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From the ground up



For John Billone Jr., incorporating environmental values into his commercial practices is no conflict at all --- it's simply good business. The Flower City Management developer had this in mind when he began making plans to renovate the Medical Arts Building at 277 Alexander Street as a mixed-use facility. The 10-story building, constructed in 1929 to house doctors' offices, will include retail shops, office space, and high-end apartments by the time renovations are complete.

Among the new high-technology features Billone is adding to the Art Deco structure is a geothermal heating and cooling system that's expected to dramatically slash the amount of energy the building consumes. Construction on the system, which is taking place in the building's back parking lot, is nearly finished. It consists of about 70 narrow holes, each sunk 240 feet into the underlying bedrock. The temperature of a water and anti-freeze mixture pumped into the ground will be moderated about 10 degrees by the underlying dolomite and shale, and pumped back into the building, heating it in winter and cooling it in summer.

"There was the obvious [factor] of the environmentally right thing to do," says Billone about pursuing geothermal technology for the Medical Arts Building. The second reason he gives displays his business savvy more openly: "Certainly the savings in energy costs; the benefits we can pass on to our tenants."

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this type of geoexchange system is 40 percent more efficient than heat pumps that use air, 48 percent more than gas furnaces, and 75 percent more efficient than oil-burning furnaces, according to figures provided by Billone.

Those figures account for fuel burned at electricity-generating plants to operate the system's pumps. He estimates that the energy cost savings will pay for the price of the system in about five years. Add to that the possibility of about $60,000 in rebates from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the result is a financial picture that's downright rosy. "I don't see any downside to it, honestly," Billone says.

He's hoping potential customers see it the same way. But in a metropolitan area where commercial and residential tenants tend to move ever outward in search of greener pastures (often literally), can a greener building lure anyone back into the Rochester's urban core? Billone believes the market's there. "We know that we'll attract people to this building," he says. "I'm getting all kinds of calls." He adds "From what I'm seeing people are becoming more conscientious about environmental buildings."

And with the revival of night life and a resurgence of market-rate housing in the East End, Billone downplays the notion that the city is an unattractive location compared to the suburbs. "I think there is a lot going on in the city," he says. "It's only going to get better. We get a lot of calls from people selling homes in the suburbs and moving back into the city. The city's got so much to offer."

In addition to environmentally friendly residents, Billone also hopes to "attract businesses that appreciate green technology." If he succeeds, he doesn't think he'll be alone in the green commercial space market for long: "I think you'll find more developers taking an interest in it because it's the right thing to do," he says.

While it's too early to tell if commercial tenants will be drawn by the new improvements, other groups have noticed. The Medical Arts Building is one of only three buildings in the area to be registered with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program of the US Green Building Council. A planned City of Rochester Water Authority building and a Frito-Lay project in Henrietta round out the local list.

Frito-Lay will likely be completed (and receive its LEED certification) first, Billone says, but adds "Hopefully, if things go right we'll be the first residential mixed-use building in Rochester" to receive the distinction.

The Medical Arts Building will also be showcased this weekend as one of four tours available to delegates of "Energy 2004." The national energy expo is being held in Rochester by the US Department of Energy from August 8 to 11 to promote energy efficiency and sustainable and renewable energy use. Other tours include the Greater Rochester International Airport's wind and co-generation plant, the Niagara Power Project, and a biomass plant in Dunkirk.

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