Home About Us Advertise City Guide Contact Us Interiors Past Issues Subscription

Quick Search:
Advanced Search

FEATURE 2 Deconstructing the Big Dig

On the morning of March 1, 2010, a convoy of trucks and uniformed men and women rumbled into downtown Kingston, erected traffic-blocking barricades at the intersection of King Street and Princess Street, started building equipment stockpiles and positioned sentries at the corners to direct pedestrians around the zone of operations. Observers remarked at how quickly the teams moved in and took control of the perimeter.

Photo: Paul Wash

    This being a military town, it might have been some sort of urban training exercise for soldiers at Canadian Forces Base Kingston, but because the arriving hordes wore reflective vests and orange and yellow hardhats, the obvious reality was more mundane: It was the commencement of a four-month road construction project dubbed the Big Dig, and its purpose was to replace the aged water, sewer and electrical lines under the streets with more reliable, 21st-century infrastructure.
    The $4-million project had been scheduled for years, but had been put off repeatedly because of the disruption to commerce and traffic it was expected to create. Many downtown merchants and commuters still remembered the hassles generated by the 2005 rebuilding of Wellington Street between Princess and Queen streets and the 2006-07 overhaul of Market Square. For various reasons these projects lasted longer than expected and, by hindering travel and access for potential customers, put several local businesses on the brink of survival. Merchants on Lower Princess feared the same would happen again. Michael Robinson, the erstwhile proprietor of the now-defunct S&R Discount Department Store, cited the impending roadwork in front of his store as one of the reasons he decided to close the downtown Kingston landmark last June after 50 years in business. So did Jeni Richards, who earlier this year closed her 18-year-old Princess Street flower shop, Paradiso.
    At the same time, the need for the work was clear. In the past year, the century-old limestone sewer beneath Kingston’s main drag had backed up during heavy rainstorms and flooded the basements of downtown businesses, including the Source for Sports sporting goods store and the Golden Rooster delicatessen. The latter suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in water damage and was forced to close for months for repairs.
    More broadly, the same Victorian sewer, which lies under a large area of the downtown, is part of the reason why the city must occasionally divert thousands of tonnes of raw sewage into the Cataraqui River during extraordinary rainfalls. There have been extensive improvements to the system over the years — most notably the building of the Ravensview Water Pollution Control Plant and the River Street Pumping Station upgrade — but when the rain buckets down in an extended storm, the city’s old sewers sometimes can’t handle the volume of effluent flowing through them. Projects like the Big Dig on Lower Princess reduce the likelihood of sewer backups and emergency dumps into the river.
    By now, most Kingstonians know the results of the Big Dig. Princess Street from King Street to the waterfront Holiday Inn has been repaved, as well as King Street between Brock and Princess, and new pipes for water, sewage and electrical wires lie under the asphalt. Above ground, the remade sections feature new concrete sidewalks, granite-walled flower boxes, steel benches, and receptacles for garbage and recyclables. New rosebud-shaped streetlights with a heritage look have replaced their dated five-globe predecessors that still remain farther up the street.
    The physical transformation takes Kingston one gratifying step closer to the completion of its Downtown Action Plan, a municipal planning document that outlines how the city will upgrade and replace the deteriorating roads, sewers and other infrastructure in a 36-block chunk of the downtown core. But the real story of the Big Dig is less about the construction itself than about how the demanding job was accomplished on time and without dealing fatal blows to the stores and restaurants in the thick of it. Yes, there was inconvenience, and blockbuster traffic jams sometimes frustrated hundreds of shoppers and commuters, but if you ask those who had the most to lose — the merchants in the heart of the Big Dig, whose businesses and livelihoods hinged on a smooth-running project that didn’t drag on through the summer — you’ll hear remarkably few complaints about those who carried out the work. Mostly, you’ll hear praise.
    “They were honest, they were up-front, they worked with you,” says Michael Tenenhouse, owner of A-One Clothing Store at the corner of King and Princess. “When we had some issues, they dealt with them.”

