SOLAR ONE HISTORY
The history of Solar One represents the triumph of community organizing over development and commercial interests, and is a fascinating success story of a group of concerned citizens who intervened to fight for open green space and maintain Manhattan’s waterfront as open public space. This battle extends back to the 1960s and the efforts of the local community centered in the Stuyvesant Town neighborhood in Manhattan, with a goal of creating and maintaining open space along the East River.
Located just south of a marina and gas station, a few blocks north of East River Park, and on the East River bike path, the site of Stuyvesant Cove Park was long used as part of New York City’s “working waterfront.” Its history goes back to the 19th century when the area was known as “Gastown” due to the numerous Manufactured Gas Plants covering the area and continuing through the mid 20th century with the presence of a concrete manufacturing facility. Stuyvesant Cove Park sits on land that was formerly occupied by the East 21st Street Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP) and is now part of the site for the Peter Cooper Village residential complex.
This transformation from abandoned industrial space to sustainably-managed public green space is the culmination of combined work of a group of concerned citizens, many city stakeholders, and the organization Community Environmental Center (CEC) and Solar One. The creation of Stuyvesant Cove Park resulted from citizens and government working together to create a public space reflecting the community’s values. Selected to manage the Park once created, CEC further elaborated the community’s vision by creating an environmental education program, building New York City’s first stand-alone solar-powered building, and creating Solar One to further education and plan construction of a new education center featuring cutting-edge sustainable design and renewable energy systems.
The East River site has now been converted to New York City’s only all-native species park and first stand-alone solar-powered building. Starting with big plans and little infrastructure, Solar One grew from a small organization managing the Park and providing environmental education into a widely acclaimed organization with many programs making New York City greener through education, outreach, training and the arts.
Read more about the Stuyvesant Cove Park before and after story.
COMMUNITY ENVIRONMENTAL CENTER
Community Environmental Center (CEC) was created in 1994 by Richard Cherry, molded from the ashes of the New York Urban Coalition, where he had worked for many years. The Urban Coalition had broken into the world of weatherization and energy efficiency and Rick decided that was the area where he would focus his new organization. CEC began doing weatherization in low-income buildings in Brooklyn and Queens – work that remains the focus of their mission today. Over the years, CEC has branched into other areas, based on the vision and interests of its leadership. These areas include public education, green building and deconstruction. Today, CEC employs well over 100 people dedicated to increasing energy performance, reducing waste and promoting clean, renewable energy and sustainable environmental policies.
CEC’s current programs are the Weatherization Assistance Program, Energy Efficiency Services as a contractor for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Advanced Green Building Services such as energy modeling and LEED consulting, Solar Thermal installations, job training and more. CEC also created two organizations —Solar One and Build It Green —to carry out related programs (more below).
NYC History – Did You Know?
The original coast line of Manhattan on the East Side lay around 1st Avenue. The area comprising Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Cove Park was created on “fill” that pushed the waterline to its current location. And some of the “fill” came all the way from England during World War 2, when empty troop ships were filled with rubble from bomb sites as ballast, and the ballast was converted into landfill material!
STUYVESANT COVE PARK IS BORN
During the 1980s, New York City began to planning to build a large, residential complex called “Riverwalk” on land east of the FDR Drive and extending out on platforms over the East River. The sheer size of the development (not unlike the existing Waterside towers) would have forever changed the scale of the neighborhood, increasing density, blocking views, and permanently blocking waterfront access for the general public.
Many community residents decided they did not want such a large development being added to the already densely-populated neighborhood. What they wanted was more open space and unfettered access to the waterfront. Despite its less than ideal conditions, people were already using the East River waterfront and the “beach” near 20th Street for recreational purposes. A group called Citizens United Against Riverwalk sprung up to battle the city and the developers to whom the project had been awarded. A protracted, passionate battle to keep Stuyvesant Cove open to the public and maintain green space in the neighborhood ensued.
After many years of public and private protests, patiently working with city government offices, participating in community board procedures, and engaging the broader public, the Riverwalk development plans were quashed. Citizens United Against Riverwalk emerged victorious. Now what?
