Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Magic Packs and Rooftop Gardens

A new senior center/condo complex will include a second-story roof garden and individual heating and cooling units for each of the 63 condos.

Planning Board members had plenty of questions about the site plans before granting approval in less than three hours on Dec. 7. But now that the hurdle of site plan approval has been cleared, maybe it is time to think a bit more about the reality of the roof garden and what developer Glen Fishman described as “Magic Pack” heating/cooling units.

Planners did ask about air conditioning, perhaps recalling the fiasco at the Tepper’s building, where construction advanced pretty far before anybody realized there was no provision for air conditioners in the 75 apartments created in the former department store. Holes had to be cut in exterior walls for sleeves to accommodate the units.

Fishman said the new building at 400 East Front Street would have air vents to the outside and the Magic Packs would be inside closets in each condo. A closer look at the plans showed the placement of the closets, but there was not much further explanation on how they work. Each condo owner would have complete control over the heat and air conditioning as well as responsibility for utility costs, according to a Google search, but compressor noise was mentioned as an issue.

The roof garden, while a popular notion in “green” architecture, also came up a little thin on actual information. The site plan had copious details on landscaping, but just for what was on the ground, unless this writer missed something. The roof garden would be on the second story, with condos in a U-shape around it. Both condo dwellers and seniors would be able to use and enjoy it.

As indicated on the site plan, it is a rectangle with X-shaped walkways. Six tree shapes are shown, with shrubs along the open edge over ground level parking. Balconies on the upper floors inside the U-shape overlook the garden.

Roof gardens or green roofs can help cool a building, offsetting the “urban heat island” problem caused by paving. They also absorb water, reducing runoff into storm sewers. A garden or green roof is also esthetically pleasing. The concept goes back to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Roof gardens may be merely plants in containers, while green roofs are constructed to be self-maintaining, with a lightweight planting medium installed over a waterproof membrane. Plants may range from low-growing mosses and sedums to shrubs and trees.

Green roofs or rooftop gardens have been popular in Germany for several decades and standards have been developed there for several levels of planting intensity. For more about what’s going on in the U.S., see

Maintenance of a roof garden or green roof is definitely an issue, especially in a city where weed trees such as ailanthus can grow several feet in a season. One has only to look at any vacant lot or even the landscaping around the Twin City plaza at Park and Seventh to see what happens when there is no maintenance. A second-floor garden open to the elements will develop weeds and will need all the usual gardening upkeep, such as pruning, removal of dead growth, cultivation and watering.

At the site plan hearing, some of the main concerns were parking, façade details and traffic flow. The hearing on the senior center application began late and the vote came close to midnight. It was obvious that the board wanted to accommodate the developer as much as possible, knowing seniors have been waiting a long time for a new center. Still, there is time to explore how Magic Packs and a roof garden will work in this project and maybe some others in the future.

--Bernice Paglia.


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