The Royalmount Project and 24hr Shopping

An artist's rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)
An artist’s rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)

Two big retail related stories from the past week. I’ll discuss in reverse order from the title above.

First, the province of Quebec will now allow retail businesses in Montreal’s downtown core to set their own hours, the idea being that there’s some kind of late night shopping potential retailers have been missing out on.

Second, a colossal shopping/entertainment/office/hotel complex intended for the former Town of Mount Royal industrial sector at the intersection of the Decarie Expressway and Highway 40. From the people who brought the Dix-30 development to Brossard come it’s much larger on-island counterpart. Carbonleo, the firm behind the Royalmount project, explains that Montrealers currently have to go to Brossard or Laval to get the same experience, though for the life of me I can’t think of too many people I know who will drive to Laval to buy some slacks…

Thoughts:

On the subject of businesses being able to set their own hours – brilliant. Why wasn’t this already the case?

And why does the city of Montreal need to province’s permission to grant businesses this right?

This aside, the plan essentially allows businesses in the ‘tourism districts’ of the Central Business District to operate on a twenty-four schedule, should they choose to do so. If this means more restaurants and cafés will be open late, great. If there’s potential to increase retail sales, I suppose this is great too, though I doubt this means we’ll be able to shop at Simons or Ogilvy at 3:00 AM anytime soon (and I doubt late night shopping opportunities in Old Montreal or Chinatown will make much of a difference either).

Either way, at it’s core this is a good move if for no other reason than it gives a number of small enterprises a greater degree of operational freedom. Couple it with loosened restrictions on drinking hours and who knows, maybe we’ll create a trend of drunken impulse clothes shopping (note: the measure specifically excludes bars… vive la laicité…)

But let’s not kid ourselves, extended shopping and won’t solve the Central Business District’s late night lifelessness, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what’s missing.

Live entertainment is the key, and it’s what’s principally missing from too much of downtown Montreal. I can’t help but think this might be a consequence of an over-emphasis on branding certain geographic areas as ‘entertainment and tourist zones’ that wind up attracting Sergakis-style sports bars, tacky nightclubs and American-style theme restaurants.

The great irony is that the neighbourhoods that really come to life at night are just that, neighbourhoods. The first ring urban residential areas on the CBD’s periphery have many of the city’s best nightspots, restaurants and venues. If anything we should be trying to figure out better methods of getting tourists out of the CBD and into the ‘real’ Montreal of the Plateau, Mile End, Saint Henri (etc.), but I digress.

One thing to consider: when you look at old photos of Saint Catherine Street in its heyday of the 1940s through to the 1970s, you notice a lot of theatres, cocktail lounges, show-bars (etc.) lining the street. Entertainment ‘anchors’ brought Montrealers to this street, in turn supporting restaurants and bars for generations. Losing the theatres (a process that began in the mid-1970s) and introducing self-contained downtown shopping malls (which began in earnest in the mid-1980s) sucked a lot of the life out of the street. Lack of commercial rental controls and our unnatural, nearly inconceivable interest in American chain stores and restaurants ultimately conspired to produce the situation we’re currently faced with… a retail and entertainment thoroughfare that’s lost the charm and appeal that made it so famous. For tourists, a bit of a let-down… most of our ‘tourist zones’ offer little better than what you’d expect to find in just about any large North American city.

As to the Royalmount project, same problem. It’s inauthentic and doesn’t actually offer anything particularly novel or interesting. Though the current plan is a kind of ‘shoot for the moon’ proposal, including a massive green roof, a performance venue, hotel, office space and about eight times as much rentable retail space as the entirety of the Eaton’s Centre, I have a suspicion the end result (if it does indeed get built) won’t be quite as grandiose. Performance venue will become multiplex cinema, hotel will become luxury old folks home etc etc etc.

If Montreal’s retailers are having a tough time now, it likely won’t get any easier with this behemoth. Add an estimated 20,000 cars per day to the already congested intersection of highways 15 and 40 and the situation gets worse all around.

