Crossover Comics: Made in Saint Henri

Ray, Paul, George and Adrien of Crossover Comics
Ray, Paul, George and Adrien of Crossover Comics

When the ‘for rent’ sign went up in the display window a few months back, a lot of anxious faces started walking in the front door.

“There was one guy… he was probably here for twenty minutes. He went on a rant about how landlords have driven rental prices through the roof, how the little guy couldn’t catch a break in this economy.” Paul Landry shoots a knowing grin to Ray Silas. “When we told him we weren’t closing, and that we were just moving next door into a larger space, he was elated. He went on and on about how great it was that we were succeeding, how valuable and important a comic book store is to this part of town.”

Ray chimes in, perfect timing after waiting a beat: “None of us had ever seen him before. I’m certain he had never set foot in the store.”

Crossover Comics is unique: it’s a bookstore in an increasingly digital world and its stock of graphic novels, comics, games and related paraphernalia can be described as a ‘niche product’ for a somewhat limited audience. It’s not close to any major post-secondary education institution, as is the tendency with most other urban bookstores generally speaking, nor is it located in a middle-class residential neighbourhood, as is the tendency with suburban comic book stores. Instead, it finds itself on the somewhat resurgent commercial artery that is Notre Dame West, a street increasingly dominated by restaurants, bars and bistros.

Though Crossover Comics is unique in myriad other ways too (which will be illustrated throughout the article), what stands out to me is that it is the collective endeavour of three (now four) friends from high school, and you’ve probably heard it before that starting a business with your friends isn’t a very good idea.

On August 22nd 2015, Crossover Comics will officially inaugurate their new expanded location immediately east of their first home (of three years) at the intersection of Rose-de-Lima and Notre Dame West. From my estimation it’s four times as large at least, occupies two floors and is brimming with stock. As far as I can tell the partnership succeeds because of the individual commitment to collective benefit, and owners Paul, Ray, George and Adrien have taken this notion outside the confines of the shop and applied it to the community at large.

I sat down to speak with two of the four owners to find out more about going against the grain.

How did you come to settle on starting your business in Saint Henri?

Paul: there was intention behind it, but also luck.

Ray: Saint Henri was maybe third down the list, but we looked everywhere really. We’d spent a whole day walking around various Métro stops, trying to get an idea of the pros and cons of each location. We quickly eliminated Saint Denis because the rents were so high.

Paul: we were discouraged by business owners around Atwater too. Same thing… a number told us they were having a hard time getting by because of high rents. By the end there were three neighbourhoods we decided we would seriously consider opening in.

Ray: we wanted to position ourselves strategically, not too close to established comic book shops. The area around Lionel-Groulx appealed to us because it’s a major Métro station, it’s centrally located within the West End and it’s connected directly to the West Island by bus, and there weren’t any other bookstores nearby.

Paul: Russell Crowe helped out a lot with the negotiations.

Me: …can you explain?

Paul: Ray found our first location online.

Ray: there was a point when I was getting pretty frustrated and I knew we had to settle on a location quickly or else I’d have to go find another job. I was looking around online and found this spot on Notre Dame West and the price was reasonable. It was also the right size.

Paul: but there was a spot nearby that we had wanted, but the landlords instead leased it to a Public Mobile.

Ray: so when we saw that there was a Public Mobile right next door we breathed a sigh of relief. Public Mobiles at the time (in the summer and autumn of 2012) were popping up all over, and they all had roughly the same space requirements as we did. But because they’re a chain selling cellphones, and we’re an upstart comic book store, a lot of landlords went with the established chain as the better option. So we contacted the owners and didn’t get a reply. Normally you get the brush off but this was total silence. So we waited and eventually they got back to us. What really surprised us was that this landlord wanted to see our business plan.

Paul: most other landlords wouldn’t even distinguish between a comic book store and any other book store. Our current landlords understood the distinction and asked about the specifics of our plan.

Ray: and the owners’ dog’s name is Russell Crowe. Apparently, we were the only people the dog liked.

Paul: everyone always tells me ‘don’t keep bacon in your pocket’, but this time it worked out!

Ray: early on they told us ‘we’re not going to be your parents…’

Paul: they said they had other people in mind, but ultimately they liked us a lot. They gave us about a week and a half to get ourselves in order and then we signed the lease. After that was done they told us that they figured it would be unprofessional to have brought it up during negotiations, but that they really liked the ‘Big Bang Theory’ and that we reminded them of the show, and that they wanted us to bring that dynamic to Saint Henri.

How has Saint Henri and Notre Dame West changed in the last three years?

Ray: how much time do you have?

Paul: I really liked Griffintown as a location initially, but the rents are too high. We realized that rents on the west side of Atwater, equidistant from the Métro to the west as Griffintown is to the east, were undervalued at the time.

Ray: we figured we were ahead of the curve and that businesses were beginning to bleed over to the west side of Atwater. We anticipated it might be a rough few years, but that ultimately ours would be the right choice. At the three year mark we expected the neighbourhood to change for the better.

Paul: a lot of the markers of a sketchy neighbourhood have disappeared in the last few years. The pawn shops have closed, the army surplus stores have closed. Our first location replaced a massage parlour. They’re not ‘bad businesses’ per se, but for a long time they defined the local business environment. Some of those locations successfully evolved into new businesses. Others are now just empty storefronts.

