The mandate of this blog is to create an online archive of information about Roland Caldwell Harris, the City of Toronto works commissioner between 1912 and 1945. He held that position longer than any other individual, before or since. But Harris was much more than a long-serving bureaucrat. His legacy is apparent throughout the old City of Toronto.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

R.C. Harris and the East End Sludge Wars

R.C. Harris and the East End Sludge Wars
By John Lorinc
Special to the Toronto Star: Sept. 15, 2012.  

            A century ago this year, Toronto council hired Roland Caldwell Harris, a self-assured 37-year-old, to step in as works commissioner and oversee a desperately needed modernization push for a booming city facing serious growth pains.
            The population was pushing out into rural townships barely served by basic municipal services. Near the lake, overflowing sewer outfalls contaminated the beaches and deposited a metre-deep layer of sludge on the bottom of the harbour. Meanwhile, thousands of children died of infectious diseases linked to poor sanitary conditions and unsafe drinking water.
            Yet the politicians seemed locked in an all-too-familiar dynamic that persists to this day: decisions about vital infrastructure were delayed or derailed by petty politics and short-sighted penny-pinching.
            Case in point: in 1913, the year after Harris took office, the City opened a new sewage treatment plant on Eastern Avenue, near Ashbridge’s Bay. The need for such a facility, according to a 1995 history of Toronto’s public works by Catherine Brace, had been first recognized 60 years earlier; council spent 35 years debating the proposal. Yet the plant was obsolete the moment it opened.
            Over the next 33 years, Harris transformed Toronto, building the civic infrastructure that formed the spine of a modern, healthy city. His career, featured in an exhibit entitled “The Water Czar” that opens this weekend at The Market Gallery, was defined by an ability to anticipate the future needs of a fast-growing metropolis.
            His signature achievements – the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant, as well as many other bridges, hundreds of kilometres of roads, streetcar tracks, sidewalks and new sewer lines – all reflect Harris’ focus on long-term city building, as opposed to short-term constraints, like cost.
            Even though Toronto voters in 1912 rejected a rapid transit plan as too costly, he equipped the new viaduct with a subway deck, which wouldn’t be put to use for six decades. With the water plant, he ordered his engineers to build what we could now call a scalable facility. Seventy years after its completion in 1941, the architecturally stunning facility still purifies 40% of Toronto’s drinking water.
            Like many reformers of that era, Harris was also keenly aware of the role municipal infrastructure played in public health. In 1906, he and his wife lost their six-month-old son, Emerson Clewlo, to complications from an infection. The city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Hastings, experienced a similar tragedy. Conservative politicians and editorialists accused both of profligacy as they sought to improve conditions.
            Yet Harris’ career includes a notable but little known failure: despite years of trying, he couldn’t convince council to approve a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant to replace the one on Eastern Avenue. “His last unfinished challenge was sewage disposal,” says city historian Wayne Reeves, who curated the exhibit.
            Harris certainly knew what he wanted, so the fault lies with the politicians and the voters. But the repercussions of a highly politicized 1940 decision to build the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment Plant – located on 40 hectares of lakefill just steps from the city’s best beaches – haunts the waterfront still. Indeed, the story of how council ignored its experts’ advice in favour of a cheap alternative stands as object lesson in how short-term thinking begat decades of environmental, health, and financial headaches.