What I find truly unfortunate is that if this project gets the green light we’ll lose an important industrial zone in exchange for will likely be a retail white elephant. The TMR industrial zone is well situated, not only at the intersection of the aforementioned highways, but also within close proximity of both the Taschereau and Cote Saint Luc rail yards and the airport. The industrial zone further benefits from rail line spurs that in most cases go right up to the loading docks of the large industrial properties. Sure, our industrial economy isn’t doing great right now, but who knows what the future might hold? It’s not like we have an abundance of railway connected, airport adjacent industrial zoning… especially what with all the old industrial zones close to the city proper having been converted into loft condos.

Industrial jobs is where we need growth, not retail jobs.

In any event, the Carbonleo proposal is so big it’s hard to imagine it’s realistic. On top of 2.25 million square feet of retail space, they envision 1.4 million square feet of office space – roughly equivalent to Place Ville Marie. And then there’s a 3,000 seat performance venue…

I have my doubts. What’s also distressing is that the plan will require infrastructure to be re-designed (i.e. highway on and off ramps), not to mention a planned bridge to link De la Savanne Métro station with the mega project over the Decarie Expressway trench. There’s no mention on what Transport Quebec or the STM have to say about this, though I really don’t like the idea of any public money being used on a private venture I honestly don’t think has been thoroughly thought through. It seems to me that just about every shopping mall in the city proper is struggling, and the already existing shopping malls within proximity of the planned Royalmount project are all barely hanging on.

Just another reason why this city needs a more sophisticated master plan and why ‘One Island, One City’ ought to be seriously reconsidered. TMR can likely proceed on this project by itself, perhaps to Montreal’s detriment, and that’s everyone’s concern.

Mehta, Mahler and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal

Not Mehta or the OSM, but Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Close enough…

Confession: I was neither familiar with Mahler’s Third Symphony, nor the city’s new concert hall, until last night. I know… for shame.*

First off, seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a treat in and of itself (read Claude Gingras’ spot-on review in La Presse). Mehta was the conductor of the OSM from 1960 to 1967, at the time a major step in his early career and a coup for our city. Mehta then went on to become the musical director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later became Musical Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic. He is one of the greatest and most renown living conductors, and the thrill of the experience was palpable amongst concert-goers and musicians alike.

Second, the OSM, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the OSM’s women’s choir and Montreal and McGill children’s choirs did a superb job performing such a demanding and complex piece. The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was brilliant, especially given that this was a benefit concert, as (in my opinion) it allowed the OSM to demonstrate its versatility, not to mention the excellent acoustic qualities of the new concert hall. Further, as The Gazette’s Arthur Kaptainis points out, it’s the kind of piece that will appeal to the critical and impress the unfamiliar. I fall in the latter category, though I’ve been developing a greater appreciation for classical music of late.

Third, if the purpose of Tuesday night’s performance was to encourage locals to go to the symphony more often, mission accomplished… you won’t have to tell me twice. What I saw was a world-class orchestra eager to impress a living legend, and in so doing brought the house to its feet. The performance concluded with what felt like a ten minute standing ovation.

That said…

This was my first experience with the new concert hall and I’m feeling a bit let down.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine building; it’s comfortable, modern, well-lit and sounds fantastic too.

However, on the outside it’s dull to the point of being insulting to the OSM and citizens alike. Put it another way, the building’s overall aesthetic qualities don’t match the quality of the orchestra performing within. To me it looks more like Place des Arts’ music school, or a UQAM pavilion, than the home of a major symphony orchestra.

The interior of the concert hall is elegant though the ornamentation seems to me to be trying too hard to be postmodern and ‘fun’. The general aesthetic of the whole construction is of stripped down minimalism common to most projects involving Quebec government funding of late, and while it fits within the greater scheme of both Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles, I still feel it’s too much of the same thing.

Perhaps my discomfort with the new concert hall is in the vein of medium and message being less than congruent; I can’t imagine a tourist would happen upon the concert hall without prompting (i.e. the location isn’t evident, being somewhat on the backside of Place des Arts) and there’s little about the building which says unequivocally what purpose it serves. It doesn’t invite the spontaneous engagement with the city’s culture, and doesn’t say anything about our own cultural values either. This is not to say that all buildings should necessarily be so explicit, but I don’t think it would hurt in this particular case.