Ray: it’s also interesting that there’s not a single non-restaurant business that’s opened that has stayed open since we moved here, in at least one block in each direction. And that’s not a comment on the product or services offered, it’s just the economic realities of Saint Henri and Notre Dame West. So that gives you an idea of how hard it is to get a small business off the ground.

Paul: but since day one we wanted to established ourselves as a destination business. We want people to come here to experience this neighbourhood. So we benefit from the large number of restaurants, bars and other attractions in the area, like the Atwater Market and the Lachine Canal. Crossover is the comic book store in Saint Henri, and it’s within walking distance of two Métro stations. Being a destination shop means the client will prefer you over something else that might be closer to home, or over purchasing a given item online. So we realized that if we wanted to thrive in Saint Henri, and benefit from what Saint Henri has to offer, we’d also have to go above and beyond and provide excellent customer service. That way there’s a kind of reciprocity and mutually-beneficial, if unofficial, business relationship between the store and the community around it.

Ray: we knew we were offering something very different for a street dominated by restaurants and bars, and that a person out for a night on the town isn’t necessarily going to stop over and buy comic books. We were told constantly that stores selling niche items would invariably lose out to online sales. But we also knew that, historically, comic sales are inversely proportional to the state of the economy. During periods of economic downturn, comic sales increase, and I think this is because people want the escapism, the fantasy of an everyman with an extraordinary gift, able to do right in a world gone wrong. There’s mass appeal there.

What distinguishes Crossover as a comic book store?

Ray: that we run our store as a business. I feel like a lot of comic book stores, and this isn’t particular to Montreal either, often forget they are running a business. We all love comics, and we can all geek out on the comics we like, but we’re also focused on running a business. I’ve seen too many comic book stores staffed by comic book fans, and as fans they may show their personal biases concerning characters and themes, or even potential customers coming in. That’s why we diversify, and we force ourselves to review all the stock, even the stuff we don’t necessarily enjoy personally. If I suggest something to you, it’s because I’ve read it. And considering that the majority of our customers are repeat customers, then it’s not in my interest to focus exclusively on the sale. I’d much rather have the repeat customer continue to come back every two weeks than to sell him or her something they don’t want. So excellent product knowledge goes hand in hand with knowing your clientele’s interests, budget and tastes. We also did far more marketing than our competitors.

Paul: I wouldn’t say we marketed more, but we did have a more targeted approach. We sponsored random things we thought might have overlapping interests – wrestling matches, geek-themed comedy nights.

Ray: we hosted an event to raise money for flood victims in the Philippines…

Paul: we went back to our old high school in Pierrefonds, the place where we used to get in trouble for reading comic books, and helped the students there organize and launch a comic book club…

Ray: we got a call from CJAD on our first Free Comic Book Day… (which takes place the first Saturday of every May) they wanted to find out more about it and do an interview. That’s one of the busiest days of the year for any comic book store, as it was for us. But I took five minutes to do it because you can’t turn your nose to free advertising. We had 500 people coming through here, I had to do the interview in the back alley to get away from the din.

Paul: one of the ideas that Ray brought to the table, and I think he got it after spending several years managing a comic book store across town, was that Free Comic Book Day could be an event that was bigger than just the comic book store. It’s a reason for people to go not only to a specific address, but the whole neighbourhood around it. A person comes here to get a free comic, maybe buys another at full price, then goes to another shop around here, or stops in at a restaurant. They’re carrying bags with our logo on it.

Ray: we’ll have coffee from one place, cookies from another, posters advertising other local businesses, maybe coupons from another still. It’s a natural opportunity for cross-promotion… you’re helping yourself and helping other small businesses around you, and it’s vital and in everyone’s best interest. We’re not in direct competition with any other business on this street… no one’s debating between buying a comic book and eating out at a restaurant.

Collaborative commerce… was the city involved at all, or a local merchant’s association?

Ray: no, not at all. It was quite the opposite in fact, it was our initiative to start reaching out to other businesses. We went out and proposed coupon ideas to other local merchants, even offering to do the production work.

What’s your take on gentrification and do you think you’re gentrifying Saint Henri?

Paul: I don’t think we’re gentrifying Saint Henri as much as the neighbourhood’s shifting a little bit. I think the stories of Saint Henri’s gentrification is a little exaggerated. There are people who live here, who have lived here all their lives, and they don’t want to be forced out by rising rents, and I understand that completely. But in some respects Saint Henri is changing slowly, and a lot of the biggest changes have been the conversion of old factories and warehouses down by the canal into lofts, condos and office space. I think there’s a lot more smoke than fire.

Ray: it doesn’t make any sense to me that someone would want a pawn shop or a massage parlour rather than a bookstore or a sandwich shop. Don’t get me wrong, there are places that are problematic (Paul points at a coffee cup from a company that sounds similar to Kim Morton’s) but I don’t think we’re perceived as part of the problem. We’re not driving rents up. No real estate agent is talking about a condo’s proximity to a comic book shop. We’ve always been very community-oriented. Gentrification happens when you can’t afford what’s for sale in your own neighbourhood, and we’re conscientious of this.

