The deteriorating state of the Central Park greenhouses is making it difficult to run programs at the facility.
The complex, which includes four greenhouses and a recently renovated, heated outbuilding, is owned by the city and operated by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County.
Cooperative Extension uses the facility for its Roots and Wisdom youth agriculture program, its Master Gardener program, 4-H club programs and community education events.
The greenhouses used to have two staffers, paid through a Department of Social Services grant, to teach horticulture to welfare recipients. DSS cut funding to that program in 2012, however, and since then Cooperative Extension has staffed and heated the structure on its own.
The city, as owner, is responsible for repairs.
Traditionally, heat was turned on during major winter storms to ensure snow wouldn’t accumulate on the roofs and break the glass. This year, a decision was made not to turn on the heat because of multiple holes in the glass.
“It doesn’t make sense to turn the heat on when it’s escaping through the windows,” said Sarah Pechar, CCE’s interim executive director.
Last week, the weight of snow on one of the greenhouses caused a large roof pane to break, and there’s concern others could follow. That greenhouse has been cordoned off for safety reasons. Although none of the other greenhouses has a large snow load on the roof, they aren’t being used because the heat is off.
Seedlings that would typically be grown in a greenhouse right now are being kept under grow lights in the heated building behind the greenhouses, where educational programs are held. More seeds need to be planted soon.
Jenny Hudman, a grower-educator for Roots and Wisdom, said she’s considering getting more grow lights. As the plants grow and begin to take up more room, Hudman said she’s concerned about space restrictions in the outbuilding.
“We run programs out of here, so we’re either going to have people or plants,” she said.
Hudman is also worried the city won’t be able to turn on water to the unheated greenhouses in early March, as is typically done, because of fears the pipes will freeze.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said he is aware of the problems at the greenhouse complex.
“We’re looking for the weather to cooperate a little, and then we’ll look to make repairs and stabilize it,” he said.
McCarthy said the city is looking at different long-term options to address the problems at the aging complex. He said one idea is to put into motion an effort similar to that used at the Central Park Rose Garden — a combination of fundraising, volunteer efforts and help from city staff.
A Friends of the Greenhouse group was formed a few years ago but has not been active recently, according to Hudman.
“It’s maybe not as active as we’d like, but there are still people in that group that want to do something,” McCarthy said.
Pechar said Cooperative Extension is working with the city to develop a long-range plan for the facility and its programs.
“We don’t want to keep doing Band-Aid approaches season by season. There really needs to be a long-term plan for that facility,” she said.
Pechar said she’d like the plan to move along quickly, but all parties involved have to “try to be mindful of the costs of a Band-Aid approach versus a long-term solution to the problem.”
Cooperative Extension has brought in outside greenhouse professionals to give their opinion on how to most efficiently heat the complex. A cost estimate for removing all existing greenhouses and building a single, energy-efficient one has also been obtained and submitted to the city.
McCarthy said the city is looking at all scenarios, noting there is no specific money in the budget to put up a new greenhouse. He’d like to get moving on the long-term plan soon, though, he noted.
“It’s really something we’d like to do in the next year, so that next year at this time, we’ve got something that’s functional and working,” he said.
Knocking down the entire complex and starting over may not be considered an option because one of the greenhouses has historical value. It was built from parts of the greenhouse once attached to the Schenectady home of famed electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz.
If it stays, the historic greenhouse needs renovating, however. According to Hudman, the wood is rotting and the ventilation system is not functioning properly.
Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Innovation and Science, said the greenhouse is worth preserving.
“It’s an important artifact in connection to a great scientist, engineer and community leader, and he was interested in natural education for kids and college students, and this is a way where it can still be used for that today and carry on his original intent,” he said.
Hudman underscored the educational value of the programs run at the greenhouse complex.
“This is the only agricultural program at all in Schenectady County to be able to get kids to have any type of garden experience, and we give tours to the Niskayuna Co-op Nursery School kids, and then we have Master Gardeners here. So, this facility has the potential to do all sorts of events and classes and teach people about things, but we need to have a working facility.”
Pechar said Cooperative Extension’s goal is to offer a broad range of educational programs at the facility year-round, in collaboration with the city and other community partners.
“I don’t think this is a one-year plan. I think you’re looking at potentially three years down the road, five years down the road, to really flush all of this out in a thoughtful manner,” she said.