More about the Citizens United Against Riverwalk story: Tucked Away On East Side, Two Communities Resist Project (New York Times, April 21, 1987)
COMMUNITY BOARD PROCESS AND LAND USE PLANNING
The community began to work on plans for what they wanted the space to become and settled on a park. These plans passed through local Community Board 6 (CB6) and were then subjected to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). ULURP was established by New York City to standardize the procedure whereby applications affecting land use would be publicly reviewed. Plans were drawn up and submitted to the Department of City Planning and then to CB6 for public scrutiny. CB6 made recommendations and passed the project along for approvals by the Borough President, the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the Mayor. With the project approved, the matter of how to fund construction and the ongoing operation of the site was still to be determined.
NYC ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
As the owner of the parcel of land, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) began planning the transformation of the site. With help from many in the community, funding for construction was cobbled together from a variety of federal, state and city sources. This was accomplished in part due to the site’s position along a proposed East River Bikeway that was to be part of the larger Greenway circumnavigating all of Manhattan.
EDC solicited design proposals and selected Donna Walcavage Associates as the landscape architects for the park, now known as Stuyvesant Cove Park after the section of the East River adjacent to the site. Several options were considered, including some that brought the park past the bulkhead and out into with the water, utilizing the “beach” that existed thanks to illegally dumped concrete and the remnants of old piers that conspired to trap sand brought in by the shifting tides.
NYC History – Did You Know?
The East River isn’t actually a river, but a tidal strait that connects New York Harbor with Long Island Sound.
There was little funding available for park maintenance, however. The community had proposed having an “anchor tenant” who would take on the responsibility of maintaining the Park in exchange for a low-cost lease on part of the space at the north end. Possibilities discussed included a restaurant before settling on an Environmental Learning Center that would turn the site into an educational – rather than commercial – space.
BUILDING THE PARK, SELECTING A TENANT
Health and safety concerns dictated that the final design of the park stop at the bulkhead (the wall separating land from water), but there was still some uprooting to do. As part of the site’s transformation, the City decided to move the “marginal street” (a street adjacent to a waterfront) from under the FDR Drive closer to Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, making it a northward extension of Avenue C. The space under the drive became a parking lot, providing some buffer between traffic and the Park.
Construction of the site and Stuyvesant Cove Park began between 1999 and 2000. In 2000, EDC put out a Request For Proposals looking for organizations interested in running the Environmental Learning Center and maintaining the Park. CEC was one of the groups who responded, and in 2001 they were selected as the winners, with Kiss + Cathcart as the architects for the larger Learning Center to come. CEC’s prize was a section of blacktop directly north of the Park with a 30-year lease for just $1 per year. EDC agreed to contribute up to $100,000 per year in matching funds for the upkeep of the Park, money that came in part from the revenue generated from the parking lots on the Skyport pier at the end of East 23rd Street and under the FDR Drive.
Stuyvesant Cove Park was largely complete by the end of 2001 and CEC hired its first park manager in early 2002 to begin managing the maintenance and upkeep of the Park. The Manager was crucial to the maturation of the Park fin those critical first years. The establishment of a volunteer program helped solidify the links to the local community while also working to keep things looking great.
NYC History – Did You Know?
Rather than a single street, NYC defines a Marginal street, such as the ones surrounding the Park, as “any street, road, place, area or way adjoining or adjacent to waterfront property and designated as a marginal street, wharf or place on a plan or map adopted pursuant to law.” There are still many streets called “Marginal Street” across the city.
CEC’s relationship with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) led to a three-year grant to fund the development of the Environmental Learning Center on the site adjacent to the East River. This money covered the erection of a temporary facility from which CEC could maintain the park and run programs promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. This support was the key element that allowed CEC to devote the necessary resources to creating a robust set of programs. These programs engaged the community to build a base of support that would allow for the growth necessary to make the project self-sustaining in the future.