* * *

            As the Market Gallery exhibit reveals, water preoccupied Harris from the day he took office. Early on, he moved quickly to begin planning for a new filtration plant, to be located at Victoria Park, in the Beach. Yet Harris understood that the push to improve drinking water was inseparable from the goal of treating the sanitary sewage and industrial run-off that poured into Lake Ontario. The new Eastern Ave. facility had open settling basins to remove some of the suspended solids. But millions of litres of the plant’s partially treated sewage ended up in the same lake that was the source of the city’s drinking water. 
            In the mid-1920s, Harris had made significant headway in getting council to approve the new water filtration plant, later dubbed the “palace of purification.” At almost the same time, he was contending with another mounting problem: dealing with the sewage produced by the rapidly growing neighbourhoods in North Toronto. In 1926, Harris hired engineer George Nasmith (the man who introduced chlorination to the city a decade earlier) and a Boston engineer, Harrison Eddy, to develop a plan to treat North Toronto’s sewage.
            Nasmith and Eddy recommended a cutting edge technique, known as “activated sludge aeration,” that involved forcing compressed air into the waste water to accelerate the decomposition of organic material. The liquid would be filtered and left to settle. The sediment was then dried to create “sludge cakes,” an odorless substance similar to low-grade fertilizer. Testing showed the treated waste water had very low levels of bacterial contamination.
            Persuaded by his consultants’ analysis, Harris took the plan to council and got approval to build the North Toronto treatment plant deep in the Don Valley, south of Laird Drive. Decked out with buildings designed to resemble an English village, the North Toronto plant opened in 1929. The city doubled its capacity a few years later, and the facility has been operating smoothly ever since.
            With the North Toronto plant open, Harris turned his attention to Eastern Ave., which overflowed constantly because it was designed to serve a population half the city’s size. The facility stunk up working class neighbourhoods in what is now Leslieville. It also generated dozens of lawsuits from aggrieved residents. In one case, the judge lectured the City from the bench, opining that Council should halt all “beautification” projects until a modern treatment plant is built.
            In 1931, Harris hired consultants to come up with options for a new, modern plant, to be built anywhere but the Ashbridge’s Bay area. He again turned to Nasmith and Eddy, eager to replicate the North Toronto plant’s success.
            Two years later, Nasmith and Eddy unveiled a game-changing idea: they proposed building a state-of-the-art activated sludge plant at the mouth of Highland Creek, several kilometres east. The city’s wastewater would be collected by large “interceptor” sewers and pumped through a long pipe to this new facility, which would be built to satisfy the eventual needs of a city of 1.5 million people.
            It seemed like an elegant, environmentally friendly, long-term solution: Highland Creek was far from the city’s neighbourhoods. And the sludge cakes could be sold to Scarborough farmers for use as fertilizer. The downside: the long pipe would add $12 million to the cost, bringing the total to $25 million.
            Canada in 1933 was in the throes of the Great Depression. Harris had already talked council into spending millions on an ornate water treatment plant, and aldermen like Sam McBride, who often sparred with the powerful bureaucrat, weren’t interested in another lavish project.
            Within a year, the aldermen on the works committee had totally re-engineered the debate. The Ashbridge’s Bay site, for one thing, was back in contention, despite warnings from both Harris and Eddy that it made little sense to put a huge sewage plant near busy beaches and the city’s new water filtration plant – by then under construction.
            There were other concerns, too. Unlike Highland Creek, there were no farmers near Ashbridges Bay who could use the dewatered sludge. Instead, the aldermen insisted, it could be incinerated on site. Yet Harris’ consultants, in a 1935, report, wrote, “We are not convinced that the sludge from the Ashbridge’s Bay plant can be incinerated with economy and with assurance of freedom from offensive odors.” It would prove to be a chillingly prescient forewarning.
            Despite mounting public concern, council was deadlocked. The city finally appointed five technical experts to take a fresh look at the whole problem and come up with a recommendation. But that process also foundered, and the panel couldn’t come to a consensus. In a final report released in 1939, four of the five urged the city to build a $9.5 million plant large enough to serve 700,000 people, with a “complete” treatment process based on the technology successfully in use at North Toronto. 
            Yet one expert, an engineer named W.D. Redfern, loudly disagreed, and made his case in a “minority report.” In his view, there was simply no reason for the city to completely treat its sewage water because the bacterial contaminants that remained after settling would be diluted once dumped into the lake. It was an old and long-discredited notion. “By taking advantage of this natural resource,” Redfern insisted, “the cost of the treatment plant is reduced considerably as well as the annual operating expenses.” His “partial treatment” solution cost just $5.6 million.
            In 1940, city council and voters backed Redfern’s cheaper option.
            The city, Reeves says, couldn’t begin construction for four years because of wartime shortages of steel. Meanwhile, some politicians turned their guns at Harris, establishing a public inquiry into his management of the works department. In 1943, council even passed a bylaw requiring future commissioners to be engineers (Harris had no formal training). “He had been under incredible pressure for five years,” Reeves says. Harris died of a heart attack in 1945. “I think it’s really the thing that winds up killing him.” The plant finally opened in 1951.

