Digging Up History

Princess Street is about to change and not just the surface.

While the reconstruction of the bottom two blocks of Princess Street gets a lot of attention for its intrusion into our lives, what gets lost in the talk is how a little bit of Kingston history is going to give way to modernity.

The reconstruction, which begins March 1, 2010, will cost about $4 million and replace the oldest infrastructure in the city.

Princess Street construction, rendering of Princess Street

Underneath Lower Princess Street are stone box sewers that are more than 150 years old. Workers built them out of the bedrock and laid each stone by hand, including the stone archways that make up the roof. The stone box sewers run for about one kilometre under Princess Street, from about Division Street down to the waterfront.

“You can’t maintain these things, but they’re operational,” said Mark Campbell, the city engineer who is overseeing the Princess Street project.

Many of the sewers in the old city were originally built and installed in the 1800s and early part of the 20th century. Workers built each sewer as a combined sewer, meaning that they handled stormwater and sewage. That really didn’t matter though — sewers ran directly into the harbour and waterfront, meaning there was no sewage treatment.

They were eventually attached to the city’s sewage treatment system, but never replaced.

The city and Utilities Kingston have spent millions over the past several years replacing old combined sewers with separated pipes.

When a storm sends a sudden rush of water into the system, combined sewers flow stormwater into the sewage treatment and overwhelm the system’s capacity. To avoid backups into homes and business, untreated wastewater is released into the Cataraqui River. Separating sewers allows for stormwater to flow out to the river while sewage can still be treated without the threat of backups.

The work on Princess Street will take about four months to complete. Work will cover a two-and-a-half block stretch from the Holiday Inn up to King Street, and King Street from Brock Street to just north of Princess Street. The city maintains that the area will be open to pedestrians and businesses will remain open during construction.

Crews will start work almost in front of Pan Chancho and move west. At the same time, work will begin on King Street by Brock Street and move north until the crews meet at the intersection of King and Princess streets. Once work is completed in that area, the focus will shift to the southern portion of the project.

Campbell said at no time will the intersections of Princess and King streets and Princess and Ontario streets be closed at the same time. He added that timelines will be followed.

“It will be done on June 30 one way or another. We will be out of there,” Campbell said.

But that won’t be the end of work on Princess Street. The Downtown Action Plan called for replacing more of what’s taking place this spring. Eventually, the stone box sewers will be replaced and the roadway reconstructed right up to Division Street.

16 thoughts on “Digging Up History

  • If you want to learn more about the issue of sewage bypasses and combined sewers, Utilities Kingston is running an open house at the Central Library tomorrow, presenting findings and recommendations from the Sewer Master Plan.

  • Absolutely incredible! How is it that we are just getting around to replacing 150 year old sewers now? (I realize that some other cities have some pretty old ones too, but that isn't the point :)

    Oh… I forgot; we needed the money (that we don't have) for the K Rock center, and the Grand Theatre, and Market Square, and more ice rinks, and…

    The commenter that mentioned "vanity projects" was dead on.

    • I have to defend the Grand renovations. They were also seriously overdue. Our technical abilities in that theatre before the reno were embarrassingly out of date and as someone who performs there often, a new area for performers was essential. It's still somewhat inadequate but a heck of a lot better, we're not standing on top of each other during intermission anymore and we have more than one toilet. (seriously, one toilet for the entire symphony?!) The pit was a crucial fix up too not only for more space but for the safety of those inside – I've seen one or two instruments get damaged over the years due to things falling in. K Rock on the other hand….

      • And so sewers and the untreated waste water (environmental catastrophe!) is less important than a play that mostly rich people watch in this city? How about the north end and children going without food and school supplies? All for another poorly acted play? The Grand got $19 million for what?

        Typical selfish and ludicrous arts-at-any-cost mentality.

    • Heh. That was me who mentioned the 'vanity projects'*… I am sure the city will tell you that sewerage comes under a different budget heading or some other such spurious explanation. Clearly, once you have a big budget marked 'Enormous White Elephants and Vanity Projects', it can't be changed. Of course, maybe if the sewers we wanted were gold-plated privatized sewers then they might have counted…

      *I don't include the Grand here – it was an alright job. Though of course the Grand gets undermined by the K-Rock Centre rather than supported by it, in so many ways.

  • It IS incredible. But, they are still 'working'. Amazingly, its only been within the last 5 yrs that the City/UK's directive has been to separate old combined sewers. For quite some time, the direction appeared to be replace like with like (i.e. combined with combined). Anyway, the politics of even getting on to Princess St to do ANY work is very tricky. Part of that challenge is the slew of businesses there. Its been revealed in many posts on this website that rental rates in the downtown core, on Princess St are very high. The work will compromise the ability of those businesses to earn income and weather the construction period.

    You are totally right DaveT, it's too bad there is not more money put up for this type of work.

  • The rather good thing about the sewerage works is that it has temporarily (and entirely incidentally) pedestrianised the lower end of Princess Street, which is really nice. With all the vacant lots around for parking cars on (and a new one about to be created on the old Police HQ), there's no reason why a sizeable chunk of that area couldn't be made car-free (which obvious exceptions for the disabled and for deliveries).

