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Sunnyside flood barrier design would result in hundreds of heritage trees lost along Memorial Drive

Hundreds of heritage trees along Memorial Drive could be at risk as Calgary grapples with balancing Sunnyside flood mitigation and the public realm.

Current designs for the roughly $28 million Sunnyside Flood Barrier would force the removal of roughly 700 trees along the Memorial Drive pathway on the north side of the Bow River. The 1-in-100-year barrier stretches from 14 Street NW to Centre Street N.

The city met with Hillhurst and Sunnyside residents last Tuesday to discuss more options for the flood barrier.

Charlie Lund, chair of the Infrastructure Group of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee for the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association, said they were quite disappointed to hear the trees wouldn’t be replaced.

“It’s not something we’re happy about,” Lund told LiveWire Calgary.

“We were disappointed when we saw that the plan was to remove the trees, but not replace them.”

Lund said the community values flood protection. Their committee has been working on it since the 2013 Calgary floods.

“Our first priority is flood mitigation. And we hope and we think that there’s a way to manage around the two,” Lund said.

It’s an area that’s valued by all of Calgary, not just residents of Sunnyside, Lund said. The trouble comes with the technical guidelines the city is using for the vegetation management around a proposed berm.

“The trouble is, if you let the technical experts go and have their way, well, we’re going to have no trees,” he said.

Overview of the Sunnyside Flood Barrier. The thick red area shows where a berm would go, requiring a setback. CITY OF CALGARY

Residents unaware of the scale of tree loss: Farrell

According to the Sunnyside Flood Barrier engagement webpage, the 1-100 year overview plan was first released in 2019.  An updated plan was provided in April 2020. But area Coun. Druh Farrell said that residents weren’t aware the design and execution of that plan would result in a barren landscape.

“There’s a recognition that flood protection is critically important,” Farrell said.

“We also have a responsibility to find every way to continue with the great public space and commemoration of Memorial Drive.”

The poplars along the east-west route are heritage trees tied to Calgary’s original memorial for World War 1 soldiers. More than 3,700 trees were planted Any newer trees in the area are clones of the originals.  There’s also Poppy Plaza and the Soldier Memorial along that stretch of the Bow River.

“Memorial Drive is one of the most important places to be in our public spaces in our city. And it has meaning to the whole region, let alone Calgary,” she said.

“It’s not just a place for commemoration, but it’s a magnet for people who want to enjoy the river.”

Pause on the project

Francois Bouchart, director of water resources with the City of Calgary said earlier this year they discovered the conflict during the design process.

“It really became apparent that the barrier, as it was, was going to have a significant impact to the trees and even more specifically, I think, to the living memorial that really honours the veterans,” Bouchart said.

“That really made us stand up and pay attention.”

The project is now paused for the short term, Bouchart said.

The primary issue with the trees is the earth berm proposed for the area. The berm’s core is clay, Bouchart said. If trees are planted nearby, the roots could compromise the berm’s integrity.

That means a significant setback from the berm is needed.

The city is now going back to the design to see if there are segments where the berm setback could be reduced. That could allow for some trees to be replaced. Bouchart said they had intended to replace as many trees as they could. He admitted the prior plan would have resulted in the loss of hundreds.

“What we don’t want is to create a wall that separates the community from the river,” Bouchart said

“So, we’re re-examining our design, and really pushing our design team to look at what are solutions that would preserve as much of what we have today for future generations.”

Preserving a gem, protecting the city

A City of Calgary sign warned residents and users of the Bow River Pathway about changes coming to Sunnyside, as pictured on Tuesday, September 21, 2021. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Lund said the Sunnyside and Hillhurst areas were “affected greatly” by the 2013 floods. They want to do what’s necessary to prevent that from happening in the future. A key part of that is this barrier, he said.

Lund said they could look at different species of trees (poplars have wide root bases) or root barriers to protect the berm.  The way Lund understands it though, the setback area could be for inspection of the berm and any construction repair work.  It’s not necessarily about the tree roots.

He’s optimistic a compromise can be found.

Farrell said the flood mitigation work is important to area residents. So is the preservation of the landscape and the memorial areas honouring Calgary veterans’ sacrifices.  She thinks veterans need to be a part of the consultation.

“I would have a hard time living with myself if Sunnyside flooded again and we hadn’t done everything we could to prevent that,” Farrell said.

“Memorial Drive, and its significance to Calgary, the history of Calgary as well as the ongoing commemoration is also important, and I believe that we can accommodate both.”

All parties understand there will be some trees lost. Just not all of them.

Bouchart said they’re hoping to review the design over the winter.  Perhaps they’ll be able to push the design forward for the 2022 construction season. A timeline provided to the community showed construction in 2023.

All options are on the table to find a compromise, Bouchart said.

Bouchart said they want to respect the memorialization of the area, particularly the Remembrance Day ceremonies at Poppy Plaza and the Field of Crosses. They also want to meet the goal of flood protection.

“In terms of the sacrifices that were made, I think that we owe it to them to deliver the right project,” he said.