Paul: that’s true, and it’s always been part of our overall business plan to offer something at every price point. We have books starting at one dollar.

Ray: we have neighbourhood kids come in and hang out. You’d much rather have your kid come hang out in a comic book store than some of the establishments that used to be here.

Paul: you can find news articles about Saint Henri’s gentrification stretching back over a decade. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have lived and worked here a long time, and for them it’s not gentrification, it’s improvement. I was told that the biggest difference in Saint Henri is that, twenty years ago, there was a lot more illicit activity going on in the street. Whether it was drug selling or prostitution or drunken fist fights, it was all happening out in the street. That made it difficult for families to live here. Now most of the sales of illicit things have gone online, and bars take greater responsibility in knowing when their clients have had enough. So what happened, and this isn’t specific to Saint Henri either, is that the illicit activity isn’t as in your face anymore, and now Saint Henri has renewed value as a desirable urban neighbourhood. That’s not gentrification, that’s the march of time, technological progress and concerned members of the community taking a bigger personal responsibility for their neighbourhood.

Ray: you go to other large Canadian cities, like Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, and you can’t get affordable housing as close to the city centre as Saint Henri is to downtown Montreal. It’s true that rents and urban housing costs have gone up here inasmuch as it has elsewhere in Canada, but not to the same degree, not even close. Saint Henri is still an affordable neighbourhood, and that will drive up interest in living here, it’s inevitable.

Paul: I always get frustrated when people claim to love a neighbourhood so much they need to vent their frustrations by damaging or destroying property in their own neighbourhood. It makes no sense to me… I don’t think the people out spray-painting anti-capitalist slogans or breaking windows are invested emotionally or financially in this neighbourhood.

***

After the interview I decided to amble over to Satay Brothers for a late night Singaporean treat. One of the owners recognized me and came over to say hello. He asked what I was up to and I told him I had just finished interviewing two of the owners of the comic book shop down the way.

He told me how relieved he was to find out the ‘for rent’ sign in the window was because the shop was expanding next door, and not shutting down.

“I’m glad. It’s a great shop and good for the community too.”

Crossover Comics’ grand re-opening takes place Saturday August 22nd 2015 at 3560 Notre Dame West, corner Rose-de-Lima in beautiful Saint Hank, starting at 11:00 am.

Coderre to Canada Post: Just Watch Me

Not so fast Canada Post...
Not so fast Canada Post…

Responding to the installation of a concrete slab on which a Canada Post community mailbox is supposed to be built, Denis Coderre today indicated he will have it removed. As of this writing, the mayor was busy jackhammering away at the slab.

The slab was prepared on land the city considers to be part of the Anse à l’Orme nature park, near Cap Saint Jacques in the far western end of Pierrefonds. Mayor Coderre indicated that the city was neither consulted nor told about the community mailbox intended for the remote location; Coderre described Canada Post’s actions as ‘arrogant’.

Asked whether he would give Canada Post a warning regarding further removal of concrete slabs prepared without the city’s permission, the mayor said simply: this is it.

Coderre was flanked by Pierrefonds-Roxboro borough mayor Jim Beis, Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension (ViSaMiPex?) borough mayor Anie Samson, Benoit Dorais of the Southwest Borough and Peter Trent, the Mayor of Westmount in his capacity as head of the Quebec federation of municipalities. There’s was a unanimous position: Canada Post had clearly overstepped their bounds by preparing for a community mailbox in a nature park and not letting the city know about it.

Canada Post’s media line is an answering machine, and so far their only official reply is a widely circulated boilerplate email that states ‘they are open to working with municipalities to find ideal locations for the community mailboxes and to address any and all concerns’.

But nothing specific about city workers laying waste to a freshly poured concrete mailbox foundation. For the record, these are the questions I posed to Canada Post’s media representative by email:

1. Did Canada Post know the land was part of the Anse a l’Orme nature park?

2. How will Canada Post react to the planned destruction of the concrete slab this afternoon?

3. Will Canada Post continue in its plan to install community mailboxes on the island of Montreal?

4. Did Canada Post inform either the City of Montreal or the borough of Roxboro-Pierrefonds about the installation?

5. Will Canada Post continue with planned community mailbox construction knowing both the city and the agglomeration does not support community mailboxes?

6. Will Canada Post consider suspending the installation of community mailboxes and maintaining door to door delivery until the matter is resolved in the courts?

And this was their reply:

We are always willing to work with municipalities to find the best locations and discuss any concerns. Our goal is to find sites that are safe, accessible and convenient for the households in each neighbourhood. We would be happy to discuss any suggestions they may have for alternative locations.

Don’t you love straight no-nonsense answers from civil servants?

Back in May the cities of Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and those of the metropolitan agglomeration joined the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ lawsuit against the federal Crown Corporation. The argument is that community mailboxes may lower adjacent property values and the quality of life of nearby residents, and seems to be an extreme solution to a problem that doesn’t entirely exist.