Crews on the final day of construction

Photo: Blair Segsworth, Steve Maclean, Michelle Godfrey, Brittany Campbell, Lloyd Anderson, Andrew Davison, Braydon Mclean, Cole Barkley, Ben Wheeler; by Alec Ross

Planning makes perfect
The planning process that led to the Big Dig began roughly two years ago. That’s when the various players — the City of Kingston’s engineering and public works departments, Utilities Kingston, the Kingston Construction Association, the Downtown Kingston! business improvement area (BIA) and retailers in the affected area — began meeting, separately and together, to discuss the challenges of the project and how they should be managed. Experience from the Market Square and Wellington Street projects suggested that better and frequent communication among all the stakeholders would be essential to success, and so much attention was devoted to the subject. These conversations would prove to be invaluable.
    For instance, the BIA informed the other groups that merchants in the construction zone required at least a year’s notice of the project’s start date. Storeowners typically order their inventories six months to a year in advance and needed time to adjust their orders to account for any changes in customer traffic or sales volume that the project might bring about. They had to plan marketing strategies and decide whether they were going to lay off staff or close for part of the construction period. Eventually, the start date was set: Spring 2010, as soon as the ground frost thawed.
    Some of the most widely shared merchant concerns were practical: How would product deliveries reach the stores? What about garbage and recycling pickups? How would customer access to their front doors be maintained? These were pertinent questions because the construction on Princess and King would span the entire street, storefront to storefront, so that water and electrical services running into building basements could be upgraded at the same time as the sewer and water lines under the roads. Doing everything simultaneously was logical, but because it meant tearing up the sidewalks and blocking their front doors, it stood to create major logistical headaches for the merchants.
    In light of concerns associated with keeping businesses running, the city employed a novel process to choose a contractor for the job. Normally when the city delegates work of this sort, it places notices in local newspapers inviting contractors to submit a bid, and whoever submits the lowest price gets the job. For the Big Dig, however, the municipality instead issued — in a Kingston first for a major construction project — a Request for Proposal (RFP), a document that asked bidders a set of questions about how they would tackle the job and not just how much it would cost. How would they manage pedestrian access to businesses? What about deliveries? Site safety? Traffic control? Each section was awarded points, and the contractor who scored the most points overall got the job. In this scenario, the lowest price would not automatically win, since price was only one of the criteria on which the bidders were being scored.
    There were two bidders, and Len Corcoran Excavating Ltd., a family-owned company based in Elginburg, won the job, largely because of the detail its bid proposal provided about its communications strategy. Most of those sections were drafted by Stacey Corcoran, the 29-year-old daughter of the firm’s president, Dan Corcoran. Normally Stacey handles some of the billing for the company and leads its health-and-safety and new-worker orientation workshops, but she stepped in to help write the bid because, unlike the Corcoran office staff, who are used to responding to “normal” tenders, she had prior experience in drafting RFPs for grant proposals through her involvement with the area’s ‘buy local’ food movement. She also volunteered to be Corcoran’s on-site communications officer, a position that the RFP required.
    “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says.

Communications groundwork
Soon after Corcoran Excavating won the contract in August 2009 — a full six to seven months before the project was expected to start — Stacey started meeting face-to-face with the merchants who would be most affected by the work. “I felt it was important that they knew the plan and that they knew me personally,” she says.
    Meanwhile, staff from Corcoran Excavating, the relevant municipal departments, and Utilities Kingston began doing advance work on-site. They visited all the businesses in the work zone to pinpoint the basement locations of water and electrical conduits. Outside, they sank test holes to determine, as accurately as they could, whether there might be any archeological or environmental surprises lurking underground that might stall the project.
    Everyone knew the potential for such surprises in the city’s oldest section was high, which in turn made meeting the June 30 deadline something of a gamble.
    “As soon as you start doing any [downtown road work] in this city, you’re going to find something you didn’t think was there,” says Jim Keech, the CEO of Utilities Kingston, who was the project’s top-ranking manager on the municipal side. “You might find a body, an oil tank, coal tar or a bunch of cannonballs. We got the message out that if we came up with these things, there would be a major delay.”