After all, we want the OSM (and the other classical music ensembles who makes use of the space) to be cherished by the citizenry and further want a concert hall that is both distinct and recognizable for citizens and tourists alike.

It would also be nice for the most successful elements of Place des Arts to be eventually ‘unpackaged’ and re-distributed elsewhere in the city. The Quartier des Spectacles is without a doubt a successful (though somewhat contrived) urban branding initiative, but it would be unwise to distinguish one particular neighbourhood as cultural nucleus. Disingenuous too. Most of the housing within immediate proximity of Place des Arts isn’t exactly within the price range of most local artists.

In any event, I think it’s just a matter of time before the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal seeks out a new location, and there’s been talk of building an opera house since the Drapeau Era. Perhaps a larger and more distinct concert hall would follow. Were this to happen, new venues should go up outside the Quartier des Spectacles, though not outside the central core of the city.

Incidentally, I think the old Forum site at Atwater would be a great location for a large performance venue… although you’d run into the same problem trying to balance out the various requirements of what would need to be a multi-faceted, somewhat multi-purpose facility. But I don’t know enough to argue whether an opera hall could easily double as home to the OSM and serve the needs of touring Broadway productions simultaneously.

Closing notes: the interior aesthetic of the concert hall, from the audience’s perspective, is marred by the red neon emergency exit signs. It clashes with the woodwork and seems almost like an afterthought designed and installed by hurried bureaucrats. I know it’s absolutely necessary to have emergency signage, but surely it could have been a bit more subtle?

On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s entrance at the corner of Boul. de Maisonneuve and St. Urbain has all the charm and intimacy of a loading dock office at a pharmaceutical company’s distribution warehouse. This is where the stars of the show enter the building, yet again, their entrance seems like an afterthought, far removed from the main entrance and wholly inappropriate in context given just how unimaginative it actually is.

* (In truth, now that I think about it, I had heard the symphony before, though had forgotten. I won’t forget it now and encourage you to take a listen. It’s well worth it.)

Montreal Photo of the Day – May 4th 2015

Watering the Skyscrapers - May 3rd 2015
Watering the Skyscrapers – May 3rd 2015

Taken from Saint Jacques and Rue de la Montagne.

From left to right: you can just see the penthouse of Place Ville Marie behind the fifteen-floor tower of the Romanesque Revival styled Windsor Station (capped with emblematic green copper roof). Next is the Marriott Chateau Champlain (with iconic half-moon convex windows giving the impression, it’s often been said, of an immense cheese grater), and then the Place du Canada office tower. Rising behind Place du Canada is 1000 de la Gauchetiere West, tallest skyscraper in Montreal and one of several postmodern skyscrapers erected in the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Below the tower, in the photo’s lower right hand corner, an elderly citizen dutifully waters the tower’s foundation :)

No no no…

She was one of a handful of people out and about in the community garden put in place over the Ville Marie Tunnel. According to new development plans released from the public consultation office, this space is a priority for redevelopment (basically, the aim is draw the central business district down from its current ‘southern border’ at Saint Antoine to better integrate the city with new residential developments in Griffintown).

Of note, the master plan released by the City of Montreal aims to focus development investment in an area roughly the same size as the current Quartier International, mirrored along the north-south axis formed by the Bonaventure Expressway, whose viaduct is supposed to be eliminated in favour of a wide, ground-level urban boulevard. The same plan calls for a linear park to stretch over the Ville Marie Expressway tunnel from Guy to Jean D’Estrées, which will eliminate this community garden while maintaining the area as green space.

While the plan is encouraging (in that it aims to focus development in an area that would benefit immensely from redevelopment, and further sew up the still open wound created by the highway tunnel project back in the 1960s and 1970s) there’s not much in terms of major services for so many new residents. Community gardening is just one component. Some kind of local public school is going to need to be provided, a public library branch would be nice, not to mention a CLSC, CPE(s) and various community and cultural spaces would be great too.

