Oberlin Project Plans Green Downtown

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

“If you … fast-forward 10 or 20 or 30 years, given the way the economy works in the Rust Belt, [Oberlin] is going to be a pretty sad little town,” said David Orr, executive director of the Oberlin Project and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics. “It’s going to take extraordinary efforts to create a town that is sustainable [and] prosperous, … and I think that it is within our grasp to do that.”

Orr’s outlook on Oberlin’s future may be unsettling, but his optimism creates space for the Oberlin Project. Though educational projects will hopefully build Oberlin’s resilience in the long term, the Oberlin Project is introducing concrete physical changes to the town in order to promote economic and environmental sustainability in the immediate future.

One of the most ambitious projects is the proposed Green Arts District. Orr hopes to revitalize the college-owned block between Lorain Street and College Street, where the Allen Memorial Art Museum is located, so that it meets the U.S. Green Building Council standards for neighborhood development. The complex will use about three megawatts of power, all of which will be drawn from renewable resources such as sunlight. Orr also believes it could be zero discharge, much like the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, meaning that all waste water would be processed on site.

The Oberlin Project plans to make the Green Arts District an economic asset by providing a place for new businesses, venues to sell local artwork, local food buyers and a renovated hotel to encourage tourism.

“The goal … is to [use] the college as the anchor institution to redevelop that block in a way that attracts people here that can help drive the local economy,” said Orr.

The Green Arts District is part of the Project’s goal to bring context to many different environmentally focused initiatives around the town and college.

“How do the parts reinforce the whole thing? That’s the point of this,” said Orr.

The community is committed to reaching carbon neutrality under the Clinton Climate Initiative. The College plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2025, while the town is aiming for the year 2050. One way the College is working toward this goal is by developing a local carbon offset program lead by College junior Noel Myers.

“We will always have carbon that we’ll have to offset, and ideally we would do that here, as opposed to sending money off to the carbon fund,” said Associate Professor of Psychology and co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee Cindy Frantz. “They’re planting trees somewhere on the other side of the world. Can we [instead] use that money here to revitalize our own community?”

Both the Green Arts District and the carbon offsetting program have been central goals of the Oberlin Project since early in its formation. However, one of the most exciting elements of the Oberlin Project, according to Frantz, is that there is now a body to “identify things that are falling through the cracks.”

For example, methane from Oberlin’s landfill is currently being used to generate electricity. The process also releases waste heat that could be harnessed for energy but is currently unused.

“It’s nobody’s job to figure out how to use it … [but] because we have the Oberlin Project now, actually, it is somebody’s job to figure out how to use it,” said Frantz.

The Oberlin Project Energy Planning Committee is looking into using a portion of the heat to upgrade the quality of the sludge in the nearby wastewater treatment plant, which would make the sludge usable for agriculture. The committee also hopes to interest a local business in building a greenhouse on an empty plot of land in the area. This greenhouse could both be heated by the remaining waste heat and use the sludge.

“You’ve got this completely circular system [that has] economic benefits, environmental benefits, carbon benefits, et cetera.,” said Frantz. “We currently have a group of people exploring a really exciting possibility. It may not happen, but it might.” Though many of these projects are long term and will take years to complete, city manager and lead partner of the Project Eric Norenberg is excited about what changes even the small steps will create.

“I think that by this time next year we will look back at some of what’s happened during 2012 and the first part of 2013 and point to several improvements and things that are tangible and intangible and say, ‘those were the results of people that were working within the Oberlin Project to make our community even better,’” he said.