Actuaries make poor urban planners

Vancouver's Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM
Vancouver’s Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM

I can’t believe it. I’ve been stymied by light-rail.

And light-rail development in Montreal has been stymied by what appears to be a near-total lack of consultation or coordination by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec with City Hall nor any of the numerous transit agencies operating in Greater Montreal.

This project may be responsible for some grey hairs I noticed recently; not in my lifetime has there been a transit project as audacious, innovative and potentially rewarding as the Caisse’s Réseau Électrique Métropolitain (REM).

Unfortunately, and just like every transit project announced in my lifetime, a lack of organization and consultation has likely doomed what might have been a major boon for local commuters.

This light-rail project gave me serious writer’s block. What’s the point writing about Montreal’s potential when every good idea we seem to have is so riddled with inconsistencies and flaws it’ll never get off the drawing board? The citizens of Montreal are used to being disappointed, and chronicling a city’s endemic disappointment hardly makes for good reading.

I wanted to take a closer look at some aspects of this project I found potentially innovative, but every time I started to write over the past week or so I discovered another news item detailing this project’s many defects. It wasn’t inspiring. I didn’t want to believe the cynics who initially scoffed at the REM for being too ambitious and/or requiring too much in funds from austerity-driven governments. Keep in mind the first criticism – and one of PKP’s last as leader of the PQ – was that the light-rail plan was over-focused on the suburbs at the expense of a long-planned (and now officially dormant) project to extend the Blue Line of the Métro.

Most of the criticism seemed unwarranted to me. Just because most of our recent transit and transport infrastructure endeavours have lagged behind schedule despite overinflated budgets doesn’t mean this is necessarily how things are done. And to a province wary of endemic corruption and collusion between the provincial transport ministry and the construction industry, the Caisse’s plan killed two birds with one stone: it takes initiative, and takes some of the financial burden off the public purse.

Pension funds financing infrastructure development is a smart solution to the problems that come with electing unimaginative austerity-driven governments and expecting them to ‘do more with less’.

Moreover, the Caisse’s expedited timescale to complete the project, in addition to its scale and scope, is reminiscent of Montreal’s single-greatest infrastructure success story, that of the Métro. The very first iteration of the Métro included 26 stations across three lines, and it was opened on time and in the black, entirely financed by the City of Montreal. It also only took four and a half years to build, and that was fifty years ago. The Caisse’s project is supposed to be ready in four years.

While I’d still like to see this project realized, the defects, shortcomings and problems that have come to light in the past two weeks must be addressed. Otherwise, the CDPQ’s REM project may end up causing more problems than it is worth.

Here’s a list of every reported problem with the REM so far:

– The REM is incompatible with the AMT network, and AMT trains will not be able to use the Mount Royal Tunnel. The under-performing Train de l’Est will be cut off from accessing the city centre via Central Station, and the Deux Montagnes Line will be eliminated altogether.

– This is particularly unfortunate because the AMT just sunk $300 million into building a maintenance depot to service those trains. Once the REM comes online the depot will service only a quarter of the trains it was designed to handle. On top of that, it was the AMT that purchased the Mount Royal Tunnel from CN for $92 million specifically so that it could execute renovations to expand the tunnel’s capacity.

– Light-rail systems are typically designed to be compatible with heavy-rail, such as the AMT’s commuter trains, and Montreal has a large railway network that would ideally be accessible to all AMT and future REM trains. If the Mount Royal Tunnel is rendered inaccessible to commuter rail it’s probable ridership on the $744 million Mascouche Line will decrease, and the REM may effectively prohibit its own potential future expansion.

– The system may require expropriations and demolitions, including two buildings of heritage value, the Rodier and the New City Gas. A total of seventy buildings in Montreal and Brossard have been put on notice by the Quebec government, despite the province having not yet set funds aside for the project. Worse, the incompatibility issue prevents the REM from using existing tracks on the CN viaduct. Buildings may be demolished to build a railway next to existing railways.