* * *
            Anyone in the east end who’s ever soaked up the stink wafting off the Ashbridge’s Bay sewage treatment plant can thank W.D. Redfern and his cost-conscious political backers. R.C. Harris, as ever, had the correct instincts, but he simply couldn’t persuade a council determined to avoid raising taxes.
            Ironically, Toronto politicians, in the decades since, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to solve the plant’s many failures and reduce its noxious impact on the local environment.
            It’s a long rap sheet: The chimney leaked pungent sewer gas. The harbour waters nearby showed excessive levels of toxins. And a generation of politicians and residents lobbied to close the incinerator, which the city finally did in 2003. Despite all the fixes and retrofits, the city is still in court, battling a lawsuit over a 2008 incident when untreated sewage from the plant poured into the lake for three days.
            With the benefit of hindsight, Toronto paid a steep price to save $4 million. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

R.C. Harris and the City of Toronto's First Formal Attempt at Planning

    After Toronto council shot down the architecturally ambitious 1929 plan civic improvement plan (which called for the creation of several grand avenues and circles downtown), the aldermen in early 1930 asked city staff to come up with an in-house version. A committee of senior officials -- headed by R.C. Harris but including the city architect, the commissioner of parks, assessment, and finance -- got to work pulling together a document that focused almost entirely on improving traffic circulation. 
     The result was the May, 1930, report of the Advisory City Planning Committee, entitled, "Street Extensions, Widenings and Improvements in the City of Toronto." It was presented at a special meeting of council on May 14, with Bert Wemp, a Toronto Telegram editor, in the mayor's chair.
    The plan, the report explained, was based on projections that the city would grow to 1.5 million residents, thereby necessitating improvements to the street system, transportation, public recreation, zoning and “aesthetics." "[P]rimarily the need for planning is the outcome of the accumulation of people in one area and the daily movement of those people following their daily avocations.”
   The Report, and the accompanying map, proposed a detail series of road widenings and extensions, as well as new streetcar routes. The commissioners, well aware of the penny-pinching inclinations of the elected officials, explained that they sought to  avoid expense by connecting  disconnected roads. The result, the report said, may not represent the gold standard in design, at the new streets will nonetheless be efficient. 
   This passage, better than any other in the report, outlines the balancing act confronting ambitious officials as they sought enduring long-term solutions to the city's growth pressures without running afoul of council's deep aversion to borrowing: 

“…the plan is essentially utilitarian in character, and no special attempt has been made to create vistas or sites for the display of architectural features which are characteristic of cities aiming at aesthetic preeminence. Toronto has many fine buildings so situated that their beauty can not be properly appreciated, and is generally lacking in focal points where other fine buildings may be suitably displayed. While fully realizing the importance of this phase of the city planning problem, we feel that the utilitarian side must receive first consideration, with the reservation that the main thoroughfares laid down on the plan, in general portray principles only and are subject to survey on the ground, and that in their final developments the question of aesthetics should not be overlooked [italics added].”

     Among the proposals: building a parkway connecting the north end of Jarvis to the corner of Mount Pleasant and St. Clair; linking the east-west sidestreets in what we know called Riverdale and Leslieville to form Dundas East; extending Duplex Avenue north from Balliol up to Yonge Blvd. All were built, mostly to expedite car travel out of the increasingly congested core to new suburbs in North Toronto, Moore Park and the east end. 
    Many more of the ideas in the report, however, never made it off the drawing board, including an extension of Church Street/Davenport north through the Nordheimer and Cedarvale ravines; an extension of Victoria Street north to Bloor; an extension of Bay Street all the way up to St. Clair Ave., and a series of diagonal roads traversing what is now western Scarborough.   

Meet the man who shaped 20th century Toronto (Globe and Mail)

From Globe and Mail, May 19, 2012.