The show begins
The preliminary work started in early February, when a Kingston Hydro backhoe sunk its clawed bucket into Ontario Street to begin rebuilding an electrical manhole. Unfortunately, the machine accidentally tore into a six-inch water main under the pavement that blueprints mistakenly indicated was located farther out in the street. A torrent of water instantly began gushing into the pit and the manhole, and soon the water supply to all buildings on Princess Street south of King, and Ontario Street between Princess and Brock Street — including water-dependent businesses such as Pan Chancho Bakery, Curry Original, Lone Star Café, the Holiday Inn and the Confederation Place Hotel — had to be shut down.
    As the crew worked to make the fix through the day, Stacey Corcoran scurried from business to business, explaining to proprietors what had gone wrong and updating them on what crews were doing to rectify it. Her efforts paid off, because neither the city nor Utilities Kingston received a single complaint either that day or the next. For such a significant disruption, this was unprecedented.
    “Usually they would get lots of irate people calling, but customer service didn’t get any calls from anyone because everyone was told what was going on,” says Stacey. “So, while stressful and not exactly the way I wanted to start off the project, it was a good lesson that communication on the ground was really valuable and would serve us well if we kept it up.”
    The main job started on March 1, when the crews rolled into the King and Princess intersection and began erecting the wire fences that would demarcate an ever-shifting construction zone for the next four months. Workers stationed themselves at each street corner to assist pedestrians through what would soon become a maze of fences and pathways to allow people to cross the road and access shops and restaurants. The six, mostly 20-something Corcoran employees working “outside the fence,” had been hand-picked by Stacey Corcoran based on their temperament and people skills — qualities that would be critical in shaping the public’s perception of the project. Friendly workers would win over the public and help take the edge off the inconveniences posed by the detours.
    One corner-greeter, Peter Boswell, an amiable former Dupont employee whom Corcoran hired especially for the job, became a minor celebrity. By the end of the project, he was on a bantering first-name basis with most of the shopkeepers and many of the office workers employed near King and Princess. When the project ended, a group of bank employees presented him with a thank-you gift of mugs and other corporate knick-knacks.
    Within days, the Princess and King intersection was a gaping pit of mud, dirt and gravel that revealed the project’s most historically noteworthy feature: the “stone-box” sewer under Princess Street. Built in the mid-1800s, perhaps by convict labour from Kingston Penitentiary with stone from the Portsmouth Village quarry, it is a combined sewer originally designed to convey both sewage and rainwater from the city into Lake Ontario. Once the structure was exposed, work crews and passersby alike marveled at the precise craftsmanship of its cut limestone walls and arched “coffin” top.
  The moribund limestone sewer is a municipal liability, but the BIA used it to advantage in its Big Dig publicity. The campaign had to inform the public about the road closures on King and Princess, but not in a way that would cause shoppers to shun the area, which would hurt local businesses. To keep customers coming, the BIA posted large sidewalk signs at the periphery of the construction zone that made it clear that all businesses there remained open. As well, by portraying — in newspaper ads, flyers and brochures, and on radio and TV commercials — the historic stone-box sewer and the ongoing roadwork as a sort of tourist attraction, the BIA encouraged people to come and have a look — which, because of the see-through metal fences, they could.
    “We tried to make it more of an event that people had to come downtown to see, rather than as something to avoid,” says Rob Tamblyn, the BIA’s Projects Manager — Development. “That was the spin we put on it right from the beginning.”

