilanti Food-Coop for installation of solar panels on the south parapet of the building. It does not report that the HDC approved and endorsed both phases of a roof top installation, to the point of writing supporting letters for grant applications. The concerns with the parapet installation were not only cosmetic, but structural. We are charged with protecting the physical integrity of the buildings in our district, not just façade appearances. In the case of the parapet installation, the existing parapet was in extremely poor condition and needed to be rebuilt. I was concerned not only with the load-bearing capacity of the parapet, but with the long-term effect of the inevitable winds loads that would result from the installation of a large, sail-like object.

    Similar material issues have yet to be resolved on the City Hall project. The installation of the numerous panels has the potential to cause deterioration to the existing masonry, which is considered soft in comparison to modern materials. A structural analysis of the existing wall’s bearing capacity and the proposed framework and attachment will likely be required. The number of panels in the installation seems irrelevant. I pointed out that we might as well have 60 as 10, and if the proposal were approved, it should be for the higher number. Let’s not make this a token installation, let’s do something that works. The issue is: should panels be in this location?

    A splendid argument can be made for using this space as a solar power demonstration project. However, a demonstration project should actually demonstrate something: in this case that solar-generated electricity is a viable alternative to the “grid”. This project fails. By Dave Strenski’s own calculations, the array would provide less than 2% of the annual electricity for City Hall. Even heavily subsidized, the project has a “less than 30-year” payback. This is not a wise investment for a financially strapped city. The returns would be higher with simple conservation measures.

    The HDC consistently practices a 360-degree review of district buildings. We are concerned with the entire site, not just the primary façade. In the case of City Hall, the south wall is prominently displayed to all who enter the city from South Huron. As a community, we need to carefully consider what happens in this space. An array of satellite dishes, an electrical substation, or a wall full of gas meters would likely be unacceptable. This does not preclude a well-designed, professionally installed solar array such as that being proposed. It does require a greater sensitivity to existing materials, urban landscape, visual impact, and community feedback than is implied by treating this prominent space as merely the “back” of City Hall.

    Brenda Rigdon, AIA, LEED-AP
    Commissioner, Ypsilanti Historic District Commission

    * See for more information.

  2. Comment by brobb
    May 13, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

    Thank you for the interest in my website.

    I normally don’t go about responding to emails or comments, but as it appears I have touched a nerve, I wanted to do my best to clear the air.

    While I did state the HDC would have to approve the project for it to move forward, I did not characterize the commission as a roadblock. The only comment I made that could be construed as excitable was the statement that the HDC did not allow the Co-op to put solar panels on the exterior wall. While I did not explicitly state in this entry that the HDC approved the installation, I’ve mentioned the Co-op project several times on the site. I’ve provided links for Mr. Strenski’s presentation wherein he states how supportive the HDC was of the project. Earlier in the entry I even called the Co-op project a successful example of alternative energy solutions at play in Ypsilanti.

    I realize someone could come across the site via a Google search and interpret the entry as you have. I apologize for any confusion that I’ve created in that respect.

    Regardless of the City’s financial situation, I would never vote in favor of spending taxpayer dollars on this project. In fact, I said the City would need to be borderline insane to fund such a project over tranditional energy-saving measures. In a previous entry, I mentioned the Honeywell study and wondered out loud if people would donate money to be a friend of solar power. Mr. Murphy in turn set out to see if money could be raised via a grassroots initiative. To date, there have been 38 pledges. I’d only do this if we could get donations. That’s why I suggested one row of panels instead of six. It’ll be very difficult to raise the money for ten panels. Sixty panels would be nearly impossible. It should be noted that solar hot water is being discussed for Rutherford pool, but it’s not as sexy to write about as visible panels on City Hall are.

    Finally, as an engineer, I believe that every problem can be solved. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do before I’d expect anyone to buy into putting solar panels on City Hall, but I only saw the May 1st meeting as testing the waters. What’s the point of doing a lot of engineering if the concept is unpalatable? In addition, if this exercise has caused the HDC to investigate how to handle things like solar panels in the future, then I’d call this a success already.

    Hopefully there are no hard feelings.

  3. Comment by Marianne
    June 21, 2007 @ 2:09 pm

    57 days later, I finally notice the typo in your section header title and now I take my eyes off it whenever I visit to read anything else on your website. I hope I’m not missing anything good.

  4. Comment by brobb
    June 21, 2007 @ 4:17 pm


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