New downtown parking ramps are green and high-tech

May 7, 2010
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Even though the city’s newest parking ramp at the downtown corner of Commerce and Weston has been open for a few months, Parking Services had to wait until spring to unveil what may be the facility’s most unique feature.

The ramp has seven pre-cast concrete levels and 372 spaces, and is hidden behind the two liner buildings that make up the office, retail and residential development known as Thirty-Eight. Now it is getting a green roof — the first city-owned structure to be designed and built with one. The green roof further grows Parking Services’ reputation as being an environmentally sound and technologically advanced public entity.

“Part of the driver behind putting in the green roof is a city requirement for the city’s center: Five percent of a lot’s area needs to be green space,” said Mitch Schutter, the parking facility supervisor who oversaw the project for Parking Services.

But with the ramp tucked behind the buildings and bordering two alleys on the inner portion of the site, there wasn’t enough room for the traditional concept of green space normally called for. “So we went with the green roof to meet the requirement,” said Schutter.

The green roof provided the project with a few financial advantages, too, such as lengthening the roof’s life span and increasing the ramp’s real estate value. There also are a number of eco-friendly benefits. Schutter said the roof will reduce the heat-island effect and storm-water runoff.

“Because it’s mostly sedum — not grasses like some green roofs are — it reduces greenhouse gases by as much as that plant can transfer carbon dioxide to oxygen,” he said.

There are more than 400 species of sedum plants. Some are simply green foliage, while others offer tiny flowers that range in color from red to gold. Parking Services will plant both types on the roof.

“The foliage on them is rather pulpy. They store most of their water in their foliage and don’t have much of a root system and don’t need much of a root system. So they’re really pretty hardy for drought conditions and that’s the reason they’re used for green roofs,” said Schutter.

The plan, at the time of this writing, was to have the plants in place by May 15 at the latest, when the danger of frost likely has passed. Carl Walker Inc., based in Kalamazoo, designed the ramp and Pioneer Construction Co. managed the project.

Another Parking Services-owned ramp is being built in tandem with the Gallery on Fulton project, which is going up at the corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue. Parking Services will buy the ramp when it’s completed in about four months. The ramp will have the city’s first “green screen” — a three-dimensional, welded-wire trellising system for growing vines in planters that will hang on a mesh netting being installed on the building’s north wall.

“It will screen the entire building in green once it’s fully matured and grown,” said Schutter. “It’s offset away from the face of the building, so we can still maintain good ventilation on that side.”

Under the direction of Pam Ritsema, Parking Services not only has embraced the green concept, it also has incorporated the latest technology into its operations. Over the past few years, the department has installed automatic payment machines in its facilities and has given customers a variety of payment options, including using the Internet.

An example of combining high-tech with eco-friendly is the lighting system Parking Services is using at both new ramps. Schutter said he is especially taken with the new fluorescent system because it is about 40 percent more economical and efficient than the high-pressure sodium lights that were initially intended for the ramps.

The savings fluorescents offer over high-pressure sodium has been known for years, Schutter said, but “what fluorescents didn’t have was the ability to maintain light levels when it got cold, which is problematic for Michigan, obviously.”

“But they’ve improved the ballast performance and they’ve improved lamp performance somewhat. But they’ve also improved the housing performance where it’s sealed and the heat from the ballast actually stays inside the housing so that it can operate to the lower temperatures without having the fade-dimming kind of thing that you get with fluorescent lamps.”

On top of that, Schutter has full control of every light fixture in each ramp with the LimeLight System, a computerized control technique from Twist HDM of Holland. The system uses a radio-frequency controller and has a motion sensor for every fixture.

“We can tailor a ramp to turn lights off or on with motion. We can have light-harvesting savings if it’s a bright, sunny day. Or even if it’s a dark day, the photo sensor on the roof can sense levels of light that’s provided by the sun on a cloudy day. … We can dim lights with these fixtures and gain some energy and environmental savings on a regular basis,” said Schutter.

The light-harvesting effect from the system won’t be available at the Gallery ramp because it won’t have open-window space, and the green screen will shield most light from the north. “But we will be able to use motion sensors to turn lights off and on as needed,” said Schutter.

Putting the energy savings and increased efficiency aside for the moment, what really seems neat about the new lighting system is the nearly surreal effect that parkers will experience when they drive into the ramps at, say, 3 a.m. The interiors of both buildings will most likely be pitch dark at that hour.

“As a car drives into the gate, the motion sensors will sense its presence and will start turning on lights ahead of it. As a car drives up a ramp, a bank of lights underneath will go to whatever light level we indicate and the bay of lights up ahead will go to medium-on. As a car moves into the medium one, it will keep moving up so they always have light up ahead of them,” said Schutter.

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