To bring you up to speed: a few years ago Canada Post released a five point plan designed to bring the public corporation back to profitability. They sited a Conference Board of Canada study that projected catastrophic losses beginning in 2012 (and eventually leading to losses of $1 billion per annum), and so part of the five point plan sought to eliminate door to door delivery as a means to counter these projected losses.

The problem is that these projections were wildly inaccurate. The Conference Board of Canada projected losses of $400 million for Canada Post in 2014. In reality, Canada Post profited $204 million in that year. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers have also criticized both Canada Post and the Conference Board study for not considering any alternatives to community mailboxes, such as reducing the number of days home mail delivery is available.

It’s not even entirely clear if the drop in mail volume is as severe as Canada Post has assumed, given that projected volume reduction in the last quarter of 2012 was twice as high as the actual drop. While there’s no question people send and receive fewer handwritten letters and postcards today than they did a century ago, e-commerce has resulted in increases to parcel volume.

And it’s not like we’ve all unanimously decided to do away with paper bills and bank statements either; I for one insist on paper copies of my bills.

What’s particularly troublesome is how the issue has been spun for obvious political gains since day one. While the Prime Minister often describes Canada Post as an ‘arms length government agency’ over which they have no direct control, the ruling Conservative Party has championed the move to end home delivery among other cutbacks. The notion Canada Post ought to be privatized was studied by the Prime Minister’s Office prior to the release of Canada Post’s five point plan in 2013. About a month after the PMO received its study concerning privatization, the Crown Corporation suspended all work on a postal banking scheme they had been developing as the primary means by which they would improve their bottom line. Since then, cutbacks, layoffs and increased prices have been the only tools left to Canada Post’s disposal. At the same time, they’re alone in baring the brunt of poor public reaction.

At today’s press conference, Coderre reiterated that Canada Post is a public corporation, and thus is supposed to serve the interests of the public. A study into community mailboxes commissioned by the city has indicated their belief community mailboxes are not the appropriate solution to Canada Post’s unproven financial difficulties.

Asked whether he’s concerned Canada Post will sue, Coderre said that the city is already in court against Canada Post (referring to the aforementioned lawsuit) and that if it’s a fight they want, they can have it.

Holes in the Plan

From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.
From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.

If ever there was a photo that sapped the public’s confidence in the Olympic Stadium, this is probably it.

I figure the photo dates back to 1987 or 1988, one of the first instances in which the stadium’s retractable kevlar roof tore. It happened a few more times before the Olympic Installations Board (or RIO en Français) installed the current non-retractable roof in 1998 (at a cost of $26 million in 1998 dollars).

The current roof has been problematic since it was installed, having torn several times, including a major failure in 1999 that led to the lawsuits and counter-suits between contractors and the second roof’s designer.

As it stands the roof remains closed and the stadium field is unusable if three centimetres of snow accumulation (or three millimetres of rainwater accumulation) is expected within 24 hours of a planned event. This rule caused the postponement of a Montreal Impact game scheduled back in March of 2014.

For this reason, according to the Olympic Installations Board, using the Big O as a temporary home for a revived local Major League Baseball franchise is out of the question. The RIO is currently investing $100 million over the next five years to improve the stadium and related facilities, including renovating the tower and funicular as well as improving the overall ‘client experience’ (sound quality, heating, concessions etc.)

I find this a bit paradoxical. On the one hand the RIO is investing money into improving and maintaining the stadium for current and future use, but won’t allow the stadium to be used for regular MLB usage unless a new roof is installed (and they have no current plans to finance the roof project). The RIO is supposed to provide the provincial government with a report outlining new roof options by the fall. It should be noted that the provincial government awarded a contract to build a new stadium roof (at a cost of $300 million) back in 2004 and nothing came of it. In 2010 the RIO apparently sought approval from the provincial government for this roof replacement contract and, again, nothing happened.

In other words, there was a plan to build a new roof more than a decade ago, so I’m not altogether certain what these new reports will ultimately suggest. The requirements are fairly straightforward: build a roof that a) will allow year-round use of the stadium field without concern of it falling down and b) if technically feasible, design a retractable roof. I think it should be obvious the RIO should be aiming for the best possible roof design, and that would require the ability to at least partly open it.

If you didn’t know any better you might assume Denis Coderre is a brand ambassador for Major League Baseball, and it seems resurrecting the Expos is the primary focus of his administration. He says it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Don’t be fooled…

While exhibition games at the Olympic Stadium have proven immensely successful, and indeed the RIO has been doing a good job at increasing the public’s use of the entirety of the Olympic Park (and its many diverse attractions), the Olympic Installations Board doesn’t seem to be working closely with the city administration to secure the Big O as the first home of the resurrected team. It’ll take time and a significant private investment to build a new purpose-built downtown ballpark, so the rationale is to use what we already have until such a stadium is built.

But this all comes undone what with the roof replacement issue. The province already has a hard time justifying the status quo (i.e. a stadium for special events only), and should be hesitant to invest a considerable sum of public money into developing a new roof if there’s no guarantee of an MLB team returning to the city.

By contrast, the word from the MLB is: no team without a commitment to a new stadium.

