Unburying history to spark revitalization: Groundwork Hudson Valley daylights Saw Mill River by Payton Heins, Program Officer – Communications and Research

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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City and Yonkers, New York for the Groundwork USA Conference. The meeting kicked off with a whirlwind introduction to the work being performed all across the country by the organization – a national network of Groundwork Trusts helping drive community-based revitalization of blighted and contaminated sites. During the conference, I not only had the chance to chat with some phenomenal Groundwork practitioners and hear about their communities while we shared some great local wine, but I also got to see the interim results of Groundwork Hudson Valley’s breathtaking project – the Daylighting of Saw Mill River.

The Saw Mill River in Yonkers’ downtown has gone through several transformations and seen many years of intensive land use. Named after a former saw mill built along the waterway back in the mid-1600s, the river rests right outside the Yonkers central train station, a primary gateway into the downtown. It flows directly into the Hudson River and over time has become one of the largest contributors to pollution in the Hudson. As happened throughout many U.S. cities at the time, in the 1920s the Army Corps of Engineers buried the river to manage sanitation. The thought was that by covering the polluted waterway, residents would be protected from its negative impacts.

Eventually however, the cement that buried the river became an empty parking lot surrounded almost entirely by vacant commercial properties. It was adding little to the beauty and the economic stability of the downtown, while at the same time posing a major threat to the natural habitat. Much of the wildlife had died off after centuries without daylight. For these reasons, it became critical to community stakeholders that something be done. With plenty of community interest in revitalizing the site, Groundwork Hudson Valley formed the Saw Mill River Coalition. The process of daylighting, or removing the cement covering the river and restoring the waterway, presented the best opportunity to provide a community amenity, attract business and begin to undo the ecological degradation.

Yonkers isn’t the first to do this. Other cities have also looked to daylighting as a revitalization strategy and – as is the case with Kalamazoo, Michigan and its downtown Arcadia Creek – have seen an increase in annual property tax revenues and community programming.

The Saw Mill River Coalition, made up of various public and private sector partners, succeeded in securing initial funding from the State of New York along with funding from federal agencies and private foundations. The community remained a key partner in the planning process, participating in numerous public charrettes and outlining their interests through a Community Benefits Agreement. In 2011, deconstruction of the existing plaza and parking lot uncovered the waterway that had been flowing into the mighty Hudson River for nearly a century unnoticed. Today, the river now serves as a large aquatic habitat, an overflow channel to protect the community from flooding, a public park and an education center. More than ten years from initial conversations about revitalizing the site and $17 million later, the coalition has a lot to show for its lasting commitment. Local government officials, city residents, philanthropists, environmentalists, engineers, Groundwork and its Green Team youth all worked together to give the river back to the community, and continue to play a major role in its maintenance. Saw Mill River’s daylighting has shown positive results. As the Groundwork guides pointed out on our tour, new businesses have popped up around the vibrant river park and breathed life back in to the downtown. Even on a cold and windy weekday afternoon, people were passing through the park and enjoying the scenery. The formerly underutilized plaza and parking lot site had become something for the city to take great pride in. And it’s only expected to get better as the coalition has plans to expand daylighting and increase river access further upstream.

The Saw Mill River Daylighting project is a great example of a community-driven and environmentally-conscious strategy for reclaiming forgotten spaces – with the result being a welcoming public space for new businesses to invest in and for existing residents to enjoy. If you’re ever near Yonkers, it’s worth the visit!

For more information on stream and river daylighting to revitalize communities, click here.

Community Progress is always looking for innovative revitalization strategies to share with communities across the country through the Building American Cities Toolkit. If your community has its own great story to share, please contact us!

Saw Mill River

View of the daylighted Saw Mill River in the direction of the train station and Hudson River.