Neighborhood develops plans for unique solar sculpture

A model of the projectA model of the projectWhen the Bay Creek Neighborhood Association (BCNA) originally approached local artist Aaron Laux, they came with a modest request—design some new neighborhood signs, because the old ones presented a decrepit, dilapidated image of the neighborhood.

Nobody expected that the relatively simple project would evolve into a plan for a massive 25 foot tall sculpture featuring a 30 foot long mosaic made from solar panels.

In early 2011, the BCNA applied for a city grant for new signs, which the grant program’s panel approved with one condition—the panel asked the group to come up with something more interesting and distinctive than signs. They suggested a neighborhood gateway structure.

“We really took their challenge and ran with it,” Laux said.

The still-evolving plan now includes a sign, solar sculpture, and possible edible landscape feature (food-producing plants set in a visually pleasing way) that the BCNA hopes to put in an empty lot across from Goodman Park on Olin Avenue. Laux, the head artist for the project, said other ideas have also been suggested to make the area more like a park, such as a community garden and council ring.

Linda Horvath, from the City of Madison’s Planning Division, said Bay Creek’s gateway proposal “goes above and beyond a typical entrance.” Because it uses a local artist and intends to reach out to the community, the project ranks highly on the Neighborhood Grant Program’s scoring criteria.

“It’s really making a statement as to what the neighborhood is,” Horvath said.

Laux agreed, saying the project emphasizes the ethic of stewardship and sustainability that he thinks characterizes this “massively liberal” neighborhood. He mentioned the possibility of extending the project’s scope to include an educational program involving students at nearby Franklin Elementary School.

The full project has yet to be presented to the community at large, though the group working on it showed it at a BCNA meeting in early March. Around twenty people attended and gave mostly positive feedback, Laux said.

As the plans stand now, metal and concrete pillars with an outer layer of wood will extend 25 feet above ground, connected only by solar panels. The design of these panels is reminiscent of the disc-like mushrooms that grow on the sides of trees.

The project’s team plans to sell the predicted 2000 to 2500 kilowatt-hours produced by the solar panels to Madison Gas and Electric (MG&E), feeding the energy back into the city’s system.

“From the research we’ve done, there’s nothing like this in the world,” Laux said. “There are solar sculptures out there, but very few of them really incorporate the solar panel into the design, you know, quite the way we’re hoping to.”

But solar panels are expensive. Laux estimates the entire gateway project will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We’ve wrapped our minds around the fact that this will cost a lot of money, for sure, but why not? We deserve it,” Laux said. “I think we should have something nice in our neighborhood. And why not do something creative and interesting and innovative?”

Phase one of the project – making the sign and developing the site – is projected to cost around $15,000, according to a report on the City of Madison website. This phase has to be completed this year because of the grant contract.

BCNA Secretary, Dan Kennelly, applied for the neighborhood grant in 2011, winning Bay Creek 6,000 dollars from the city for the first phase. The neighborhood has to match that amount through fundraising.

As for phase two, Laux said they expect to apply for more grants. They may also try to get community residents to buy individual solar panels to contribute to the project.

While four people have been driving the gateway project through hundreds of hours of volunteer work, dozens of others have helped on the side. Laux said the project has already done what they intended it to do—bring the community together.

“This is a collaborative effort and it’s been through the hard work of a number of different individuals. The number keeps growing every day. We get more and more enthusiasm for this project and more volunteers,” Laux said.

Kennelly added that the grassroots nature of the effort has “highlighted the fact that Bay Creek is blessed with many skilled, creative, and community-minded residents.”

The Madison Planning Department, where Horvath manages the neighborhood grant program, has also been very supportive and helpful, Laux said.

“We hope that it’s successful for the neighborhood. And we’re excited to see the end product,” Horvath said.

Much remains undecided at this stage of the project, even besides the cost. For example, the design team has yet to meet with MG&E. Much of the design depends on the electrical and structural engineering of the sculpture, which depends on the type of solar panels they pick. And everything hinges on meeting city codes.

“All of this may or may not be possible in the end, but we’re certainly going to try,” Laux said.