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Infrastructure Preservation

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  • Paul Rosa
    Another example of a movement to save infrastructure as history: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/20/nyregion/20MECH.html November 20, 2002 New York Times A
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 20, 2002
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      Another example of a movement to save infrastructure as history:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/20/nyregion/20MECH.html

      November 20, 2002 New York Times

      A Fight to Save a Time Capsule From the Early Age of Electricity

      By WINNIE HU

      MECHANICVILLE, N.Y., Nov. 18 — The Mechanicville Hydroelectric
      Station, which straddles the Hudson River just
      north of Albany, once lighted the entire capital region.

      But even in its heyday, it was overlooked by those who marveled at the
      hulking machinery at Niagara Falls and the Hoover
      Dam.

      Now a century later, the brick building with the peaked tin roof has
      hardly changed, and because of that, it is drawing attention
      as never before.

      Niagara Mohawk closed the station in 1997, saying that its outdated
      equipment had made it "prohibitively expensive to run" and
      that continued operation of the generators put too much stress on the
      underwater columns supporting the building.

      "Every time a part had to be repaired or replaced," said Alberto
      Bianchetti, a spokesman for Niagara Mohawk, "it was like a
      custom fix." Niagara Mohawk wants to stabilize the station by filling it
      with a type of concrete that can be removed if someone
      takes over the site.

      But a coalition of engineers, historians and preservation groups across
      the Northeast are opposing Niagara Mohawk's plan with
      one of its own: the group wants to restore the Mechanicville station and
      turn it into a working museum of the region's industrial
      past.

      "It's like opening up a time capsule," said James A. Besha, an engineer
      who is leading the effort. "I tell people that this plant went
      through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and man's
      landing on the moon. Through all the tides of history, it sat
      there operating 24 hours a day, generating electricity with no fuss or
      muss."

      The effort to save the power plant is the work of a preservation
      movement that is increasingly looking beyond battlefields and the
      gilded mansions of the rich and famous to reclaim old mills, factories,
      bridges and other remnants of the industrial landscape. The
      Erie Canal, for instance, has become a tourist attraction in recent
      years after New York spent millions of dollars to rebuild parts
      of it. Similarly, a complex of 27 abandoned factories in the Berkshires
      reopened in 1999 as the Massachusetts Museum of
      Contemporary Art.

      Last June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed a mammoth
      water filtration plant in northern New Jersey on its
      annual list of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America. Bergen
      County officials proposed tearing down the plant, the
      Hackensack Water Works, to create a park, but some local residents
      wanted it turned into a museum and research center.

      Robert Vogel, a retired curator of engineering at the Smithsonian
      Institution who is a founder of the Society for Industrial
      Archeology, said preserving industrial sites like the Mechanicville
      station was important because they could be studied to learn
      about the past — as potsherds and tools of earlier ages are studied.

      "Electricity doesn't come from God, or from the ground, but from plants
      like this," Mr. Vogel said. "It is a relic of our civilization."

      The Mechanicville site was developed in 1897 by R. N. King, a
      businessman from Dayton, Ohio, and designed by Charles
      Steinmetz, an electrical engineer often described as the creative genius
      behind General Electric. A row of seven cast-iron
      generators, still intact, supplied power to General Electric.

      The station was later bought by a regional utility and linked to one of
      the first hydroelectric systems in the country. It changed
      hands several more times before ending up with Niagara Mohawk in 1950.
      Through the years, the powerhouse rarely missed a
      day's work, generating up to five megawatts of electricity.

      Not many of its neighbors noticed.

      "It was just something that was always there," said Ken Leggett, 55,
      whose family has lived near it since 1916. Mr. Leggett
      ventured inside the power plant as a teenager to visit a friend but
      never went back. "It was scary because it was so big and
      loud," he said.

      Niagara Mohawk operated the station until the late 1980's, when it hired
      Fourth Branch Associates, a subsidiary of Albany
      Engineering Corporation, to manage it. In 1993, the companies received a
      joint federal license to run the plant.

      But the partnership quickly soured. Mr. Besha, the president of Albany
      Engineering who has mobilized the preservation effort,
      said Niagara Mohawk officials reneged on an agreement for a
      multimillion-dollar restoration that was to include new
      underground generators to produce more electricity. He said his company
      had already spent about $3 million on renovations.

      Mr. Besha sued Niagara Mohawk, contending breach of contract, and the
      utility countersued, accusing him of trespassing,
      among other things. Niagara Mohawk officials have declined to comment on
      the suit.

      Niagara Mohawk resumed control of the station in 1996, and a year later
      it turned off the power. Earlier this year, the Federal
      Energy Regulatory Commission accepted the surrender of the operating
      license, despite objections by Mr. Besha and several
      preservation groups. They contended that the historical value of the
      site was not fully considered.

      Before it was closed, the station was listed on the National Register of
      Historic Places as the oldest continuously operated
      hydroelectric plant in the state.

      "It's a piece of living history," said Daniel Mackay, director of public
      policy for the Preservation League of New York State in
      Albany. "To have an industrial building continue to serve its original
      purpose 100 years later is truly unique."

      Mr. Bianchetti, the Niagara Mohawk spokesman, said the station cost far
      more to operate than it earned through sales of
      electricity. He also said Niagara Mohawk was no longer in the business
      of generating electricity and had sold its power plants.
      He cited the state's deregulation of the utility industry in the late
      1990's as the reason.

      Niagara Mohawk officials said they approached several state agencies
      about taking over the station, but not one was willing to,
      largely because of budget constraints.

      Bernadette Castro, the state historic preservation officer, confirmed
      that money was a problem.

      "It is an issue of dollars," said Ms. Castro, who considers the
      powerplant to be worth saving. "I already have 35 wonderful
      historic sites, and each one thinks it's an only child."

      Only Mr. Besha seems ready to adopt the power plant, but Niagara Mohawk
      has refused to sell it to him, citing his lawsuit
      against it and questioning whether he had enough money for such a
      project.

      Mr. Besha, 55, already a collector of vintage cars, said his company had
      developed and refurbished more than a dozen
      hydroelectric sites around the country. He said he would borrow about
      $27 million for the Mechanicville restoration and repay it
      through profits from the sale of electricity. "I can get the money," he
      said. "This is what we do; this is our business."

      For now, the power plant awaits its future behind a padlocked chain-link
      fence. Rain and dirt seep through cracks in its arched
      windows, and its once gleaming generators are covered with tarpaulins.

      Mr. Besha and his engineers check on the plant from a distance.

      "This is going to sound sort of sappy," he said, "but we have grown to
      love this plant. We decided if we didn't try to preserve it,
      no one else would."
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