– Access to the airport seems to be reserved for the branch of the line running between it and Central Station. Passengers boarding on the Sainte-Anne or Deux-Montagnes branches will have to disembark at Bois-Franc and cross to the opposite platform to await an airport-bound train. From the looks of things, passengers airport-bound from the South Shore will have to disembark and transfer at Central Station.

– The locations of the Saint-Anne’s and Rive-Sud termini are suspicious; the latter is in an empty field across from the Dix-30 shopping complex, and the former adjacent to the Anse-a-l’Orme Trail. This has West Island conservationists concerned the city’s going to push through on a 5,000 home residential development next to the station. While encouraging public transit use amongst new homeowners is doubtless a good notion, it’s self-defeating if mass-transit is being oriented towards kickstarting large low-density housing projects.

– Initial discussions between the CDPQ and the city were conducted in secret, but on Monday City Councillor Craig Sauvé tweeted that Mayor Coderre now says his administration wasn’t consulted by the Caisse at all.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, the CDPQ clearly hasn’t yet consulted with the STM about hooking up the Métro to the REM at McGill and Edouard-Montpetit. I cannot stress this enough: this must be done as part of the first phase. Completing tunnel renovations and then re-renovating to build additional stations is so illogical writing that sentence actually gave me a nosebleed.

Oh wait: it actually get worse. The REM may actually be less efficient and less effective than what’s currently in service, especially in terms of passenger capacity on the Deux Montagnes Line. Anton Dubrau is anticipating crowded trains and platforms from day one.

Remember: this project doesn’t get off the ground without public money, and politicians (ostensibly) listen to their constituents. Having the Caisse fund this project is great, but before any actual work is done (or people forced from their homes and businesses), for the love of god let’s just try – once – to fix clearly identified problems before ‘the shovels pierce the soil.’

Otherwise, the REM may actually make public transit an inconvenient burden for everyone.

Hardly a wise move for the people responsible for our pensions…

Port of Call, Montreal

Days after Montrealers went home salivating at the thought of a proposed new trans-regional light rail system, the Port of Montreal, in conjunction with the municipal and provincial government, announced a $78 million renovation of the Alexandra Quay and Iberville Passenger Terminal, and an opportunity for citizens to ‘reconnect’ with the river.

The renovation and improvement project is expected to be completed in time for the 2017 cruise season, and so will result in the closure of the quay and terminal this summer. Cruise ships will instead dock east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, with shuttle buses ferrying passengers into the splashy tourism zone delineated by antique buildings harbour-side.

You might be wondering whether it’s wise to spend $78 million building a new passenger terminal for an antiquated method of high-volume transport, but alas it seems a fair number of people do indeed access Montreal via the Old Port, and up until now they’ve been welcomed by an outdated, if not dilapidated passenger terminal.

And just how may people are we talking about?

The answer is perhaps unexpectedly high: 91,000 people last year, twice as many as in 2011. The Port Authority has been actively courting cruise lines and it seems like their work is paying off. If everything goes according to plan, annual traffic is expected to reach 120,000 passengers by 2025, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But of course this isn’t really a ‘transport infrastructure project’ in the same vein as the proposed ‘réseau éléctrique métropolitain’ (REM), as it will primarily benefit people who have the luxury of time and money to cruise up the Saint Lawrence. Also worth noting, some of these ships are of the casino-cruise variety. Whereas the CDPQ’s REM system still needs Ottawa and Quebec City to provide $2.5 billion in combined funding, this project has the green light with money already apparently ready to go.

So yes, public money will be spent to support private businesses and the wealthy of our society.

That being said, the most historic section of the city is largely preserved thanks to the tourism industry; so updating the passenger terminal isn’t just good for the tourism-driven businesses of Old Montreal, but the area’s physical vitality as well.

And that’s something we all ultimately benefit from; for better or for worse tourism helps protect our architectural heritage. Moreover, it should be noted that the new configuration of the quay will incorporate significant public spaces, including a green roof atop the terminal. Again, everyone gets to benefit from this as well. It’s in the port and city’s interest to encourage public use of what would otherwise be a wholly private affair.

Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay - Provencher Roy
Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay – Provencher Roy

And perhaps that’s leading to a more novel use of the terminal: an important part of Provencher Roy’s plan involves ‘lowering’ quay, and this may make the terminal accessible to smaller vessels, like passenger ferries (or dare I say it, perhaps some kind of Lachine Canal hydro bus).

So given the city’s only investing $15 million out of the total project cost, on first impression it seems like the public will at least gain access to additional public spaces, and an attractive and interactive new public space.

Coderre, with typical ringmaster showmanship, boasted to the Gazette that ‘it was an easy decision’ to allocate $15 million in municipal funds to the project, given the ‘major economic impact’ a shiny-new cruise ship terminal will provide the city.

Hard numbers to prove that point might be hard to come by, but what we have (at least as far as cruise ship terminals go) is in pretty rough shape and Provencher Roy’s design is both intriguing and seems to have the public in mind. The new passenger terminal will be modern and designed to permit two ships to dock simultaneously. Passengers will disembark nearer to ground level, traffic will be streamlined, and the terminal located closer to Old Montreal. Public spaces will include the water’s edge park at the end of the pier, in addition to the terminal’s year-round green roof, and possibly an observation tower as well.

I have my doubts renovating the passenger terminal will have a ‘major’ impact on the economy of Montreal in the broad sense, but we can let Denis boast. It looks like a lot of bang for a reasonable amount of buck, and at the end of the day a port city that’s also a major tourist destination should have a proper passenger terminal. That we get more public space to boot isn’t half bad.

I suppose I’m a touch biased. A long time ago I had a weird summer job processing passengers during cruise season. The terminal is well past its prime. I remember the first day I worked at the Iberville Terminal thinking that this must be the first year in decades that any passenger ship had docked in the port. For a moment I was convinced the terminal had only recently been reactivated, as all the workspaces, computers, scanners, tables (etc ad infinitum) we used had been brought in on wheeled carts and set up, apparently, just for this one occasion. I later discovered it was cheaper to rent the requisite equipment and drive it to the docks rather than have to maintain a full-time passenger terminal, considering how few ships docked here at the time. Not having brought a lunch that day, I was quite dismayed to discover the café at the far end of the terminal had evidently not been opened in many years; a thick layer of dust coated the ashtrays left out on the counter.

To say the least, it was odd working there. A quick panic of activity and crowds before the whole place fell back into its more natural state of slow urban decay.

I rather liked it. It seemed fantastically anachronistic, and yet it also felt like I was carrying on in some long tradition of Montreal dock workers too. Naive teenaged romanticism aside, what’s clear enough is the sorry state of the Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay as is. It’s virtually a no man’s land throughout most of the year, and there’s nothing really to do there. The quay and terminal complex’s last major renovation dates back fifty years to Expo 67, perhaps ironically at a period in time in which sea travel was becoming, for the masses, quite obsolete. I would say the last time it got a fresh coat of paint may be as long as 24 years ago, when the city celebrated its 350th anniversary.

I quite like the pier as it is because, for the most part, outside of the cruise season it’s essentially abandoned. There’s an ostensibly off-limits look-out at the end of it from which a few tattered flags remain beating against the wind, but other than that it’s one of those places I go in the city to get away from it all and enjoy a moment of silence surrounded by cacophonous city.

I suppose I’ll trek out one more time to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of calm in the midst of so much activity. If this project is completed as conceived, I’ll be glad to soon share this space…

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism*

Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington
Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington

Michael Sabia can’t catch a break.

First he faced opposition for even being considered for the role of CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) back in 2009. It was quickly pointed out that an English-speaking Canadian, born in Hamilton, would become the head of the Caisse, the institutional investor that manages a portfolio of public and para-public pensions in Quebec, arguably one of the province’s greatest economic accomplishments. Seven years ago, former premier Bernard Landry was concerned Sabia would bring in unwanted “Canadian national culture” (whatever that means) and poison the well of the cornerstone of Québec, Inc.