SOLAR 1— THE FIRST GREEN ENERGY, ARTS, & EDUCATION CENTER
Needing for a base of operations on site before the full-sized Learning Center could be built, CEC had the good fortune of having an interim solution at the ready. Kiss + Cathcart had previously set up a small solar-powered building for an Earth Day celebration in Battery Park City in 2000. That building – constructed from a Structural Insulated Panel (SIP) system – had since been dismantled and stored in a warehouse awaiting another chance to be put to use. That chance came when CEC got the go ahead from the Department of Buildings to install the building on the leased blacktop area. The SIP system was very efficient and the building even came with a 3.5 kW array of solar panels, making it a valuable teaching tool for an organization with a focus on energy and environmental education.
In late 2002, contractors began constructing the 500 ft.2 building – possibly the smallest in Manhattan, but also the only stand-alone solar-powered building in the city – which was christened “Solar 1” upon completion. A foundation was put in place to anchor the building against the winds coming off the East River. The raw space was fitted with a bathroom, sink and cabinets, as well as a loft space above where the inverter and batteries for the solar photovoltaic (PV) system were placed. A ramp was installed on the north side to ensure handicapped access. In 2005, stairs on the south side were replaced with a stage salvaged by Build It Green from a NYC Fashion Week. The stage is the epitome of how Build It Green’s and Solar One work—recycling a useful, perfectly suited item from becoming yet-more landfill fodder and a former life of showcasing haute couture to forming a solid ground for years of solar-powered dance, music, film and educating and and entertaining New Yorkers.
SOLAR ONE FIRST STEPS
Grand Opening of Stuyvesant Cove Park and Solar 1: On June 6, 2003 CEC and the community hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Park and Solar 1 to celebrate the success of the community’s efforts and to honor those who had made it possible. Guests and speakers included Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, State Senators Roy Goodman and Thomas Duane, State Assemblyman Steve Sanders, City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz and community leaders Joy Garland, Sandy Simmons and Marty Barrett. A beautiful day greeted the attendees and press covering the event and Solar 1 made its public debut, humming along on a supremely sunny day.
Solar One Is Born: With the park built, the Solar 1 building up and running, the time was right to create a new organization to take on management of the Park and building. This new organization would also have another important responsibility—to work towards building a future Environmental Learning Center with the working name of “Solar 2” (we like to keep it simple).
Taking its name from the parent organization and the Park it was created to manage, CEC Stuyvesant Cove, Inc. (CECSC) was formed in 2003. Even before the Solar 1 building was in place, CEC had already established a presence in the Park with and begun outreach to the community and events like small lectures and forays into the arts. In 2003, these pilot programs became more formal, featuring environmental education programs for local schools and curated arts performances.
The name “CEC Stuyvesant Cove, Inc.” proved to be more than a little confusing to most people, particularly since CEC and Stuyvesant Cove were not widely familiar names in New York City. With the help of an outside firm the staff engaged in branding exercises to improve the name, deciding in the end to adapt the “Solar 1” name from the building and adjust it slightly to Solar One. Along with the name came a new logo with the now-familiar S1 mark and sunburst. “Solar 1” still refers the building and “Solar One” is the company name.
Community Events Begin Immediately: Local community groups also took the opportunity of this new outdoor space to program activities like workshops, dance lessons and music performances. Though this was a new enterprise, CECSC (Solar One) quickly made inroads with schools, created partnerships, and filled a void in the community for public space and events. By the spring of 2004, hundreds of students were already making their way to Solar 1 for classes and a regular schedule of other activities was being marketed in the local community.
Solar One History – Did You Know?
With no heat, Solar 1 could not be used for classes or program during the winter of 2003-2004. A heating unit was installed in 2004.
Chris Collins Comes Aboard: The new organization needed a new leader, so CEC began soliciting resumes for an Executive Director for CECSC. After an exhaustive process, Chris Collins was chosen. Chris had a background as a lawyer, but had spent many years as a project director for tech companies in the Bay Area. He was originally from New York and played a significant role in the founding of the non-profit Gay Center in Greenwich Village during the 1980s. That combination of experience proved to be the right mix for an organization that needed to grow to be successful. After taking the reins in September 2004, Chris set about finding ways to expand the impact and funding base of the organization.
