DARTMOUTH – The topic of daylighting Dartmouth’s Sawmill River will be back before Harbour East Community Council this Thursday in the form of a staff report. Unfortunately, the report is overly negative, treats daylighting in a very superficial way, ignores the original vision for the Canal Greenway Park and doesn’t provide council with the information requested in their original motion. The report was clearly not written with a willingness to explore daylighting as a potential option. It focuses exclusively on the barriers and offers no discussion of what daylighting would look like or the potential benefits. Its sole purpose seems to be to justify the decision to abandon daylighting in the Greenway, a decision that has clearly been made by staff months ago without any public discussion. It’s one-sided and deeply flawed. This is my rebuttal.
Planning History in the Greenway
The first thing to make clear is what council actually approved as the “preferred direction” for development of the Greenway. In 2008, council approved the 2006 Ekistics plan as Phase II of the Canal Greenway. The 2006 plan was composed of four main elements (1) heritage interpretation of the Shubenacadie Canal and Starr Manufacturing site (2) a multi-use trail (3) a daylighted Sawmill River and (4) a new playground. The vision in the 2006 plan was supported by public consultation and was meant to guide development of the park. The vision, however, has been lost on the way to implementation. The latest 2014 plan has jettisoned the daylighted river and playground and greatly diminished the trail. The Greenway has gone from a multi-use park that interprets heritage as well as providing for daily recreation needs to a space that is primarily an outdoor museum. This is not a recipe for great public space (see my detailed look at the changes between the two plans here) and it has been done without any public discussion.
In its rush to discredit daylighting, the current staff report ignores the Greenway’s planning history. In identifying what council approved in 2008, the report specifically references the trail and interpretive facilities, but buries the river and playground in the heading “updating of the previous masterplan to reflect changes in site conditions.” Daylighting Sawmill River has been part of the vision for the Greenway from as far back as the first Ekistics plan in 2004, had shrunk in size but was still an integral part in the approved 2006 plan and was still in the mix as late as 2013 when staff referenced it in the development agreement for the neighbouring Seagate project. Pretending it wasn’t a key part of the Greenway plan for nine years is misleading (checkout what was approved for yourself on page 7 of the 2008 report here).
After glossing over the Greenway’s planning saga, the staff report indicates daylighting Sawmill River was explored, but was ruled out due to “restricted land access, elevation issues and potential costs.” The report then proceeds to explore the “Barriers to Daylighting Sawmill Creek.*” Options for tackling the “barriers” and examining potential advantages of daylighting are never considered or explored.
The staff report says that a daylighted Sawmill River would require 30 meters of space to accommodate a flood plane and would result in the removal of important archaeological remains. All of this may be true if the daylighted waterway was going to run the entire length of the Greenway and was going to be solely relied upon to bring storm water to the harbour, but that is simply not the case for any except the most simplistic scenario. The approved 2006 Ekistics vision for the Greenway made a trade-off between historical preservation and daylighting by putting the stream in the lower half of the Greenway, safely separated from the recently unearthed turbine chamber and the marine railway. If a daylighted stream isn’t run the entire length of the Greenway, there is more than enough room for both heritage and water.
When the neighbouring Seagate project was going through the municipal approval process in 2013, staff actually wrote about the potential to divert a portion of Sawmill River to the surface while retaining a pipe to handle peak storm flows (see page 8 for a more open-minded staff opinion). This would greatly reduce space requirements by minimizing the area needed for a flood plane. It is actually the ingenious solution employed by Yonkers, New York when that city daylighted its Saw Mill River. In a Yonkers style approach, the massive 30 meter wide flood plane envisioned by staff would likely not be needed because the pipe would provide all the capacity needed to handle storms.
The HRM report doesn’t describe what daylighting option was considered, but the negative statements suggests that staff imagined a daylighted river running the whole length of the greenway, destroying all heritage elements on site and needing to handle the entire flow of the river and a Hurricane Beth type storm. This is not what was envisioned in the Ekistics plans and isn’t what staff themselves suggested might be possible when the minds were still open to daylighting back in 2013. The current report is unimaginative, simplistic and superficial.
The staff report references the goal of recreating the Greenway’s historic elements as they appeared in 1862 when the marine railway and Starr plant were in operation. The report says that at that time, the water flowed through a tail race and not a stream. The suggestion is that a daylighted waterway would not be historically accurate and it’s heritage that trumps all else in the Greenway. There is one big problem with this conclusion, where did the water go when it left the tail race? Answer, it flowed out of the tail race in the lower portion of the Greenway right where daylighting was envisioned in the 2006 Ekistics plan. Water would actually be more historically accurate! It should also be noted that the Starr plant didn’t use all of the water coming from Sullivan’s Pond. The 1878 Hopkins map for Dartmouth clearly shows a small stream flowing through the site. Recreating 1862 isn’t a good reason to skip daylighting.