And how!

Under Sabia’s leadership, the Caisse has grown considerably since losing $40 billion in 2008. At the beginning of this year, it managed net assets of $248 billion.

Now the Caisse’s leader wants to invest in public transit development in Montreal, proposing the single largest transit development project since the first iteration of the Métro was built fifty years ago, not to mention the prospect of 7,500 jobs created over the next four years. If everything works out, within four years a vast geographic area within Greater Montreal will have access to a twenty-nine station mass transit system connecting the urban core with Brossard, Deux-Montagnes, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and the airport.

And we’ll likely be riding in automated trains built by Bombardier.

Nonetheless, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, among others, is concerned the new system ignores the central and eastern parts of the city. The Parti Québécois leader undoubtedly wants some kind of commitment to the long-planned Blue Line extension towards Anjou, as the PQ got the ball rolling on studies for this long-planned extension with much fanfare back in 2012.

But let’s be real for a moment: all of Greater Montreal has been neglected vis-a-vis public transit development for quite some time, and it’s entirely a consequence of the unending public transit ping-pong match between competing parties and levels of government. The Caisse’s plan is ambitious, but right now is no more real than the Blue Line, the Azur (still haven’t rid it despite near daily Orange Line use… it’s a ghost) or a catapult to the Moon.

It’s completely unreasonable to suppose any part of the much-discussed light rail system proposed Friday is in any way, shape or form politically-motivated.

If anything, the proposed light rail system seems motivated chiefly by keeping costs comparatively low. The plan, if realized, will use existing, automated technology (likely the Bombardier Innovia Metro design) on track largely already owned by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport. The provincial public pension investor has proposed a five and half billion dollar public transit expansion project, the single most audacious plan seen in Montreal in fifty years, and is volunteering $3 billion to kickstart the program.

And this is precisely what we want the CDPQ to do: invest our pensions in necessary mega-projects that will create local jobs, employ local expertise, and are based on prior recent successes so as to guarantee a strong return on investment. The CDPQ is one of the financiers of Vancouver’s Canada Line, a light rail line that connects the city’s downtown with Richmond and the airport, opened in time for the 2010 Winter Games.

So they’ve done this before and it works, and Sabia’s recent success at the helm of the CDPQ gives us reason to be hopeful this proposal will succeed.

If the full version of the project is realized by 2020, Michael Sabia and the Caisse will have managed to out-do the comparative light-speed pace of the construction of the first iteration of the Métro, and a vast swath of Greater Montreal could be served by this system within four years.

Though the proposal does not include branches towards the eastern sectors of the metropolitan city, the sheer number of people this system could conceivably serve would be so great there would ultimately be a net benefit to all sectors of the metro region by virtue of fewer cars on our roadways and highways on a day to day basis.

Crucially, given the expected use of existing railway infrastructure, it’s entirely conceivable this system could be expanded to all corners of Greater Montreal. Moreover, light rail systems (such as this one) can share the track with larger heavy rail, such as the AMT’s current commuter train network. Either the Caisse’s LRT will gradually replace the AMT network, or they’ll share the track and compliment one another.

Either way, if this system is fully realized, we all get to breathe a little easier, and congestion becomes less of a problem.

The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines
The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines

But herein lies the rub: though the CDPQ’s plan is ambitious and headed in the right direction (both in terms of how it will be financed and what parts of the city it will connect), it needs to be integrated into the rest of the city’s mass transit systems from the get-go.

I was very happy to see that the Caisse has indicated a desire to do so in that they listed two potential stations (Edouard-Montpetit and McGill) that would allow the light rail system to connect directly to the Blue and Green lines of the Métro. This not only makes the LRT system more useful and accessible generally-speaking, it would also permit the Blue Line to connect more or less directly to the urban core, long the line’s major handicap.

I’ve always been in favour of extending the Blue Line to Anjou if the line is first connected, by means of the Mount Royal Tunnel, to the city centre, as this will help get that line’s ridership up to where it ought to be. As it is, it’s the least used line in the Métro network. There’s no sense extending it if the root cause of its underperformance isn’t addressed first.

