Daylighting the Saw Mill River
The term daylighting is used to describe the restoration of rivers that have been covered up with concrete, usually as a result of past public works in urban areas.
For more than a decade the Saw Mill River Coalition and its parent organization, Groundwork Hudson Valley, have led the effort to bring the Saw Mill River to daylight. Part of the revitalization of downtown Yonkers, this project has enormous ecological, economic and cultural significance. On November 15, 2011, after many years of organizing, waters began to flow aboveground in downtown Yonkers for the first time in 90 years – a major achievement for both the Coalition and the City.
With the aboveground riverbed we have recreated 13,775 square feet of aquatic habitat, including a tidal pool and two freshwater pools. The new natural river flows parallel to the preexisting underground flume, which now serves as an overflow channel to protect the integrity of the new park and the downtown area from floods.
The old Larkin Plaza, including the parking lot that sat on top of the underground river, has been transformed into a public park. The Grand Opening occurred during Riverfest on September 8th 2012. The Saw Mill River Coalition and Groundwork Hudson Valley have worked with local partners — including the City of Yonkers, the Project for Public Spaces, Inc., the Public Library, the Beczak Environmental Education Center, the Friends of Phillipse Manor Hall, and area businesses — to develop the interpretive elements for this new space. Through educational exhibits, residents and visitors will be able to investigate the river’s history and the various ways in which human activity has affected its ecology over the past 400 years.
In the 1920s, engineers undertook a project to bury the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers in order to manage sanitation and floods. The final phase at Larkin Plaza was completed in 1922. After flowing through the newly-constructed flume, the river emptied into the Hudson River at a point immediately north of the Yonkers Pier.
Afterward the river was banished underground for 90 years, devastating local plants and wildlife while robbing the community of public park space and a flowing river.
The Daylighting Campaign
Efforts to get people involved in the daylighting of the Saw Mill River have taken many forms over the years. Early on, tours of the river’s underground tunnels and culverts for public officials and other interested parties helped win a $3.1 billion commitment from a local realty group, Struever-Fidelco-Capelli, to build housing, offices, and commercial space along the river’s path. Shortly thereafter, and with the help of Scenic Hudson in Albany, our river advocacy efforts succeeded in convincing the administration of New York Governor George Pataki to designate $34 million to the daylighting project.
From the start, it has been our goal that the daylighted river and accompanying downtown revitalization be shared and enjoyed by everyone in the Yonkers community. For this reason, we have sought support from local groups since the earliest stages of the project through a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). From 2005 through 2010 we also held roundtables and charrette sessions, made possible by multiple grants from the Hudson River Foundation, which involved Yonkers students, teachers, artists, community groups, businesses, and local officials as well as architects and ecologists in the planning process. Their ideas have had a major impact on the cultural, environmental, and recreational elements of the daylighting and the new park.
In our plans for the daylighting, the Coalition has placed much emphasis on ensuring that the newly created habitat will support existing species, most notably the American eel. To aid the eels in their difficult migratory journey up the slope in Larkin Plaza, we have implemented a fish ladder, called an Alaskan steep-pass, as well as rock structures called ‘riffles.’ Both along the bank and in the river bed, we have included plant species that attract beneficial insects to encourage food chains and help sustain aquatic life.
Who is “Van der Donck?”
Adriaen Van der Donck was quite amazing! He was the “new world’s” first lawyer. And, he was labeled “young gentleman” or “jonkheer” in Dutch which became the name of Yonkers! Enchanted by his new homeland of New Netherland, Van der Donck made detailed accounts of the land, vegetation, animals, waterways, topography, and climate. Van der Donck used this knowledge to actively promote immigration to the colony, publishing several tracts, including his influential Description of New Netherland. Click here for more about Van der Donck!
Follow this link to learn about the Mayor’s visit and the wildlife we’ve found in the daylighted river.
Journal News article about the daylighting celebration on December 6, 2011
New York Times editorial on August 22, 2011, about the Yonkers daylighting project
Informational Articles about Daylighting in General:
“Giving New Life to Streams: Tales from Two Towns,” from The National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program website: http://www.nps.gov/rtca.
“Daylighting: New Life for Buried Streams,” Richard Pinkham, Rocky Mountain Institute 2000.
For information, contact:
Director of River Programs
Groundwork Hudson Valley/Saw Mill River Coalition
22 Main St., 2nd Floor
Yonkers, NY 10701
Cell: (914) 815-5872