Backyard Matters

River's Rebirth Gives New Life to Struggling City

In Yonkers, daylighting the Saw Mill River sets the stage for environmental and business improvements.

When is a river not a river? When it’s buried beneath pavement.

For 80 years that was the sad fate of the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers, a city on the Hudson River half an hour by train from downtown Manhattan.

When the industrial stench from this tributary—known to Native Americans as the Nepperhan, or “sparkling little stream”—began to overwhelm the downtown, city fathers in the 1920s decided to channel it underground through tunnels. For decades, it flowed below a huge parking lot.

No longer. Today, the Saw Mill again sparkles in the sunlight. And soon it will be surrounded by a magnificent, two-acre park. It’s truly a river reborn.

daylighting the saw mill river in yonkers, ny

At $18 million, the Saw Mill initiative may be smaller than riverfront revitalization successes in San Antonio, Providence or Cincinnati (recently profiled in this New York Times article. But this victory proves that whatever the size of the project, communities can derive enormous economic and environmental benefits from restoring their natural and cultural treasures.

It also highlights the critical importance of collaboration. Uncovering—or “daylighting”—this 800-foot stretch of the Saw Mill, the site of Yonkers’ original 17th-century settlement, required an extraordinary public-private partnership whose members contributed unique and essential talents. They included Scenic Hudson (the environmental organization I lead), which initially conceived of the daylighting concept; the grassroots coalition Groundwork Hudson Valley, which is working to clean up the entire Saw Mill and enabled the creation of an outdoor classroom in the new park; Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, who oversaw completion of the project, and the city’s Common Council, which authorized critical funding; and two governors—George Pataki, who provided early inspiration, and Andrew Cuomo, whose administration funded important design elements that will help clean the river.

We worked together for eight years to see this project take off. Why the persistence? We recognized a daylighted Saw Mill could provide a much-needed catalyst for turning around Yonkers’ fortunes. Like many of America’s former industrial cities, New York’s fourth-largest metropolis has faced daunting budgetary and economic challenges. Studies show that even small but well-designed downtown parks can attract new residents and jobs, in the process enhancing property values and sales tax revenue.

The daylighting project already has offered some economic relief via 200 construction jobs; projections suggest that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Eventually the park is expected to generate 1,000 permanent new jobs and a $5- to $6-million-dollar jump in revenues of local restaurants and businesses.

In addition, several exciting residential and commercial development projects that call for daylighting more of the Saw Mill and extending its riverwalk park are on the drawing board. They could deliver up to 5,000 more permanent jobs and as much as $30 million in new property taxes annually.

Mayor Spano considers the daylighting project critical to achieving his vision of making Yonkers a tourist destination and mecca for new business. It also will provide substantial health benefits to residents, the environment and wildlife. Research indicates that living near open space—even an inner-city park—improves our health, lengthens our lives and narrows the “health gap” between rich and poor. At the same time, the project will make for a cleaner Hudson River, the foundation of the entire region’s $4.7-billion tourism economy. It has been engineered to capture 170 tons of trash that empty into the Hudson each year from the Saw Mill. And fish ladders on the open-air streambed will make it easier for imperiled eels to swim up this tributary to lay their eggs in the river’s restored habitats.

The daylighted Saw Mill marks the third great collaborative victory in restoring the glory and economies of the Hudson’s riverfront cities. The first was the transformation of a long-shuttered Nabisco box-printing factory in Beacon into Dia:Beacon, considered one of the world’s most exciting modern art museums. The second turned the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, an eyesore since a 1974 fire halted train service, into Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The world’s longest elevated pedestrian span, it has drawn more than 1.3 million visitors since its 2009 opening.

It’s exciting to watch how these projects—each of which has received worldwide acclaim—are restoring the vibrancy of their respective cities. It’s even more exciting to visit them. I hope you’ll make the trip soon.

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Scenic Hudson
Hudson's mission is to protect and restore the Hudson River and its majestic landscape as an irreplaceable national treasure and a vital resource for residents and visitors.

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