Ergo, a site has to be chosen, cleared, decontaminated and then excavated before Major League Baseball will seriously consider relocating even a failing team to this city. And while there seems to be a general agreement in this city that a team could be relocated here and use the Big O until the new stadium is completed, it doesn’t seem that Major League Baseball is convinced. Assuming the Big O’s roof was replaced and that other major renovations were executed, it then begs the question: why build a new stadium at all?

And who’s going to front all that capital without a guarantee?

Unfortunately it increasingly seems as though the only way Montreal will get its Expos back is if the province and possibly the city invest public money into building an entirely new stadium from scratch, though this plan has already been done in Quebec City (and backfired).

The whole ‘if you build it they will come’ idea doesn’t entirely work. Right now Quebec City and Las Vegas are competing for an NHL expansion franchise, and that’s hardly a contest between equals. Vegas has a metro population of nearly two million people, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Quebec City has a metro population of under 800,000, and though both cities are major North American tourist attractions, clearly Las Vegas is by far the bigger draw, not to mention it’s a city whose sole existence is based on tourism. And then there’s the whole issue of broadcasting rights, advertising and certain aspects of Bill 101 that make it disadvantageous to operate a professional sports team in La Belle Province. Take note, the Centre Vidéotron was paid for by the Ville de Québec and the province, splitting the $370 million cost of construction 50-50. Quebecor was given exclusive management and naming rights to the stadium (there was no bidding process) for between $33 and $63 million up front and between $3 and $5 million per annum in rent.

In other words, the public purse pays to build a stadium with no anchor tenant on a hope and a prayer that a city that lost its hockey team will get it back twenty some-odd years later, and one of the province’s biggest corporations gets the exclusive right to manage and name the building providing they pony up between one tenth and one fifth the construction costs up front.

If that seems illogical, impractical and ultimately disadvantageous to taxpayers in Quebec, then you understand full well why our city cannot go down the same road with regards to resurrecting the Expos.

Regardless of what politicians might say, there’s overwhelming evidence that pro sports subsidies from the public purse rarely result in a strong return for the taxpayers, and the heads of the various professional North American leagues know this full well. They bank on it. And the public subsidy doesn’t end once the venue is built. According to research by a University of Michigan sports management professor published in 2012, taxpayers are on average subsidizing 78% of the major sporting venues in Canada and the United States.

Denis Coderre should know better: public support isn’t enough. Both the Expos and Nordiques had strong public support (and arguably still do). But both the NHL and MLB are US-focused entertainment conglomerates that pay their players in US funds and seek English-language broadcasting rights. Currently, the Canadian dollar is losing value compared to the Greenback, and Quebec remains a limited media market. We should also note that both the Expos and the Nordiques appealed to the provincial government for bailouts and ‘stimulus spending’ back when they were on the verge of collapsing, and the péquiste government of the time made the unpopular though ethically correct decision not to use public money to help pay the salaries of multimillionaires who for the most part aren’t even Canadian citizens.

Twenty years later we’re more or less back where we started though with a provincial government and local mayor who seem to think the public investment will be returned through indirect economic stimulus, an idea that’s been disproven by most sports economists.

Plus que ça change…

My question is, are we clever enough to find a way around all these potential pitfalls?

Can we game the system to get a chance to play?

The way I figure it, an entirely privately-funded endeavour is exceptionally unlikely. Simply acquiring a plot of land large enough to build a stadium on will almost assuredly require expropriations of one kind or another, not to mention redesigning the streets around the new stadium. Thus, government is implicated from day one no matter where the new ballpark is built.

Regardless of whether a new stadium is privately or publicly financed it will still require several years to build, and given this is the case it would be advantageous to have the team start playing before the new facility is completed. This is particularly advantageous if we don’t want public money to finance new stadium construction, as the team would be able to begin generating revenue from which the costs of construction would eventually be paid.

That said, the Olympic Stadium needs to be brought up to code to permit long-term, year-round use.

And who’s going to pay for that?

The compromise position would require the Olympic Installations Board (and its properties) to be transferred from the province to the city, meaning the city would be responsible for the stadium’s renovations and maintenance but would also collect direct revenue from its use. The cost of bringing the Big O up to code is significantly less than the cost of building a new stadium, and has other major advantages as well (e.g. no need to redesign the street and traffic system; Olympic Park is already directly connected to two Métro stations; there are maybe a dozen other major attractions within a short walk of the stadium etc.). Furthermore, Olympic Stadium is the city’s single highest capacity venue, and building a proper roof (in addition to the current renovation scheme) would allow it to be used year-round (the stadium floor cannot currently be used from December to March). This would not only allow an MLB team to operate out of the stadium, but any large sporting event in addition to concerts and conventions, important additional revenue streams.

While spending public money to build a new purpose-built ballpark in the hopes of attracting a sports franchise is a nearly criminal misuse of government funds, renovating an underused multi-purpose stadium that’s already been paid for is a lot easier to digest, especially if the city were ultimately fully responsible for the stadium. At this point, the city would finance repairing the roof and making the stadium usable throughout the year, but would also own it and be able to use it as a potential revenue stream. It could then be rented by the resurrected Expos (at a fair price) for as long as was necessary to finance the construction of a new purpose-built facility at a different location in the city. And if after five or six seasons the club’s perfectly happy with the Big O the city could then conceivably offer the team an emphyteutic lease arrangement in lieu of an annual rent.

