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The power of ideas fuels visions of the Niagara River shoreline without Huntley

It’s good to have a backup plan.

Given the questions about the future of the coal-fired Huntley Station power plant in the Town of Tonawanda, it’s probably better to have a lot of them for that site.

So University at Buffalo students took up the challenge of imagining what the Huntley site could look like if the plant retires. The new concepts conform to what environmental activists call a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Ten models paint a futuristic picture of the Niagara River bank without the Huntley plant.

One of them has a giant Ferris wheel and a public boardwalk.

Another repurposes the fortified brick complex on the river’s shoreline with an indoor scuba training center.

And one shows a glassed-in data center powered by renewable energy.

The Clean Air Coalition, in collaboration with UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, sought concepts for how the community could create jobs, reconnect to the waterfront and generate new tax revenue.

The concepts came from the graduate architecture students of Sean Burkholder, an assistant professor of landscape and urban design.

“We’re just showing some options of what could be possible, if the plant would close,” Burkholder said. “It sits in an important spot in the river and an important spot in the town. And, it has potential, for sure.”

No one advocated hastening the closure of a plant that still employs 75 people. But with estimates showing Huntley’s pre-tax earnings of roughly $110 million in 2005 turning into deficit of $3 million as recently as 2012, that possibility is hard to ignore.

“We don’t want to get into the politics of the plant closing or not closing,” Burkholder said. “But if the plant does close, we should be thinking about what it might become.”

Madelyn McClellan, a graduating architecture student who lives just a half-mile from Huntley’s twin stacks, sees that potential from her home every day.

In McClellan’s vision, the Huntley complex is transformed into “Huntley Park,” which includes a 210,000-square-foot scuba diving facility with one of the largest training tanks in the nation. McClellan, a scuba diver herself, said she got the idea from diving in the river off Grand Island in the shadow of the mammoth 99-year-old power plant.

“The buildings were meant to hold a lot of weight. They could hold this weight,” McClellan said, pointing to a 60-foot deep tank of water on her sketch.

The river bank location is a natural, she said. She envisioned public waterfront access, a scuba boat launch, a public swimming pool, a tandem Great Lakes shoreline research-and-development facility and a large “settling pond” on the eastern side of the property that would collect, filter and clean storm water run-off from nearby industrial sites before returning it to the river.

McClellan called the area of the Niagara River offshore from Huntley among “the most ecologically sensitive” in the entire river because of its importance to the Atlantic Flyway. It provides habitat for Bonaparte’s gull, great blue heron and other birds, as well as muskellunge spawning areas, she said.

“It’s crucial to the area,” McClellan said.

Steven Buchanan, who’s completing his first year in the program, envisions continuing an industrial use for the site in a more eco-friendly way by recycling fly-ash from Huntley and the dozens of other Great Lakes coal-fired plants. Buchanan’s plan calls for manufacturing “shoreline stabilization modules” – interlocking brick-like pieces – at the Huntley site that can be used not only for softening the shoreline in Tonawanda, but across the region and worldwide.

“My approach to the project was how can we provide jobs,” Buchanan said. “I wanted to pursue a realistic business model.”

“This has a potential to be mass distributed in the Great Lakes region.”

Buchanan’s plan also would remediate contamination at the site and roll out public access over a 20-year period that includes three phases.

Those were a couple of the student proposals Burkholder individually cited as being both pragmatic and meeting the three criteria for the semester-long assignment. The project required students to consider environmental remediation of the site while providing public water access and protecting the economic value of it with regard to jobs and tax revenues.

“None of the projects are hyper-realistic, because there’s no money involved at all,” Burkholder said.

The project’s value, however, is in demonstrating to area residents the types of uses that are possible at the site if electrical generation ends. The professor said he hopes the students’ efforts lead to more ideas and public discussion. “We have the ability to generate a ton of ideas,” Burkholder said. “It opens people’s minds and makes them demand more.”

Rebecca Newberry, an organizer for the Clean Air Coalition, was pleased with what she saw of the students’ concepts, which were publicly displayed last week at the River Road Volunteer Fire Hall.

“We’re really excited to see what the students came up with,” Newberry said. “Western New York has a long history of companies closing and leaving a large wake in their path. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen in Tonawanda.”