SOLAR ONE GROWS AND GROWS AND GROWS
By the end of 2005, Solar One had begun to expand with new full-time education, park and development staff joining the organization. In subsequent years, that expansion has continued at a steady pace with Solar One now numbering around 40 full-time and part-time employees by 2012, and an annual budget that grows considerably each year. Solar One’s programs have also expanded with the addition of Workforce Training and expanded public education, K-12 Education and Arts programs.
Solar One Timeline – Highlights and Milestones
- August 2003 – Stuyvesant Cove Park is the cover story in this month’s issue of Landscape Architecture.
- June 2004– The first Revelry By The River is held under a tent on the blacktop outside Solar 1. Theevent raises money for the Park and programs and honors Peter Smith of NYSERDA.
- September 2004 – CEC hires Chris Collins as Executive Director of what will become Solar One.
- Summer/Fall 2005– The Solar-Powered Arts Festival is born, with film screenings in June and July, dance performances of emerging choreographers in August and musical performances in September. Highlights include Albert Maysles and BBC America coming for a screening of Grey Gardens, 12 exciting new dance pieces and the Eastern European influenced music of Romashka. Lowlights include trying to project films onto the side of theparking garage (it worked, but was pretty dim) scouring the Park for attendees for some of the musical performances.
- October 1, 2005 – The first Citysol festival features live solar-powered music, DJs and a sustainable marketplace. The focus on sustainability puts it at the forefront of a burgeoning movement that will see numerous similar events crop up in the coming years.
- November 2005 – The Green Renter lecture series debuts at Solar One featuring weekly speakers covering different topics related to sustainability, energy and the environment from the perspective of NYC residents. The series covers dozens of topics through 2009 and usually packs the house at Solar 1, drawing 30+ people per week to learn about worm composting, recycling policy, green investing and more.
- July 4, 2006 – Solar One hosts the first Energy Independence Day celebration in collaboration with Rooftop Films, offering music, food, short-film screenings and a front row view of the Macy’s fireworks over the East River.
- Summer 2006 – Solar One hosts 3 separate Citysol Festivals in June, July and August and Situ Studios builds the first Citysol Pavilion on the blacktop from recycled cardboard tubes and other re-used materials. Musical pranksters Japanther play their set under a tarp held up by the audience when it starts to rain; 2nd year of the Solar-Powered Arts Festival including a crowd of 400+ (And the return of Albert Maysles) for Gimme Shelter.
- September 2006 – The Sun to Stars South Asian Festival debuts as part of Solar One’s Green Energy Arts program. Inspired by the traditional all-night concerts along India’s Ganges River, Sun to Stars evokes the traditional durbar and bethak-style concerts where performers and audiences interact in an informal setting to create an intimate artistic experience.
- Fall 2006 – The TruLight program is born through working with students from Manhattan Comprehensive Night & Day High School to create a business promoting the sale and use of CFLs.
- April 2007 – Solar One receives an Environmental Quality Award from EPA Region 2 for “outstanding efforts to protect the environment in New York.”
- Summer 2007 – The biggest Citysol ever attracts thousands of people and features art installations, Wind Power sign-ups, environmental activism and tons of music. Indie rockers Les Savy Fav headline the Saturday show before a capacity crowd.
- Fall 2007 – A new educational program, The Green Innovator debuts a curriculum that uses, art, design, science and math to teach concepts of sustainability. A companion program – the Green Design Lab – gets its first test run at Manhattan Comprehensive.
- Spring 2008 – The I ♥ PV program is unveiled, providing interns (again, from Manhattan Comprehensive) with training in photovoltaic installation as well as grassroots solar advocacy. Interns help design and build mobile solar-powered charging stations that are used to engage the public around the city.
- Summer 2008 – Solar One wins a contract from NYSERDA to be the Energy $mart Communities representative for Manhattan and Staten Island. The I ♥ PV team travels to Albany to lobby representatives in favor of legislation to expand net-metering and provide a property tax abatement for solar installations in New York City. The proposed bills pass both houses and go into effect soon after.
- Fall 2008 – Solar One staff expands adding full-time staff for the TruLight and Energy $mart Communities Coordinator programs; Solar One becomes a certified vendor for the NYC Department of Education.