  • Flying_Monkey,

    We agree on some things, but not the tiresome anti-car rhetoric… Should those of us who live away from downtown be excluded from enjoying it because it is too far for us to walk, or we don't have an hour or more of time to waste sitting on a bus? Is downtown only for students and tourists, and the rest of us working stiffs (who drive) don't matter?

    You do realize that businesses lose out when customers can't cart their purchases to their cars in a reasonable distance? Or look longingly for a parking spot, can't find one within ten blocks, give up, and go to the Cat Centre… About a month ago, I found a pair of $1500 speakers I loved at Just Hi-Fi; unfortunately since there was nowhere to park, and I was not about to try and lug two 70 pound boxes for ten blocks in the middle of winter, I ended up going to Future Shop, where the staff cheerfully carted my purchase the fifty feet to my car.

    No matter how much the car-haters running this city wish otherwise, I, as with most, will spend my dollars where it is convenient for me. Unfortunately, other than restaurants and night life, that isn't downtown…

    • I agree that this one instance of buying speakers was inconvenient but there are plenty of places to park if you just go down one block from Princess on either side. Side streets like Bagot, Wellington and Barrie for example, have plenty of parking. There's also the Food Basics lot and the Chown lot behind the Grand. I don't think Flying_Monkey is suggesting that drivers can't come downtown but that you can walk once you're there. You can walk from Division St. to the water in 10-15 minutes, tops. If you did want to buy a large item, tell the store that you would if they make it convenient for you (like getting it to your car or delivering it) and I guarantee they'll do everything they can to make the sale.

    • Dave, Danielle is right. You seem to want this to be a black and white issue. It isn't. And I am not 'anti-car'. My wife and I have a car, which we use when necessary. We are drivers, and cyclists, bus and railway users and walkers. And we don't live downtown either. What i am 'anti-' is everything being designed around the car and for the convenience of people who only want to use a car all the time, everytime. For cities to be liveable, there needs to be a better balance. And I am rather bemused b the idea that Kingston is run by 'car-haters' – what's your evidence for this?

      • I'm not sure how to explain my point in the limited space here (it probably would be easier and more enjoyable over some good wine and a good dinner), but here goes…
        There seems to be a growing conflict over what people consider "liveable". Among trendy urban planners, the term seems to mean "dense", as in large numbers of people crammed into small areas. To accomplish their goals, these planners have chosen to try "negative reinforcement" (i.e. making it increasingly miserable for those living outside the downtown core of cities to travel by car). And city politicians (including Kingston's) have jumped on the bandwagon, as the concept fits their ideologies, and funnels business to their downtown cronies.
        The trouble with these grand theories is most people don't want to live in undersized, overpriced downtown apartments and highrise condos like battery hens. They want a yard to relax and BBQ in, They want a garage. They want to able to listen to music without having to worry about the neighbours banging on the ceiling. Most of all, they are tired of being ignored other than as cash cows to fund projects downtown.

        • Thanks, Dave. Needless to say, I disagree! I taught urban planning for six years and that is a caricatured description of the debate. A liveable city has got nothing necessarily to do with highrise. The highrise and condo thing has much more to do with commercial desires to maximise the return from high value areas of land. The rhetoric used to justify this shouldn't be confused with what I am talking about. I can't see any serious policy for liveability of any kind in Kingston. What I can see is landowners acting with impunity to maximise their profits, I see the city closing off access to the waterfront, I see no strategy for sustainability or liveability at all.

          • In most caricatures there is an element of truth, no? A lot of planners DO frame the debate in this fashion, especially when they use buzzwords like "urban sprawl" and "sustainable". In fact, you seem to be agreeing with me on the motives behind the battle cry for "denser" housing. As in $$$… But I think you hit the nail on the head reference the waterfront. Funny how nothing seems to be allowed there except for view- blocking high rise condos and hotels…

            I grew up near Halifax in the 70's and 80's, and saw a waterfront of abandoned warehouses, slums, and trash turned into a thriving area full of boardwalks with restaurants, shops, buskers, and vendors. The contrast with our unused, empty, soulless "waterfront" couldn't be more striking…

          • Absolutely. There's a big contrast between cities which have rediscovered waterfronts as places to reconnect the city to the water, and places which privatise them and gradually cut off the water from the city. Kingston is a bit inbetween. There's places where the government has reconnected the city and then other places (the prime sites, of course) where it seems to cut off more and more.

  • I agree totally – it would be pretty sweet to see a pedestrianized downtown core.

    I don't quite follow your references to the 'sewerage'… Here are the facts though: sanitary (& combined) sewers and watermain projects are paid out of the rates you pay on your Utility bills (that's why they are set up as utilities – they are supposed to be structured as self-sustaining business units), where as road resurfacing, storm sewers, sidewalks, etc will come out of the municipal property taxes you pay. The Princess St job is a joint City/UK project.

  • Neglect of this condition by city hall is now responsible for large increases in insurance premiums and deductibles throughout the city.
    We have an expanded treatment plant now that is much larger than needed this however did not stop recent overflow throughout down town. We are all paying the insurance companies for this now. Thanks UT Kingston for your apparent incompetence.

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