So if I could make a very strong suggestion to the Caisse it is this: work with the STM and AMT and ensure the whole plan illustrated above is realized as the first phase, and seek the greatest possible degree of integration with the extant Métro and commuter rail network. In this way, and perhaps only this way, will they quickly recoup their investment and lay the foundation for the Blue Line’s eventual extension.

I really can’t imagine it working out in any other way.

I’m oddly hopeful politics will not rear its ugly head and screw up this plan, as I’m convinced we can’t afford to wait much longer and that it would ultimately prove exceptionally useful in accomplishing what should be a clear goal for our city: get cars off the road and increase daily mass transit system usage. I find the Caisse’s plan very encouraging, despite my near endemic cynicism and the ample proof we’re not very good getting things built or delivered on-time.

But who knows, maybe things change.

Or maybe once in a while it takes an outsider to get us back on track.

Initially I wanted to write about how this proposed system will work in the broader scheme of things, what this might mean for homeowners living in the expansive corridor to be served by this light rail system, and what kind of organizational response is needed to provide a truly world-class mass transit system at large. But given that we’re already 1300 words in, that’ll have to wait for another time.

*One of former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s more colourful quotes. Agnew was the second and most recent VP to resign from office, and so far the only to do so as a result of criminal charges, these including: extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy, all while he was holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland and Vice-President. Journalist and historian Gary Willis described Agnew as “No man ever came to market with less seductive goods, and no man ever got a better price for what he had to offer.”

Expo 1881

Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)
Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)

Many years ago when I found myself making my way towards the Tam Tams one sunny summer Sunday and wound up in the middle of a strange festival going along the Mount Royal Avenue side of Parc Jeanne-Mance.

I remember thinking this was an odd location for a festival – it’s a baseball diamond – and what was stranger was that everything was in English. All the signs and all the lettering on the side of the trucks was in English. Had I inadvertently walked into the middle of a film shoot?

Fortunately not; Montreal is a stop on the annual North American tour schedule of the travelling Festival of India!

The roadshow is run by Harinam Festivals, Incorporated. That firm aims to spread the word of Krishna Consciousness with an annual festival circuit.

In other words, you can add to our city’s dynamic list of annual festivals one thrown by the Hare Krishnas. They’ll be back, quite likely in Parc Jeanne-Mance, July 9th and 10th, though it makes me wonder why the Krishnas aren’t set up across Parc Avenue immediately adjacent to the Tam Tams. You’d figure that would be very complimentary what with the ‘expanded consciousness’ going on around the base of the Cartier Monument.

The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)
The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)

As it was this past weekend; the Tam Tams in particular and Mount Royal generally speaking tend to bring out large crowds, but Sunday was epic. It’s too bad the city doesn’t try to estimate the crowd size at the Tams, but that might be for the best. As it stands, and as it has always been, the Tams graciously features zero city involvement. It’s unorganized, essentially spontaneous and quintessentially Montreal.

That got me thinking – how long have people been congregating in this particular part of town?

Or, from another perspective, what is it that made this space public? What precluded residential development on the land that would become Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance parks?

There are a few different reasons why, but it’s worth noting that annual festivals played an interesting role.

Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876 and the city’s principle exhibition centre – the Crystal Palace – was moved from the foot of Victoria Street (between Sainte-Catherine and Cathcart) to the ‘exhibition grounds’ in Fletcher’s Field two years later. Fletcher’s Field ran between Saint-Urbain and Parc, from Duluth up to Saint Joseph, and was used for annual exhibitions, sports and even as a military parade ground.

The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade
The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade

The image above was created for the newspaper L’Opinion Publique in 1881 and offers a bird’s eye view of the ‘Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition’ and its buildings. The Crystal Palace is in the background, up on what is now Saint Jospeh, with a Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway train passing behind it. The racetrack in the foreground would have been located between Mount Royal Avenue and Marie-Anne, or just about where the Festival of India sets up shop today.