Celebrating the completion of the project

Photo: Blair Segsworth, Ben Wheeler; by Alec Ross

Digging it
On paper, the construction job itself was fairly routine. Workers replaced the combined limestone sewer with a concrete storm pipe 900 millimetres in diameter and a 300-millimetre PVC plastic pipe for sanitary waste. As well, an ancient eight-inch cast-iron water pipe, corroded and rusted over the years to five inches in diameter, was replaced with a 200-millimetre PVC pipe.
    “When I talked to our guys, I told them this was just a boring one-and-a-half blocks of sewer work,” says Dan Corcoran. “We’ve got so many people [in our company] who are proficient at exactly what was going on there that it really wasn’t a big deal at all from a sewer standpoint.”
    The sewer part might have been straightforward, but the rest of the work proved to be a textbook case of Murphy’s Law in action. “What ended up being our slogan was, ‘Nothing goes easy down here,’ ” says Stacey Corcoran. “Nothing went easy at all. If it could go easy or difficult, it always went difficult. Always.”
    The first big headache was that water-main break just after preliminary work started. The next grind was building the sidewalks. The need to maintain constant access to businesses meant that the new sidewalks had to be built first, and in a piecemeal fashion that generated some heated exchanges between Stacey and the older, and old-school, boss of the sidewalk crew.
    Another annoyance came in mid-May, when the asphalt on King Street was to be laid down. The job was supposed to take a day, but a string of mishaps — a malfunctioning silo at the asphalt plant that caused the paving product to be delivered hours later than expected, a time-consuming breakdown of the road paver that made it necessary to fetch a replacement machine from Belleville, a paving-machine operator who was unfamiliar with the new machine and worked painfully slowly — doubled the normal completion time of the job. Stacey describes it as an “epic disaster.” Of course, these troubles were invisible to casual observers, and they didn’t affect the overall schedule, but the experience was difficult for the people doing the work.
    Installing the paving stones and granite planters was endlessly finicky because so many custom cuts were required and, to set the stones properly, everything had to be done in multiple steps, each of which took hours to finish. On top of the actual reconstruction, there was the constant work of guiding often-lost pedestrians through the construction zone and repositioning the metal fences and 35-kilogram rubber mats that covered drying concrete, electrical cables and temporary water conduits that pedestrians might trip over or step in. Moving the mats and metal fences, sometimes several times a day, became the street crew’s least-favourite chore, but for safety reasons, it was necessary.
    “Every day, almost every minute, we’re doing something that can kill somebody,” says Stacey. “It happens in two seconds, and it’s actually very infrequently through bad planning; it’s because somebody’s tired or is thinking about the fight they had with their wife that morning, or the fact that they have to pick up their kid from school, and they miss some crucial piece of information, like a truck backup alarm.”
    Then there was the floor collapse on April 28 in the underground parking garage at the Confederation Place Hotel, which affected the Big Dig by closing the western access to the work site on Ontario Street for both vehicles and pedestrians. The hotel had to be shut down for weeks while inspectors gauged the extent of the garage damage — but it wasn’t just the hotel’s traffic that suffered. Adjacent businesses were also hit hard, none more so than Sir Gawain, a fashion clothing store at the southwest corner of Princess and Ontario. It had coped well enough through the early stages of construction, but the hotel collapse, and the near-elimination of customer traffic caused by the subsequent closure of Ontario Street, led its exasperated owner to throw in the towel.
    “The cutting off of the sidewalk stopped all our walk-by traffic,” says Jim Adams. “Our business was off maybe 15 or 20 per cent up until then. After the collapse [at the hotel], it went down 80 per cent. You can’t survive that.”
    Fortunately for Adams, opportunity knocked at the right time, and he is now involved in a new clothing venture, Chris James, on Ontario Street across from Sir Gawain’s former location. It turned out well in the end, but Adams still remembers the latter days of the Big Dig as the darkest in his 30-year career as a downtown Kingston retailer.
    Others, too, were less than happy with the unscheduled Ontario Street shutdown.
    “[The hotel closure] made the temperature on the street go ‘way up,” recalls Stacey. “I don’t think we had many snappish pedestrians, drivers or business owners until after that happened. It meant that King Street and Ontario Street were closed at the same time, which wasn’t supposed to happen, and the traffic in the downtown was just horrific. My people at the edges were getting yelled at and sworn at and treated really badly by delivery people and motorists generally. That was when everybody started to lose patience with the whole thing.”

Co-operation triumphs
What made the stress and chaos tolerable for workers and merchants, says Dan Corcoran, was the close co-operation of everyone involved in the project. Regular meetings on site by the construction managers and supervisors, the public relations efforts of Stacey Corcoran and her counterpart from the City of Kingston, Derek Ochej, and the professionalism and punctuality of sub-contractors were all crucial to the Big Dig’s success.
    Many of the merchants also went out of their way to accommodate the construction crews. The staff at Coffee and Company gave them still-delicious, day-old muffins and cakes, and one hot day, when a truck drove off unknowingly with all the parched crew’s thermoses, supplied them with ice water. Pan Chancho allowed Stacey to use an upstairs room to conduct new-worker orientation sessions. Roundstone allowed customers to walk through a back room to Fancy That next door so that crews could pour a sidewalk in front of the latter. Bagot Leather Goods closed for a day so that a crew could pour the sidewalk concrete unhindered by pedestrian traffic.
    Such courtesies were reciprocated in ways large and small. “We couldn’t believe how they were willing to help us get our garbage out,” says Maria Cronk, the operations manager at Roundstone and Fancy That. “We have these big garbage boxes, and the guys would come down to our basement and help us carry it out. They would do all sorts of things to make our lives a little bit easier.” On one of the project’s few rainy days, one worker held an umbrella over Cronk’s head and walked her the single block from Ontario Street to the Holiday Inn.
    “I was laughing at him, and he was saying, ‘This is what we do!’” she recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Probably not for everyone, but thank you so much.’ That’s the kind of mentality these guys had. They were having a lot of fun.”

Up the road
Everyone who took part is pleased that the Big Dig went well and proud of the results. However, they caution that the reconstruction work to come further up Princess Street, probably in 2012, will be a far bigger challenge. Unlike Princess below King, those busy blocks have no parking lots where heavy equipment can park, and none of the businesses have side doors that can serve as alternative access points for customers and delivery people.
“The Big Dig was good, and we’re going to celebrate it,” says Utilities Kingston’s Keech. “But it was the easy part.”