Downtown Yonkers has undergone a dramatic change in the last decade thanks largely to the inspiring success story of the Saw Mill River Daylighting campaign, a project which was presented last week at GreenHomeNYC’s April Forum.
In the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers redirected a large portion of the Saw Mill River into underground flumes as part of a sanitation and flooding mitigation effort, where it lay hidden from sight for nearly a century. It wasn’t until the 1990s that anyone began to consider the potential for unburying the river, though the idea at the time seemed too massive an undertaking, especially given the hazardous pollution levels from illegal dumping in nearby industrial areas.
When Groundwork Hudson Valley was established in 2000, the non-profit organizations’s board of directors made daylighting the Saw Mill River one of its top priorities, as they felt strongly that it was “key to the city’s renewal.” And they were right. The newly daylighted river wasn’t simply a catalyst for revitalizing downtown; it became “the centerpiece of the city.”
The project, completed in September of 2012, took more than a decade of political lobbying, collaborative initiatives, and local, state and federally-funded environmental cleanup campaigns. The daylighting of the Saw Mill River not only unveiled 13,775 square feet of aquatic habitat, including a tidal pool and two freshwater pools beside the original underground flume, but it also became the centerpiece of a new public plaza where events and workshops are held throughout the year.
The daylighted river and plaza are just steps from the Getty Square intermodal transit hub — served by Metro-North, Amtrak and Westchester’s Bee-Line bus system — making this a prime location for transit-oriented development – and developers have certainly noticed. With former Governor George Pataki’s political and financial backing, the city began to be courted by investors who wanted to cash in on the added value of the open river to development opportunities. The daylighting project was included as part of a $3.1 billion revitalization proposal for downtown Yonkers proposed in 2006 that included a ballpark, aquarium and more mixed-use residential and commericial development. These projects, according to the City of Yonkers, will have created over 900 jobs as a result of the daylighting, and are already attracting new residents to Yonkers.
In addition to the large-scale development, the Saw Mill River daylighting has also helped to draw more attention to the already pedestrian-friendly Getty Square neighborhood, catalyzing the planning of greenways to connect downtown to other areas of Yonkers and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.