I don’t think we should wait to see what kind of people move into the neighbourhood over the next decade or so. Better to provide the bare minimum to support a vibrant and diverse community, rather than simply letting market forces figure it all out. If anything, the market may adjust its offering over time if the city came out first and identified how it will most directly support families in the area. Not all families will be keen to live north of Griffintown, but some will, and the centrality of the location would support families living in adjoining established communities downtown. In other words, if it’s in our best interest to have communities with diverse types of residents (e.g. singles, young couples, couples with young children, re-located empty nesters etc.), the city needs to prepare for just that level of diversity and ensure the range of core community services are provided. This is how the public sector can best stimulate private sector investment – by establishing the foundations of a veritable community.

The Agence métropolitaine de transport to be abolished

AMT Commuter Rail Logo

When you want news to get buried over the weekend, you deliver it on Friday afternoons.

The Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) will be abolished as of Monday. The provincial government agency is currently responsible for all transit planning in Greater Montreal, as well as the the inter-city commuter rail network.

The Couillard government will make the announcement on Monday (okay, so maybe they’re not really trying to bury the story, still, odd time to issue a press release teasing such a major change…)

Apparently the AMT is to be replaced by two new organizations: the Réseau des transports métropolitain (RTM) and the Agence régionale de transport (ART).

The new RTM will be responsible for running the commuter rail system and apparently all public transit agencies except the STM, STL and RTL (the latter two STM equivalents in Laval and Longueuil respectively).

Of note, the other organization (ART) will be the regional transit planning body, and will be run by the ‘elected officials of Montreal and government experts’.

It’s not clear whether that means city proper or agglomeration council, though I believe it’s the latter case.

It’ll be interesting to find out what precisely this all means on Monday, though perhaps we have reason to be optimistic. Local transit needs to be planned locally, though the maintenance of three independent transit agencies (in the form of the STM, STL and RTL) within this new plan is still problematic. The cost to ride the Métro should be standard regardless of where you get on. Similarly, the bus network should have a single common fare at least for Montreal, Laval and Longueuil.

That said, I wonder whether the new regional transit planning authority will continue to push the Blue Line’s eastern extension, or whether it will prioritize developing a tram system.

A lot more to come on this file I imagine. Stay tuned!

Accessibility & Public Transit: RAPLIQ Requests Class Action Suit

Inclines and man-made caves...
Inclines and man-made caves…

Interesting story from last week. The organization that represents Quebec’s mobility-impaired population, RAPLIQ, has filed a request for a class action suit of $100 million against the Montreal transit commission (STM), the provincial Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT – which is responsible for the city’s commuter rail service, in addition to expanding the Métro) in addition to the City of Montreal and the province’s transport ministry.

They’re arguing the lack of access to public transit in Montreal infringes on their basic human rights and the transit agencies haven’t done enough to remedy the problem, nor have the city or province provided sufficient resources to improving accessibility.

If successful this would award about $5,000 to each of 20,000 plaintiffs. It would also be the first such class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

You could argue it would also take $100 million out of government coffers, money which could otherwise be put to use building the infrastructure necessary to make our city’s public transit system more accessible, but therein lies the point. Government would have to pay if the suit were successful, but so far hasn’t earmarked much money (and more importantly hasn’t been terribly enthusiastic) to improve public transit accessibility in our city.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the Métro was not designed from the outset to handle people with limited mobility. Only the three newest stations, those in Laval and completed about a decade ago, were designed with elevators in mind. In total, only eight out of 68 Métro stations have elevators, and only five out of 64 AMT train stations are equipped to handle wheelchairs.

And that’s just for wheelchairs. When you consider accessibility in the broader sense – that is to include everyone whose mobility is any way handicapped – you realize there are other parts of the accessibility puzzle which are missing. I would argue there’s not enough seating generally speaking at either the train or Métro stations, especially in the tunnels connecting to Métro stations, and that I’ve never actually seen anyone use the ‘rest bars’ the STM installed in lieu of more practical benches.