As far as I can figure it this is the best way forward.

At the time of this writing, the RIO indicated that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games to be held in Montreal in 2016.

Reserving dates is problematic with the defective roof, remember? What if more than three millimetres of rainwater accumulates within 24 hours of the planned match? Would the RIO stick to the rules and force the cancellation of a regular season major league game? Or would the MLB pressure the RIO go ahead anyways?

Author’s Note

First, thanks to regular reader Faiz Imam for pointing out that Quebec City and Las Vegas aren’t competing against one another. There are two spots open and as far as I know the only two cities vying for a franchise.

Second, a spokesman from the RIO got in contact with me to correct a few points. The Big O’s roof can support any amount of rainwater; an event would be cancelled if 3mm of sleet accumulated on the roof. The spokesman also corrected a report that went out on 98.5 fm indicating that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games in 2016. Apparently this is not the case, though the Big O could be available were a request made.

Montréal Basics: why do we have the Métro?

The Azur Métro is unparalleled in its ability to form a dramatic backdrop for government and corporate photo opportunities. As of July 2015, six trains have been delivered and none are in operation.
The Azur Métro is unparalleled in its ability to form a dramatic backdrop for government and corporate photo opportunities. As of July 2015, six trains have been delivered and none are in operation.

Put it another way, given the hazards and expense that comes with building a subway system, why did Montréal choose to develop the Métro in the 1960s instead of other mass transit systems? Why not elevated trains, like in Chicago? Or streetcars, like in Toronto? Monorails were pretty popular fifty years ago, but aside from the Minirail system developed for Expo 67, we didn’t pursue that idea very far.

The trend in North America at the time of the Métro’s development was generally in favour of buses over all other types of mass transit systems. Indeed, electric trams that had been built in numerous large and medium sized American cities around the turn of the 20th century were for the most part eliminated in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the only other subway system developed in North America was that of Mexico City. The ‘General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy Theory‘ posits that GMC conspired to convince cities and towns across North America to eliminate their tram systems in order to secure bus sales, though despite congressional testimony and the opinions of some experts remains highly contentious, some argue the true rationale, as always, is far far more complex.

At the time of Montréal’s Métro construction, citizens were as concerned about the cost as they are today, and few believed Mayor Jean Drapeau could get the job done in time for Expo 67 (hell, most people thought the fair itself was too great a commitment with too little time to fully realize the vision).

It’s curious that a lot of people today count the Métro as Expo 67’s most enduring legacy; the Métro and Expo were completely separate endeavours, the former was being planned well before the latter was even an option. Construction of the Métro began in April of 1962. Montréal would be rewarded the 1967 exposition in November of 1962, after originally losing the bid to Moscow (who subsequently withdrew due to cost and security concerns).

In fact, the idea to build a subway in Montréal dates back to the early 20th century, more or less around the same time as Chicago, New York and Boston were developing their systems. And the rationale was fairly straightforward too: city streets were clogged with traffic, the existing mass transit system was overloaded and slow-moving and a new high-speed, high-capacity public transit system was necessary to correct both problems.

The 1944 subway plan for Montreal
The 1944 subway plan for Montreal

Still, digging out a subway system isn’t the most obvious solution to the congestion problem, and in the 1950s (when automobiles first became truly affordable and Montréal’s outer ring suburbs began to develop) the city was busy developing a more car-centric transport system. Highways were planned and pushed through into the core of the city, major boulevards were widened, the street railway network was demolished and replaced with a fleet of arguably more agile buses and large tracts of land downtown became massive parking lots. And this didn’t just happen in Montreal either… most large American cities experienced the same process at roughly the same time.

Unfortunately, and again like other large American cities, the rise of the automobile hastened an exodus of the ascendant local middle class to suburbs outside the city proper. By 1966, when the Montréal Métro opened, the city’s population was beginning to shrink, a process that would continue for the next forty years. The loss of middle-class tax revenue would have a detrimental effect on the city’s ability to finance Métro construction.

Curiously, reserved lanes for buses, and bus-rapid-transit (BRT) were not considered as suitable alternatives to a subway system back in the 1960s, though they are apparently considered suitable nowadays.

As far as I can figure we have our Métro largely for the following reasons:

1. Winter snow storms. The idea to build a subway in Montréal dates back to 1910 or so, and had been revised several times by the STM’s predecessors before construction began in 1962. In 1910 the Boston, New York and Philadelphia subway systems were relatively new and their construction was in turn largely influenced by the Great Blizzard of 1888, a storm that killed 400 people across the Eastern Seaboard, from Montreal down to Baltimore. The storm paralyzed major cities for days. Doug Most’s The Race Underground is a fascinating read that further illuminates the race between Boston and New York to develop the United States’ first subway systems.

2. Subways, unlike all other forms of mass transit, offer three specific advantages: they’re faster, they can carry more people more frequently and can operate regardless of weather conditions outside. And to this point, the Métro continued operating during the Great Blizzard of 1971, a storm so severe it shut down the bus system and resulted in Montréal police requisitioning snowmobiles from private citizens just to get around.

