Back to the River plan sparks tense debate at London city hall

Concept drawings by Civitas and Stantec for the Back to the River project.
Concept drawings by Civitas and Stantec for the Back to the River project. Concept drawings by Civitas and Stantec

One River, two possible outcomes for the Back to the River plan.

An environmental assessment looking at the revitalization plan for the forks of the Thames, the decommissioned Springbank Dam and the long-term future of the river was on the agenda Tuesday at London’s civic works committee.

Ward 2 councillor Shawn Lewis made another attempt to remove the ribbon bridge from the revitalization plan. The attempt failed, but the committee did endorse a plan to bring forward two business cases, one with the bridge, and one without.

READ MORE: Report pegs cost of Stage 1 of Back to the River at $14.6M, exceeding initial estimate

“We’ve already had half a million dollars of provincial downloading added to the pending multi-year budget already. We are going to have a tough time keeping our multi-year budget at the 2.7 per cent draft target that we just agreed was going to be our starting point,” he said.

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City staff estimate the total cost will be $14.6 million which includes partial removal of the Springbank Dam, construction of a suspended walkway, community gathering space and amphitheatre along the Forks of the Thames in the downtown core.

The updated total is $2.9 million more than the initial budget for the project and the figure could rise still further if council opts for full removal of Springbank Dam.

Ward 4 councillor Jesse Helmer argued in favour of the suspended walkway, saying it would be good for the city.

“Having an amazing urban park in the heart of our city is really important, the design for this particular park is really good and the suspended walkway is adding a lot to what is already a pretty cool park.”

READ MORE: London’s civic works committee signs off on more One River funding

Mayor Ed Holder, who at one time accused Lewis of trying a “side door” to get rid of the walkway, gave another reason for why London should go ahead with the project, arguing the city lacks an iconic landmark.

“I had the US Consulate General in my office and he asked where should I go to take a picture so people know I was in London. He said what about the Forks of the Thames with the fountain going, what about Bud Gardens and he said the best thing I’ve seen so far is Joe Kools.”

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In the end, the committee voted 5-1 to accept the recently completed EA and to examine a business case that would look at the Back to the River project if it didn’t include the suspended bridge. Holder was the only member of the committee to vote against the motion.

The future of the Springbank Dam also sparked debate.

The environmental assessment recommended only a partial removal of the dam, something that didn’t sit well with all members of the committee.

A partial removal would see the electronics, hydraulics and possibly the steel gates at the bottom of the river at a cost of $2.2 million. Full removal would cost more than double that at $5.6 million.

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A partial removal would be fully covered by the $3.48 million settlement the city won as a result of the failed repair job of the dam.

A motion to consider a full removal lost on a 3-3 vote. City staff said politicians could decide to complete the removal at a later date but a decision to move forward with the full removal now would mean another environmental assessment would need to be done at a cost of at least $100,000.

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City council voted unanimously in 2018 to decommission the dam.

Both issues still need final approval from full council next week.