It astounds me the Métro was built without considering the needs of the mobility impaired in the first place (you’d figure elevators would have been installed simply because they’re efficient and immensely useful generally speaking), but it’s even more astounding that both the most recent expansions of the Métro (notably the western Orange Line branch and the entirety of the Blue Line, completed in the 1980s) and the re-development of Montreal’s commuter rail system under the AMT (which occurred in the mid-1990s) omitted the necessary infrastructure to ensure greater accessibility. Of the latest AMT commuter line to be built, the Train de l’Est, completed just last year, only four of thirteen stations are wheelchair accessible.

RAPLIQ says they’re tired of waiting for the various agencies and levels of government to get their act together and take them seriously. I can sympathize with their frustration.

For many years our city’s transit agency boasted it’s commitment to accessibility by instituting one of the earliest para-transit systems in the world. When the STM opted for the new Novabus design in the late 1980s it pointed out these buses would have special ramps that could be operated automatically by the driver, permitting a greater degree of autonomy to people living with disabilities. Well, we all know the story there. The ramps never lived up to expectations, mechanical issues plagued the fleet for years after they were introduced to regular service, and ever since we all too often hear stories of the wheelchair bound left on the curb because either the bus was too full or the ramps weren’t working that particular day.

In sum, it’s a shitty situation, because even though there’s really no good reason for a modern city such as ours to be so inaccessible, there’s zero political will to do anything about it. Retrofitting Métro stations with elevators is costly and the STM is going about it at a painfully slow pace, a pace further retarded by budget cuts and the fact that anything needing to be built outside (and connecting to) any given Métro station falls under the jurisdiction (and budget) of the AMT. This is why Bonaventure station, as an example, has an elevator leading from the mezzanine to the station platform, but nothing to connect the mezzanine with the street above. The AMT has been negotiating with the owners of 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest for years, and is expected to issue a call for tenders later this year.

With regards to Vendome Métro station, situated next to the new MUHC super hospital, there is neither a tunnel linking the station with the hospital, nor an elevator to make the station accessible, and that station just completed a renovation intended to help deal with increased traffic once the super hospital opens. The Université de Montréal super hospital is also located next to a Métro station, one which has both an elevator and direct tunnel access. I’m not sure why it was thought necessary for one and not the other…

It’s too bad it has come to a class action suit. On the one hand, it may lead to promises of concrete action by government if the suit is approved, as those parties named in it would probably prefer not to have to argue the case against accessibility. On the other hand, it would be difficult for RAPLIQ to get much public support as the individual gains would be so modest and it’s understood (probably by RAPLIQ better than anyone else) that the money really would be better spent if earmarked specifically for infrastructure improvements to the system (e.g. it could likely pay for about half of the remaining Métro stations to be retrofitted with elevators).

As I said, it’s a shitty situation. If the class action suit is successful, all the accessibility problems will still exist, but there’ll be $100 million less to spend fixing them.

My hope is that the focus shifts a bit… accessibility, as I see it, goes hand in hand with overall quality of experience, and in my opinion the entirety of our public transit system, impressive on paper though it might be, could stand for a major investment just to make it more comfortable. Yes, we need elevators. Ramps could also be implemented, but there’s room for so much more. Better lighting, wifi access, more seating, public restrooms, more shelters at bus stops and train stations, adding solar-powered space heaters to the latter, and a crash course on manners and customer service best practices for every single STM employee… these are just a few examples of how the overall customer experience could be improved in parallel with making the system more accessible.

To close, making the system more comfortable and more accessible only increases the number of potential customers, in turn increasing yearly revenue, and this isn’t just good for the transit agencies, but for our local environment as well. We in part base our claim to a high quality of life in this city because of the excellent public transit coverage, but this is too much a top-down perspective. We need a more human-centric system, one that focuses on the convenience and comfort of the journey itself, and not just the points connected.

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 20th 2015

Peel & De la Gauchetiere - April 2015

From left to right, Windsor Station, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque (the tower with the prominent spire), St. George’s Anglican Church, Place Laurentienne and the CIBC Tower (which also has a prominent spire).

Photo taken from the ‘skywalk’ over Rue de la Gauchetiere, bridging Place du Canada (public park) with Place du Canada (office/hotel complex).

The view from Mount Royal