Politically Motivated Memory

Victims of Communism monument original design conceptual rendering

Generally speaking I’m in favour of building monuments and creating new public spaces, particularly when said space reflects the nation’s history, culture and society. However, two projects with federal backing have been making the news lately and for good reason – there’s a lot of very public opposition to the final designs and, in both cases, the rationale behind the very purpose of these monuments has also been questioned. On top of it all, these projects seem to be politically motivated and specifically intended to appeal to Conservative voters.

The projects include Tribute to Liberty, a memorial to the victims of communism (the name alone is problematic, conflating a political ideology with the acts of tyrannical dictators. Communism is not inherently tyrannical, humans are, but I digress) and Mother Canada, centrepiece of the Never Forgotten National Memorial. The organizations formed to direct the projects are charitable organizations, though in the case of the former the Heritage Ministry is involved, and in the latter case the monument is to be ‘gifted’ to Parks Canada. In the case of the communism memorial, the land in question sits adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada owned by the National Capital Commission, and was for a long time considered for development into a new government office building. Mother Canada is supposed to open her arms to the war dead up the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. So even though the organizations may be nominally independent registered charities, both projects require direct interaction with government agencies.

The Never Forgotten National Memorial is projected to cost $25 million and has recently lost some high-profile supporters.

Tribute to Liberty is estimated to cost $5.5 million, roughly $400,000 over budget and on land currently valued at $16 million.

Ostensibly the funds are to be raised by the charities tasked with developing these projects, but as it stands both groups seem to be far from their fundraising goals (this despite the fact that the NCC has begun soil-decontamination work at the communism memorial site).

Financial matters aside, there’s the question of why build these particular projects at all.

Tribute to Liberty was intended to occupy much of the prime real estate in question in downtown Ottawa, though the project has since been downsized (and may shrink even further), with several features of the original plan either proportionally shrunk or axed outright (such as the lighting and the downward-facing faceless victim of communism, centrepiece of the original design). It’s bad when monuments are imposed upon the urban landscape; it’s worse when the artistic vision is altered by committee.

The revisions seem to indicate the committee was paying attention, at least in part, to some of the most immediate criticisms of the project – namely that it was imposing, looming, inappropriately violent (etc).

Here’s a fantastic piece of propaganda that looks like it belongs in the introduction of some post Cold War scenario video game; it shows what the original monument was to look like. The folded section was to generate a an image when viewed from the top of the chevron-staircase arrangement, apparently one of a row of dead bodies in a forest. The image would be created by 100 million ‘memory cubes’ representing the 100 million people ‘killed by communism’.

The figure of 100 million killed by communism is meaningless and intended uniquely for shock value. Yes, communist, Marxist and Maoist states have all demonstrated authoritarian if not totalitarian and genocidal tendencies throughout the 20th century. So have a number of capitalist democratic states during the same period of time. Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe in the early 1940s specifically to defend ‘freedom, liberty and capitalism’ from ‘godless communism’. The United States kickstarted wars and supported dictatorships all over the world that killed off millions of people throughout the 20th century, either directly (such as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) or indirectly (the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, civil wars throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, etc.)

You could further make the argument that capitalism is just as destructive – just about everything there is to buy in capitalist, liberal democratic countries today is manufactured in impoverished nations all too often mismanaged by kleptocrats. The computer I’m using was made by people who work in near slave-like conditions, the factory dormitories they live in is lined with nets to catch workers if they attempt suicide. The clothing there is to buy is all too often sewn together by children. Where is the monument to those capitalism has killed and enslaved?

The project is entirely politically motivated to serve the interests of the Conservative party of Canada, obviously intended to secure support from the nation’s comparatively sizeable Ukrainian, Polish, German, Czech, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. If there is a desire to inform the public about the atrocities of the Cold War or otherwise honour all the Canadians who escaped persecution and totalitarianism abroad, fine, that has my support, but those stories can’t be summed up in a monument, especially not this one. Develop a new permanent exhibit at the war museum, create a graduate program at a university… anything but this.