            His familiar initials, R.C., are indelibly linked to the city’s magnificent art deco water treatment plant, the Bloor viaduct and Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 best-seller, “In the Skin of a Lion.” 
            But Roland Caldwell Harris -- who began a 33-year term as works commissioner a century ago this week -- left his civic fingerprints all over Toronto, building hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks, sewers, paved roads, streetcar tracks, public baths and washrooms, landmark bridges and even the precursor plans to the GO commuter rail network.
            “The significance of Harris a hundred years later is that we’re still living fundamentally in the city he imagined,” observes Dalhousie architecture professor Steven Mannell, who studies his career and has advised city officials on an extensive rehabilitation of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, due to be finished next year.
            He famously added a second deck to Prince Edward Viaduct in anticipation of a subway line that wasn’t built for decades. What’s less well known is that Mr. Harris was a photo buff who, in 1930, presided over the city’s first planning exercise -- a process that led to construction of congestion-easing arterials like Dundas East and the parkway extension of Mount Pleasant through Rosedale and up towards St. Clair.
             Unlike his predecessors, he insisted on high architectural and landscaping quality in the design of his works projects. He regarded structures such as the St Clair Reservoir, built in the late 1920s, in both aesthetic and functional terms.
            A reformer who emerged in an era when many big cities were trying to professionalize their bureaucracies, Mr. Harris’s career began at a time when Toronto was experiencing unprecedented growth pressures, notes Wayne Reeves, director of the City of Toronto’s museums. Between 1905 and 1912, the population grew by 72% and the area of the city expanded by 76% due to annexations.  
            Mr. Harris, who served as the city’s lead commissioner, was a portly, cigar-smoking and avuncular figure who was frequently quoted and caricatured in the newspapers of the day. Prof. Mannell says he relied on an extensive network of contacts to advance his agenda.
            But he also had the decidedly non-bureaucratic habit of carrying a state-of-the-art camera with him at all times. A family photo album recently lent to the Toronto Archives shows he enjoyed taking portraits as well as action shots at sporting events, landscapes and images of cities he visited while traveling abroad.
            Mr. Harris, in fact, hired Arthur Goss, a fine art photographer, to document the city’s works projects and living conditions in poor areas. In his novel, Mr. Ondaatje latched on to this detail to render a fictionalized version of Harris as a self-aggrandizing bureaucrat preoccupied with building monuments to his own legacy.
            Born in Lansing (now North York) in 1875, Mr. Harris grew up in Toronto’s first city hall, on King Street, where his mother had a job as a cleaner. He worked as a reporter briefly before joining the city, where his superiors quickly saw his administrative skills and began promoting him through increasingly important positions, including stints as commissioner of streets and property.
            Early in his married life, Mr. Harris and his wife Alice Ingram lived in an apartment in the ‘new’ City Hall, E.J. Lennox’s monumental brownstone that was completed in 1899 amidst scandal. The huge structure looked out over a densely populated slum district – known as “The Ward” and now the site of Nathan Phillips Square –infamous for its shacks, poor immigrants and fetid “privies.”
            While living at City Hall, the couple had three children, one of whom died in infancy, in January, 1906, due to complications from a strep-related infection.  
            At the time, the child mortality rate in Toronto was very high because of cholera epidemics, contaminated milk and other water-borne illnesses.
            Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Harris threw himself into the task of modernizing the city’s water treatment system from the moment he took over as works commissioner. He quickly identified Victoria Park, on Queen Street East, as the ideal location for a landmark filtration plant, although the current structure wasn’t built until the 1930s.
            He also worked closely with several other crusading figures – Dr. Charles Hastings, the city’s medical officer of health, and civil engineer George Nasmith – to purify the water supply and provide better sanitary facilities for the poor. By the early 1920s, the city’s mortality rates had plummeted due to their efforts. “He was always looking at preventative approaches,” says Mr. Reeves.
            When North Toronto residents threatened to de-amalgamate over compltains about inadequate sewage treatment in the late 1920s, Mr. Harris responded by building the North Toronto Sewage Treatment plant, nestled in the Don Valley. It still operates. 
            Prof. Mannell notes that it’s unlikely a towering and outspoken figure like Mr. Harris, who died of a heart attack in 1945, would thrive in public service today, given years of political attacks on civil servants at all three levels of government. 
            But Mr. Harris belonged to a very different generation of bureaucrats who “saw city-building as a project not to be done three or five years at a time, but a generation at a time,” he adds, noting that those officials, many of whom held the same position for decades, often found themselves at odds with parsimonious politicians who cycled in and out of city hall on narrow mandates.
            “He was a civic official who saw himself as a co-equal to council.”

The Toronto Archives will have a display of R.C. Harris documents and artifacts at Doors Open next Saturday. In mid-September, the City will celebrate his career with an exhibit, entitled “The Water Czar,” at The Market Gallery, St. Lawrence Market.