Curiously, the area’s association with psychoactive plants dates back all the way to 1879, when the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain recognized Fletcher’s Field as a prime source for Hyoscyamus niger, also known as Henbane or Stinking Nightshade.

I doubt many of the spectators attending the annual agricultural and industrial exhibitions back in the city’s Victorian Era would have consuming Stinking Nightshade, though it may have been popular among the various animals brought to the site. The lengths of the exhibition on both the Parc and Esplanade sides was basically two long stables for the many horses brought to the exhibition grounds. Much like today, the area would have had a particularly pungent odour…

Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal - 1881)
Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal – 1881)

Also worth pointing out: the first known photograph of uniformed ice hockey players in Canada was taken in the Crystal Palace in early 1881, the same year of the illustration at top. During the winter months the large interior hall of the Crystal Palace served as one of Montreal’s main skating rinks, the other being Victoria Rink, today a parking garage running between Drummond and Stanley, just up from René Lévesque.

Our Crystal Palace would ultimately be destroyed by fire (in 1896), much like the more famous example built earlier in London, and the land between Mount Royal and Saint Joseph would shortly thereafter be redeveloped into much of the residential housing we find there today.

The land south of Mount Royal would remain public, though it would be many more years before it took its present form, with an emphasis on sport, as Parc Jeanne-Mance.

Griffintown co-op to be rebuilt; residents offered accommodation at nearby condo project

Brickfields Conceptual Rendering
Brickfields Conceptual Rendering

Some late breaking good news.

It appears the now homeless former residents of the Saint Anne housing co-op in Griffintown have caught a break after several days of devastating news.

To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.

The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the co-op’s insurer has insisted the incident was a ‘landslide’ and thus an act of god. They refused to compensate for the demolition. The condo developer has also indicated they’re not responsible either.

So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.

Today’s news is that three levels of government are going to collaborate in re-building the demolished homes, and that the nearby Bassins du Havre will provide temporary housing for the displaced, though details have yet to be worked out.

Brickfields Concept Rendering - Mountain Street Profile
Brickfields Concept Rendering – Mountain Street Profile

I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed façade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.

Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montréal re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”

He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.

So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.

Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.

Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block - Google Street View, May 2015
Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block – Google Street View, May 2015

There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.

Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.

That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.

Maybe it will become a restaurant…

Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.

The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.

Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.

While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.

I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.

Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.

What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.

Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.

Peter v. Peter – Sergakis Threatens McQueen With Lawsuit

So it’s come to this; not even a full week has gone by since ‘sexbargate’ put NDG back on the map, and already the lawyers have been called in.

Projet Montréal City Councillor for NDG, Peter McQueen, has received a cease and desist letter from Peter Sergakis, the restaurant, bar and night club proprietor noted for his opposition to smoking bans on outdoor terraces as much as his predilection for refiling old liquor bottles.

The letter was received at the Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough office Friday, the day after the proverbial fan was hit by flying excrement…

Sergakis wasn’t keen on talking when I called Sunday night; he said the bar in question, tentatively called Jersey’s Saloon (doubtless so named for all the glitz and glamour of the exciting New Jersey shore) will open ‘in a week or two.’ He then said he had to go back to bed. It was 8:00 pm.

McQueen was more talkative. He said he’s looking forward to Monday night’s borough council meeting and what decision borough mayor Russell Copeman might take on the issue. The meeting will be held at 7:00 pm (Monday April 4th) in the Cummings Auditorium, at 5151 Chemin de la Cote-Sainte-Catherine. If you want to weigh in on whether NDG needs this bar, feel free to lend your two cents at the meeting.

Given this website is typically read by people with severe ADHD problems, a quick recap. There once was a bar named Maz, and it was a dive that had basically catered the exact same clientele for roughly sixty years. Late last year the proprietors announced it would be closing, as they wanted to retire and couldn’t find anyone interested in running the place. Sergakis stepped in with plans to expand and renovate and create a new western-themed bar & grill. Everything was on the up and up until a video started making the social media rounds late last week, which featured a provocative young woman pouring some unknown liqueur upon her midriff.