The 1966 incarnation of the Métro (though not with original station names)
The 1966 incarnation of the Métro (though not with original station names)

The first incarnation of the Métro involved 26 stations on two lines (Orange and Green), spanning 26 kilometres. It was built in four and a half years.

Twenty stations were opened to the public in October 1966 and the rest of the initial network would open within the next six months. This was completely financed by the City of Montreal (to the tune of $213.7 million in 1966 or $1.6 billion today) and at its height involved 5,000 construction workers.

The city planned the eastern extension of the Green Line (from Frontenac to Honoré-Beaugrand) to open in time for the 1976 Olympics, the western extension to Angrignon would open two years later. The western extension of the Orange Line would begin with Lucien-L’Allier and Georges-Vanier opening in the spring of 1980, and would be completed, along with the Blue Line, in 1988. The three station extension to Laval was completed in 2007.

The idea that the Métro could be extended outside the underground has been fairly common since the late-1970s, and goes hand in hand with the provincial government getting involved in Montréal’s transit planning. Control over the design and development of Montréal’s Métro system gradually shifted from the city to the province, culminating in a provincially-issued moratorium on any further development in 1990. In essence, this moratorium has been lifted, first for the Laval extension, and today for the planned extension of the Blue Line east towards Anjou (an idea that’s been floated by Transport Quebec since 1979), but what remains is the complete and total lack of direct city involvement in developing our Métro system. It strikes me as odd that we should not have this responsibility. After all, we’re the ones using it.

The Métro planned for 1982 in 1967; clearly in mid-late 1960s the city had the long-view in mind. Can you imagine how practical this system would be if we had it today?
The Métro planned for 1982 in 1967; clearly in mid-late 1960s the city had the long-view in mind. Can you imagine how practical this system would be if we had it today?

It’s not just whose ultimately responsible for the Métro’s development that has changed; so too has the vision for the system. Back in the 1960s the city was planning for an immense Métro network by the year 2000, one that would have included nine lines to serve a metropolitan city of seven million people. Obviously the population never grew to that amount, though the the geographic distribution of our current metropolitan population of four million certainly occupies much of the same space.

Montréal benefits immensely from its public transit network but lacks much direct control over adapting the system to population shifts within the metropolitan region. Despite the fact that our public transit system helps alleviate congestion, it now has become congested in its own right. Much like the late 1950s when the extant streetcar system was deemed overloaded and in need of replacement, we now find ourselves with a Métro system that’s feeling the stress of high operational tempo and increasing usage demands. Additionally, planned replacement trains still haven’t been delivered and the oft-discussed Anjou extension still seems to be under study by the provincial transportation ministry. Extending the Métro without new trains doesn’t make much sense, especially on the least used line in the system. That said, tacking on a BRT lane or streetcar line to Saint-Michel station (as proposed by Mayor Coderre) also doesn’t make much sense (i.e. it wouldn’t be the Métro, light rail or buses operating at street level would be slower and have to contend with traffic and congestion and would further require the inconvenience of transferring at Saint-Michel station).

This extension map was proposed by the AMT several years ago. It demonstrates extensions further into Laval, Longueuil and the East End
This extension map was proposed by the AMT several years ago. It demonstrates extensions further into Laval, Longueuil and the East End

However, were we to actually start receiving the new Azur Métro trains sometime soon, then extension becomes a bit more realistic. In the meantime the city and STM should focus on what improvements need to be made to make the Métro operate at an optimal rate, and what should be done to encourage incrementally greater use use over the long term. This involves planning commuter trains and bus lines in conjunction with the Métro; ultimately, the best public transit systems are so heavily integrated they cannot be developed in silos.

An expanded Métro system is still without question the fastest and most efficient method to move large volumes of people throughout the urban core of the metropolis and most of the denser inner ring suburbs, and the city should be planning for a future in which the Métro is the principle method by which Montrealers get around their city. Yes it’s expensive to dig out tunnels, but far more so if the system is only planned in small segments with extensions taking place every 15-20 years. I say again, originally we built 26 stations in four and a half years, and then another 39 stations in the 23 years that followed Expo 67. In the last 25 years only three stations have been added to the network. We have already demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, finance and construct comprehensive subway systems by ourselves, but are presently prevented from doing so.

As such, today’s Métro is inadequate given present and projected use, not to mention real population distribution.

Congestion is still a problem, winter snow storms can still (nearly) paralyze the city, and it’s in our interest to get cars off the roads and passengers into public transit simply by virtue of the realities of climate change and the very finite amount of oil left to be extracted.

We have to plan for a future reality in which the individual ownership of passenger vehicles powered by non-renewable sources is no longer feasible for the majority of the population.

This reality is fast approaching. And it’s not just the volatile cost of oil that will dictate the required development of our public transit system. There’s the additional factor of a multi-generational desire to live far closer to the city than either their parents or grandparents generations. There’s significant cultural cachet to city living, particularly in Montréal, and so that will also place greater demand on public transit alternatives to generally-congested city streets.

I don’t think we can afford to wait much longer, and we certainly can no longer afford to let the province determine how and when the jewel of our mass transit system will be extended. Montréal, now more than ever, needs a twenty-five year plan for public transit development.