- October 2008 – Solar 2 wins the Gold Award for North America from the Holcim Foundation for its net-zero and resource-saving design.
- December 2008 – Solar One’s annual budget tops $1,000,000 for the first time.
- Winter 2009 –Solar One adds more staff with a fiscal administrator and manager for the developing Green Job Training (Workforce)Program.
- Spring 2010 – CEC and Solar One build out a training lab in Long Island City across the street from CEC’s offices for use in the Workforce Training Program.
- June 2010 – The first edition of “New York City the Future Metropolis” takes place at Solar 1. This Pecha Kucha-style event brings together speakers working on many facets of sustainability, from biomimicry to waterfront development to cleantech who paint a picture of what NYC could look like in the years ahead. The event returns in February 2011 with a focus on Green Infrastructure and again in May 2011 to discuss “Water In New York.”
- Fall 2010 – An updated Green Design Lab is rolled out to 10 schools across the city, coinciding with efforts by New York City to reduce energy use in school buildings; The new Solar One Tenant Education Program (STEP) begins presentations to buildings across NYC providing information on ways tenants can help make their buildings and neighborhoods greener.
- December 2010 – The Workforce Training program ends the year having trained over 1,100 people in subjects like building performance, energy efficiency, renewable energy, green building maintenance and custodial services, electrical retrofitting, green infrastructure construction, and landscaping and horticulture..
- February 2011 – Solar One hires its first Program Director to help guide and shape a diverse set of programs. Energy $mart Communities becomes the Energy Connections program to reflect the broader focus of our outreach efforts.
- April 2011 – The J.C. Kellogg Foundation and the Green Innovation Grant Program (GIGP) of the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation commit $1.1M in funding for the development and construction Solar 2. Solar 2 is a new, 13,000 square foot Green Energy, Arts, & Education Center that will be built on the site of Solar 1 to expand education and public programs.
- Fall 2011 – The Green Design Lab begins another school year working with 23 schools in all five boroughs. Solar One has secured several founding sponsors for the Green Design Lab as well as the NYC Department of Education.
- September 2011 – Energy Connections presents “The Energy-Water Nexus” as part of an ongoing series of public events with the NYC Accelerator for a Clean and Renewable Economy (NYC ACRE). It is a featured event of Climate Week NYC 2011.
- 2009—Solar One reached 13,320 New Yorkers
- 2010—Solar One reached 29,132 New Yorkers
- 2011—Solar One reached 42,121 New Yorkers
Read more about Solar One’s accomplishments in our Program Reports.
Solar One Partner Organization - Build It Green!
Build It Green! (BIG) is a reuse, recycling, and deconstruction center focusing on industrial goods, lumber, and other construction items. It was also incubated by CEC and formed in 2004. Previously, others had tried to start re-use centers before but none had been able to amass enough size or business to stick around. CEC brought in people from some of those efforts and set out to find a space large enough to hold all the different materials that would form the core of the endeavor.
Build It Green (BIG) had two goals: to keep building materials out of the waste stream by collecting them and selling them at discounted prices, and to develop the market for Deconstruction services (as opposed to demolition) that would provide a steady stream of usable materials to sell. With a large warehouse in Astoria ready to house thousands or doors, windows, cabinets and more, BIG opened and immediately found a following among contractors, do-it-yourselfers, artists and those just interested in promoting a greener city. While the focus was not on profits, the idea was that any operating surplus for BIG would go to help fund Solar One and its programs.
Today, BIG are going stronger than ever with a staff of over a dozen employees. In addition to their Queens warehouse, they opened another warehouse in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn in 2011. BIG has developed a bustling deconstruction business which was featured on CNN. BIG also has become known as a go-to NYC retailer for affordable, high-quality reclaimed/recycled/reusable materials, furniture, and other household items – shop BIG’s inventory.
Each year they keep tons and tons of materials from going to waste. In 2011 alone, BIG:
- Kept 900 tons of building materials of out the landfill.
- Provided $250,000 of material support to other non-profit and arts organizations (including Solar One).
- Saved New Yorkers nearly $1 million on purchases.
- Provided a site for 120 green collar trainees in partnership with CWE.