Raising the roof’s green status at City Hall

Raising the roof’s green status at City Hall

Work to convert two City Hall rooftops into gardens is under way, though it comes two and a half years after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which bankrolled the project, became law.

When finished in October, the roughly $120,000 project will turn about 5,000 square feet of roof into green space filled with native plants visible from City Halls second floor. Officials began planning the work in the late summer and early fall of 2009, months after the federal stimulus bill passed through Congress, said Bill Eger, the citys energy manager. 

While smaller municipalities waited for the stimulus dollars to trickle down through state capitals, Alexandria could, and did, apply directly to the Department of Energy for the money, he said. 

Passed to reinvigorate the slowing national economy and rising unemployment on the heels of 2008s financial crisis, the multibillion-dollar stimulus bill included a combination of tax incentives and spending. Alexandria received $18.7 million from federal coffers as of April for a mix of programs and projects.

Some of the money was spent right away, said Bernie Caton, the citys legislative director, but not all. 

There were some things funded under [ARRA] where you couldnt just go right in and begin work, he said. We had done an awful lot of preliminary work, but once money was available, we had to pick up the work where planning was needed.

Installing a green roof at City Hall was one such project. Once officials secured the Energy Efficiency and Conservation block grant in November 2009, they worked with the DOE to ensure the plans met federal guidelines and then went through the local process additional design work and clearing city regulations.

Jumping through all these hoops in 18 to 22 months, thats pretty standard, said Jennifer Harris, city spokeswoman. Were held to the same standard wed require of any business or resident. We comply with the same [city] procedures and processes as anyone else would.

And then there was the additional hurdle of clearing the National Historical Preservation Act, which regulates construction work on buildings listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Even after officials finished that process, they had to wait for the right season to plant.

While several city staffers were dedicated to juggling the slew of stimulus-funded programs, it does take a while to get a project moving from just planning and whatnot to contracting and getting the work started, Eger said. It doesnt happen at the snap of the finger.

Beyond giving City Hall a greener atmosphere, the vegetative roof is predicted to have several tangible benefits. The new layer of soil and plant life should absorb rainwater, protect the roofing structure from the weather lengthening its life and insulate the building from heat and cold, Eger said. 

It also gives city officials a chance to showcase green retrofits Alexandrias homeowners and businesses could adopt, he said.  

But what isnt known is whether the work generated any jobs. The citys general contractor for the work, Reston-based Centennial Contractors Enterprises, couldnt measure the effect of the stimulus for them. However, their local subcontractors tradesmen like carpenters and painters likely benefited from the project, said spokesman Al Olson. 

In fact, its hard to measure just how many jobs the $18.7 million generated in Alexandria. ARRAs website touts the package as the means to spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth, but lists creating new jobs and saving existing ones among its immediate goals. 

Outside of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant paying for new city firefighter positions, theres no way to say for sure how many jobs the extra federal spending created in Alexandria, said Caton. 

There was some interested in the federal level of [measuring job growth] at first, he said. They came up with a formula with something like how many jobs does X create, and we used that some, but we stopped using it. Its awfully hard [to measure]. Ive been able to look at the direct [municipal employee] hires, which is almost none, because this is one-time money and so we purposefully avoided new hires.