A quick side note, she likely needs more experience serving drinks, as alcohol is chiefly ingested orally by mammals, and not via the bellybutton.

Rookie mistake… the important thing is that we’re all learning together.

Anyways, back to the matter at hand.

The promo video gave McQueen and a cavalcade of local yentas the distinct impression this would be a sleazy kind of place that wouldn’t fit in with what NDG ‘is all about’. To get an idea of what the video was like, the helpful minds over at the Postmedia Gazette figured they’d splice in their interview with McQueen with frames from the promo video (and take note, the Gazette had McQueen hold both the mic and his own umbrella for their interview; very professional looking…)

The yentas, and McQueen, did the chat show circuit last Thursday and Friday. McQueen referred to the proposed bar & grill as a ‘sex bar’, Sergakis claimed he didn’t know what that meant, and most of us did so much blow over the weekend we’ve completely forgotten what all the fuss was about.

Peter McQueen, demonstrating the inaccessibility of the recently renovated Vendome Métro station
Peter McQueen, demonstrating the inaccessibility of the recently renovated Vendome Métro station

Oh wait, now I remember: sex bar!

If I suspend reality and let my imagination get the better of me, a sex bar could really liven things up in NDG. I can imagine the long cue of sweaty, video-game addicted virgins excited to punch their v-cards in a straightforward, transactional fashion… the way Capitalist Jesus would doubtless prefer.

But alas, it’s not to be. McQueen admitted to me no such thing really exists (aww, shit) and that in no way should anyone think this is going to be a strip club (which would require a special license the city isn’t handing out any more, and either way wouldn’t make it past the borough’s zoning committee anyways). It isn’t even a revival of the ‘sexy serveuses’ bar from the late 1980s, as those women were typically nude (and occasionally served breakfast!)

But that didn’t stop McQueen from using the term ‘sex bar’ throughout the interview. He staked his claim NDG is family-friendly and, based on the promo video, this kind of a bar, in his opinion, doesn’t fit in with the neighbourhood. But that being said, NDG doesn’t have a civic code that defines what’s allowed and what isn’t. He also felt it necessary to bring up a few other points, which surprisingly included that there’s not much parking around the proposed bar’s location.

That one caught my attention; it’s rare to hear a member of Projet Montréal talk about how a given business needs more parking. McQueen clarified he suspects much of the clientele will be coming in from outside the neighbourhood. He went on to say that he already gets plenty of complaints from residents about teenagers smoking grass in Girouard Park (author’s note: some of them might be unemployed thirty-year-old journalists) and he’s concerned the specific marketing approach taken by Sergakis is only going to draw in the wrong crowd and lead to more complaints.

I can’t make up my mind on this one.

Depending on who you ask Sergakis is either a creepy misogynist who hates the homeless or a hard-working entrepreneur who crawled his way up from the bottom and, despite his age and wealth, still scrubs dishes and tends the grill at his establishments, if and when necessary.

For his part, I’m fairly confident McQueen has his constituents’ interests at heart, but he fundamentally needs to realize we live in a capitalist, free-market society (for better or worse) and that consumers always have the final say in that they vote with their wallets. If the residents of NDG don’t go to this bar, Sergakis will either have to re-tool or ship out altogether.

McQueen told me that if Sergakis opens any other type of bar, there’s no problem.

Which in turn means the issue comes back to the waitresses and bar maids, what they’ll be wearing and how suggestive, flirty and/or provocative they are with patrons. Any attempt to regulate this ‘for the public good’ is inherently problematic; the state has no business telling people what they can and cannot wear and in which contexts individuals can be suggestive.

In an attempt to gain some greater understanding of what’s at play, I took a stroll down Sherbrooke Street on a Sunday night and realized the proposed Jersey’s Saloon is just a few doors down from a maternity and neonatal clothing store that’s well-known as being a ‘safe space’ for breastfeeding mothers.

I can feel worlds about to collide…

Montreal Journalist