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Green tech for parking lots gain ground

Pictured is a rain garden constructed with paving

Pictured is a rain garden constructed with paving stones, gravel, and shale in the parking lot of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library. According to one library patron, the lot is never flooded. The water goes straight down, and cleaned by the rocks and returned to a natural draining source. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Blacktop parking lots and the roads leading up to them -- those inescapable emblems of suburban life -- are getting a green face-lift.

Some developers are looking at ways to lessen the environmental burden when, to paraphrase an old Joni Mitchell song, they pave paradise (or a less pristine patch of earth) to put up a parking lot.

Technologies to better filter polluted stormwater runoff, which would otherwise seep into Long Island's groundwater drinking supply and its surrounding waterways, are slowly coming into use as developers weigh their costs and benefits. Other green features are gaining ground, such as solar power collectors to make more use of the space and multilevel parking structures that occupy less land.

"It's starting to pick up momentum," said Adrienne Esposito, an environmentalist who serves on the Suffolk County planning board. "Two years ago there was no momentum, and today we're starting to see projects with rain gardens and permeable pavement."

With rain gardens, parking lots are designed so that runoff flows into a low area planted with vegetation. The plants slow the runoff, absorbing and breaking down pollutants, while below them, filtration layers of gravel clean the water before it reaches groundwater.


Offering better drainage

Porous asphalt or concrete, or permeable pavers (interlocking bricks, tiles, blocks or stones that leave spaces open between them) let water drain into filtration layers below.

From an environmental standpoint, that's an advance over dry well and stormwater retention basins built under and near parking lots to collect and slow down runoff. They may allow water to flow untreated into the earth, or into storm sewers that discharge the runoff into waterways.

Kevin McAndrew, a partner at Cameron Engineering and Associates Llp in Woodbury who is working on projects using green techniques, said developers "are seeing the benefits in terms of cost and aesthetics . . . You have the ability to take a blank sea of asphalt and create green areas that are part of the stormwater management solution."

Some recent examples:

In Suffolk County, solar-panel carports are going up on a half-dozen county-owned parking lots, and a new law demands that green technology be considered when county lots are built or repaired.

Curbside rain gardens are under construction on a stretch of Manorhaven Boulevard in Port Washington to absorb runoff that would otherwise end up in Manhasset Bay.

In Rockville Centre, grass grows through permeable pavers on a ring road around AvalonBay's rental complex where residents stroll and walk dogs.

In Patchogue, St. Joseph's College's new athletic complex has rain gardens and bioswales (gently sloped channels in the ground, planted with vegetation, which drain stormwater away from paved areas), a senior citizens housing developer in the same community wants to use porous asphalt and a riverfront promenade will feature permeable pavers.

In North Bellport, a planned retail-industrial development includes rain gardens along its parking lot entrances.

Canon USA's new corporate headquarters is under construction in Melville and features two three-story parking structures with space for 800 cars each. They were "a lot" more expensive to build than surface parking, but preserved eight acres of open space, said Seymour Liebman, chief administrative officer of Canon USA.

"We felt another eight acres of blacktop would take away from the beauty of the campus," which will have 1,000 trees, 3,000 shrubs and a mile-long walking trail, he said.

Sustainable options, including rain gardens and parking structures, are built into the Albanese Organization's master plan for a joint public-private redevelopment plan for Wyandanch and in the village of Hempstead's downtown revitalization plan.

Still, green options have been slow to gain wide favor. Most projects here use "proven and traditional methods" of stormwater management, said Tom Riley, of TRAC Consultants, with long experience overseeing construction projects on Long Island.

"The first game in development is making it work economically," Riley said. "It's a balancing act . . . To continually clean and maintain a bioswale is more expensive than a dry well that you won't touch for 20 years."

Even companies open to some green technologies take a wait-and-see stance toward others: AvalonBay, of Melville, has used bioswales at apartment complexes in Rockville Centre and Mitchel Field in East Garden City, with even more advanced designs planned for Huntington Station. But wide use of permeable pavers in parking lots will have to wait.

"We have not really gotten over some of our concerns about the long-term durability of them, so we want to see if they last a little longer before doing that," said Matt Whalen, AvalonBay's vice president of development.


Can be cost-efficient, too

Green technologies can be as cost-efficient as prevailing technologies, especially on bigger jobs, said Bob Retnauer, principal of RDA Landscape Architects in St. James. But the upfront expense may be higher.

For example, the initial costs for nonpermeable pavers set on a concrete slab is about $12 per square foot, compared with the $20-per-square-foot cost for permeable pavers set on a 12-inch layer of stone, he said.

"There is little difference in long-term maintenance and costs other than power-washing the joints between the permeable pavers once a year," he said. Moreover, a rain garden might cost much less than the expense of excavating dry wells, while asphalt lots require periodic repaving and pothole repairs.

David Calone, chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, was the host at a conference last year promoting the technologies. "The idea is if we can get a few of these built, to demonstrate that it's cost-effective, environmentally sensitive and good for groundwater then we can go to the town boards and ask that they consider code changes to potentially require them," he said.

One of Retnauer's satisfied customers is Peter Ward, director of the Lindenhurst library, where a permeably paved parking lot, surrounded with rain gardens and bioswales, was a pioneering project in 2009. "Three years later, it's functioning just the way it was designed," Ward said. "We have heavy downpours and that lot is bone dry. We have solar collectors and they work perfectly -- they light the lot at night."

He added, "This is like one of those things you believe it's too good to be true, and then it turns out to be as good as they said it would be."

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