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Vertical Farming: An Upward Idea for a Charlottesville Eyesore


The city of Charlottesville has a problem - a nine-story structure in the middle of its historic downtown mall.  It was supposed to be a luxury hotel, but the original owner went bankrupt, and construction stopped.  Now, a local artist has come up with one possible solution for what many consider an eyesore. 

The unfinished Landmark Hotel was sold at auction to an Atlanta company in 2012, but the buyer has yet to resume construction.  Instead, the tallest building in downtown Charlottesville became a target for vandals, fenced and boarded up.  The city says it can’t force Dewberry Capital to start work, and the company says it probably won’t until some time next year, but local artist Russell Richards has another idea.

“I pass this skeletal building every day, and every time I looked up at it I would envision this structure covered with flowering plants and vines.  You know it’s kind of universally reviled as an eyesore, but I thought that would make it into a beautiful thing.”

That may sound like green pie in the sky, but Richards says it’s not science fiction.

“Vertical farms are catching on, and they’re going to be necessary in the future, because there’s simply not enough land to feed our growing population.”

And his idea was affirmed last month when he ran into a childhood friend from Albemarle County  - a guy who went to Princeton, Harvard and Columbia before founding a company that builds and operates hydroponic greenhouses in or near urban supermarkets.  Ted Caplow says it makes sense to cultivate plants on top of tall buildings and along their walls.

“You have this tremendous surface area of all these buildings.  They have a left side, a right side, a front a back, a top and most of that surface is not being used for anything.  At a first pass, there’s no cost to exploiting that surface, whereas in New York it’s painfully clear to anyone who’s lived there that every square inch of interior space is very highly valued and very highly priced.”

And produce is already costing more as growers in California face a serious shortage of water.   Caplow says cultivating crops in a closed system - like a greenhouse - is 8-10 times more efficient than farming in fields when it comes to water, and growers wouldn’t have to pay for lights if they cultivated crops outside of buildings.

“That’s our margin.  The sunlight is not a small part of the operation.”

The Landmark in its current state.

  By growing in greenhouses, he says, Bright Farms needs no pesticides, there’s no problem with fertilizer running off into local rivers and streams, and the company has found a way to keep plants warm in cold weather.

“We’re building a project in the Midwest that is going to use a waste heat source from an industrial process that’s located next to it, and we can use that waste heat to heat our greenhouse.”

Supermarkets generate lots of heat from their freezers and refrigerators, so Bright Farms has also proposed building lightweight greenhouses on their roofs.

Charlottesville’s city council hasn’t jumped on the idea of turning the Landmark Hotel into a local farm, but artist Russell Richards continues to promote the concept through a TED talk, and in mid-October, Ted Caplow’s Bright Farms will break ground in Northern Virginia on a greenhouse complex to supply Giant stores with tomatoes, lettuce and other greens.

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