Sabotaging Viger Square

Rule no.1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase drew shady characters, install better lighting.
Rule number 1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase draws shady characters, install better lighting.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

A city builds a park costing x millions of dollars with the intent to rehabilitate a given sector of its urban environment and cover over an exposed highway trench. It hires leading landscape architects and local artists to develop a master plan for the park and then sets about building it. At some point in time between the beginning of construction and the new park’s opening day, the city changes fundamental aspects of the master plan and eliminates others with an aim to lowering overall projected costs, claiming the initial vision developed by the relevant experts was too expensive.

Smart politics: a park gets built and various officials make claims they got the job done under budget.

The park opens and then for the better part of the next thirty some-odd years the city a) stops fully maintaining the park and b) actively sets about removing the park’s infrastructure – benches, garbage bins, picnic tables, fountains, lighting etc.

At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square,  I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.
At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square, I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.

After thirty years the city proposes to demolish the old park and replace it with an entirely new park costing y millions of dollars because the park has become undesirable in the intervening thirty-year period. The city argues the park is considered undesirable because a semi-permanent homeless population now lives there, and that the solution to both the park’s undesirability and (somehow) the homeless camp is to spend public money on building a new park (and not a new homeless shelter).

The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.
The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.

This is the situation with Viger Square; the city of Montreal intends to spend public money building a new park to replace the one they – for lack of a better word – sabotaged. Though Denis Coderre seems to have backed off a bit after considerable public outcry from preservationists, urbanists and the family of one of the people responsible for Viger Square’s design, there’s little doubt in my mind the political intent is fundamentally misdirected. As of this writing the proposal presented at the beginning of June has been rejected, more or less at the eleventh hour, after Coderre decided the project was unsatisfactory. Still, he qualifies the park as ‘a bunker.’

Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.
Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.

Up until quite recently the city’s plan called for the destruction of a significant work of homegrown landscape architecture and sculpture to replace it with something banal and unimaginative at a cost of $28 million. This is your money. It was your money that financed the extant Viger Square as well. The idea that we should pay a considerable sum (think of how many new elementary schools $28 million could build) to tear down a fine example of local landscape architecture and sculpture so that the CHUM can have a nondescript ‘front yard’, and then further to lay the blame for the park’s disfunction on its design, rather than the city’s perpetual disinterest in adequately maintaining it, is simply inexcusable.

Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.
Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.

Without question renovation and rehabilitation is the best way forward for Viger Square, but this doesn’t mean starting from square one. Elements of the original design, such as a café kiosk, or a public market, could be easily integrated into what’s already built, and would serve to draw new interest to the square.

Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.
Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.

But what drives me up the wall is that the simplest and least expensive solution would be not to add anything at all; fixing Viger Square is as straightforward as making the fountains work, re-installing park furniture and picking out the weeds. While there’s considerable debate concerning the application of the ‘broken windows theory’ by law enforcement, the idea that a well-maintained urban environment serves to dissuade petty criminality and attract respectable public usage is fairly sensible. If we don’t want our parks and public spaces to become open air drug markets and homeless camps, then we need to ensure these spaces are well-maintained as a bare minimum. It’s common sense.

Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.
Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.

As is, Viger Square is roughly as well-maintained as Place des Nations, which is to say the grass gets cut and that’s about it. As I mentioned previously, someone had the bright idea to remove all park benches and cover over all the garbage cans. No wonder people don’t go there to relax and read a book. Neither of the large fountains, arguably the main attractions to the square, work, nor do the smaller drinking stations. Weeds grow through the cracks of uneven paving stones, metal drains are broken, a waterfall, long since deactivated, has been painted blue. The only flowers I noticed were planted along the periphery; inside the square there are no gardens to speak of. And the periphery is probably the square’s single greatest problem – cement walls disconnect the squares from the street and provide too sharp a distinction from the surrounding urban environment. Removing these could do a lot to change the park’s fortunes.

There's no good reason for this wall. Removing it would  improve pedestrian access to the square.
There’s no good reason for this wall. Removing it would improve pedestrian access to the square.

But if we want a sustainable solution to Viger Square’s homeless population, then the city should consider acquiring the former CHSLD Jacques-Viger, located in the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute at 970 René Levesque East (a stone’s throw from Viger Square and the CHUM). The building is a threatened heritage site that was originally built as a convent and hospital complex, and was then used as a long-term care facility. This would be an ideal location for the CHUM’s public outreach programs, and could easily serve as a homeless shelter, and that’s ultimately what’s needed to make Viger Square inviting again. Closing the square for renovations will force the displacement of the homeless temporarily, but without better services and more beds to get the homeless off the streets, we’re either just delaying the inevitable return of homeless camps to Viger Square, or are displacing them to another public space.

This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?
This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?

Rehabilitating the square is a good idea, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to look beyond the mere aesthetics of the park, however, and address the core problem of lacking services for the homeless and transient population. This is why we should start thinking of Viger Square and the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute as inter-related urban rehabilitation projects. As inexcusable as bulldozing Viger Square without acknowledging the city’s role in its demise is, it is unconscionable for the city to displace the only people who have made any use of it, leaving them to continue sleeping outside when a usable building stands just up the street.

Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.
Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.

Montreal Journalist