The staff report does note that the soils on site are contaminated and, as a result, excavating and then disposing of them could be costly. Daylighting would also increase the cost of the Alderney/Portland intersection redesign. Both of these points are undoubtedly true, but, unfortunately, the report is completely bereft of actual estimates. This is in spite of council’s motion asking for “full-cost accounting.” The cost of daylighting could be prohibitive, but it could also be a bargain when all the potential costs and benefits are taken into account. In other cities, daylighting has sparked economic development, bringing in more tax revenue while at the same time reducing long-term infrastructure costs. Does it make good financial sense in Dartmouth? It’s impossible to say with the complete lack of information provided.
Unfortunately, when it comes to options and costing, Halifax Water is deliberately withholding the facts. A Freedom of Information Request by the Ecology Action Centre for the CBCL background report on replacing the pipe, which presumably includes design and cost estimates for various options, has been denied. The Freedom to Information provisions in Nova Scotia’s Municipal Government Act specifically prohibit Halifax Water from denying the release of “background information” which is defined, amongst other things, as “factual material” and “a feasibility or technical study, including a cost estimate relating to policy or a project of a municipality.” Halifax Water claims the Sawmill River report constitutes advice to elected representatives and involves security for critical infrastructure (see the CBC story on our city’s top secret fire hydrants for more on that ridiculous argument). The utility is abusing the provisions of the Freedom to Information Act and the result is a diminished public debate. Without real estimates, it’s impossible to say if daylighting makes sense. How can council make any kind of informed decision without numbers? How can the public weigh whether the cost and effort makes sense? The utility and city should be upfront about the data. After all, it’s the citizens who paid for it, are paying for the pipe replacement and are paying for the Greenway Park.
After presenting all the negative objections available to the most superficial daylighting option imaginable, the staff report moves into the more outlandish. The report says that a daylighted river would need to be entirely built with concrete walls and have grates over the top for “safety reasons.” Really? The stream would need to be grated over? In places where the river enters underground pipes like Alderney/Portland, there would need to be grates over the entrance since confined spaces, filled with moving water, can be deadly. Suggesting, however, that the length of the river would need to be covered with metal is taking safety to an illogical extreme. Should we be worried that our Harbour boardwalk doesn’t have railings? What about all that open water on our lakes? The idea of grating over the whole waterway for safety reasons is absurd.
Consulting the Public
The most frustrating part of HRM’s report on daylighting Sawmill River is the final section, “community engagement.” The report simply concludes that community engagement took place as part of the Canal Greenway Phase II Coordinated Open Space Development Plan. Let’s be clear, Phase II was the 2006 Ekistics plan, which is now almost a decade old. The 2006 plan is also very different from what the municipality actually wants to build. The original vision included a daylighted waterway, central trail and playground, but these elements have all vanished. Since the Ecology Action Centre launched its campaign to daylight Sawmill River, there have been numerous stories in the media, favourable editorials, a petition is nearing 1,000 names, Dartmouth’s MP, Robert Chisholm hosted an open house on the subject, residents attended two walking tours of the river’s route and Dartmouth’s five city councillors were unanimous in asking for a staff report. In all of this public interest and activity, there has been zero involvement by the municipality. The public is interested, but the municipality won’t engage. The only people who have been able to offer any formal input into the new plan is the Shubenacadie Canal Commission. Other cities would celebrate the creation of a signature new park, but in Dartmouth, the public is being shut out and information on the project is being actively withheld. This is a terrible way to go about planning. The truly strange thing is we know better, just look at the consultation that went into the new and much celebrated Central Library. The Library should have set a standard in this city for big public projects, but the lessons learned haven’t been translated into action across the harbour in Dartmouth. Given the significant changes to the Greenway’s original vision and the public interest, the project calls out for public engagement and discussion. It’s a real shame that there is apparently no interest in talking to Dartmouthians about the future of their park.
Given the negative staff report and the new plan, staff’s direction on the Greenway is clear: replace the pipe and build the watered down Greenway Park. The only thing that can save Sawmill River now and the original vision of a multi-use park is intervention by the five councillors that make up Harbour East Community Council. After 17 years of development, the easy path for them to follow is to allow the watered down and uninspiring plan to go forward rather than risk any further delays, but this would be a mistake. Opportunities to daylight tend to only come around when infrastructure needs work and this is definitely the case right now in Dartmouth. The development of the Greenway, upgrades to the Alderney/Portland and the need to replace the existing pipe is a once in a generation convergence and a chance that may never come again. It’s worth real consideration, not the superficial analysis that staff have prepared. Dartmouth’s political leaders should demand a second opinion.
*The staff report references the Sawmill as a creek while public discussion has labelled it a river. It’s doesn’t have any real practical effect, but there is something to be said for the label used. A creek conjures up an image of a small body of water whereas a river is mighty. I’m not versed enough in the history to offer an opinion on the evolving name over the years, but on the very first map of Halifax by M. Harris, 1750, it was labelled Sawmill River so I have gone with that.