Tribute to Liberty is anything but: it is ludicrously facile and demonstrative of a profound ignorance of the reality of contemporary geopolitics and recent history. Apt that it would have the backing of the Harperites…

The great irony of the Tribute to Liberty and Mother Canada monuments lies in their obvious similarities, in form and function, to the kinds of monuments erected by the very totalitarian dictators Canada ostensibly stands in opposition to. Both monuments are overbearing, cold, fundamentally unnecessary and intended to secure support for a particular political party. In the case of the former, it arguably attempts historical revisionism.

Mother Canada conceptual rendering

Mother Canada is intended to secure what I call the ‘military enthusiast’ vote – a subsection of the Tory support base that believes, despite mounting and damning evidence to the contrary, that the Tories are pro-military and all other parties are anti-military, and that Canada will only ever be safe under the watchful eye of a Conservative government. Supporters of the monument are chiefly former and current high-ranking officers in the Canadian Forces.

The monument is to be a 24-metre tall female form with arms outstretched, facing the Atlantic Ocean as though the welcome the souls of the dearly departed, all those killed in foreign wars, again, ostensibly in defence of liberty, freedom and the nation. As if we didn’t have enough goddamned cenotaphs in this country to the war dead, now a proposed allegorical representation of Canada is to stand with it’s back to the nation…

Supporters argue it will be a boon to Cape Breton tourism, but I can’t fathom many Canadians trekking out to Cape Breton just to look at the backside of a somewhat diminutive statue. Again, much like Tribute to Liberty, this monument serves no real purpose and provides no additional information or perspective. Parks Canada is reviewing 6,000 ‘comments’ (I have a feeling they’re mostly complaints) and there’s opposition to the project on ecological grounds, arguing the monument’s location in a national park is inappropriate and that the environmental impact of creating this tourist trap is being ignored outright.

Worse of all, it’s just so boring. Is this the very best we can come up with to represent the nation, or it’s war dead? There’s nothing inspired nor attractive about the monument. I’m all for a ‘Canadian Statue of Liberty’ but this isn’t it, this looks like the kinds of monuments erected all over Central Europe during the Cold War and subsequently destroyed during the Spring of Nations a quarter-century ago.

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Combined, these projects require something like $30 million to complete, and the funds are to come principally from charitable donations secured through fundraising activities by the federally-backed charities organized to complete the projects.

This is not the best use of $30 million in charitable donations, nor the best use of federal support for fundraising initiatives. Imagine what good that money could do if used for other purposes.

$30 million could certainly help ensure fewer Canadian children go to bed hungry, could support numerous soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or used to send medicine and food to impoverished nations abroad. Are these not better examples of what Canada ultimately stands for?

Rethinking Viger Square’s Rehabilitation

Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.
Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.

This is a bit late, but there’s a petition circulating I urge you to sign. We need to save Viger Square for demolition, as the city now intends to do.

In point form, here’s why:

1. Viger Square’s reputation isn’t reason enough to demolish it.

2. Demolishing the existing square doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

3. It doesn’t make any sense to spend $28 million to demolish the square and build a new public space when the existing square could be rehabilitated at a lower cost.

4. Rehabilitating the square is an opportunity to fully realize the original artistic vision of three prominent Quebec artists.

5. Doing so would likely eliminate all the factors that make Viger Square so generally undesirable to all but the homeless.

6. Improving sight-lines across the park by eliminating the outer walls of parts of the square, in addition to better general upkeep and better lighting is a subtler way of improving security and making the area more inviting. The original plan also called for permanent park fixtures, such as a café and public market.

7. Once the CHUM superhospital opens there will be a significant increase in the number of people living and working in the area, and the only reason why Viger Square became ‘homeless park’ in the first place was as a result of poor city planning resulting in local depopulation. In terms of serving as an important urban focal point, the new hospital will be as important as Gare Viger was a century ago.

8. To my knowledge, there’s an abandoned former convent up on René-Levesque which could be used as a large homeless shelter (it’s outlined in red in the photo above). Viger Square and Berri Square have the same problem – semi-permanent homeless populations that give both spaces poor reputations. Clearly what’s needed most is additional shelter space and social workers to help get these people off the streets, not an entirely new (but ultimately less interesting) public space.

For more information on what was originally intended, check out this video featuring the voice of UQAM architecture professor Marie-Dina Salvione:

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Viger Square, it’s a bit of a local anomaly.

It’s underused public green space, a park many try to avoid in a city that generally values (and uses) its public spaces.

It’s also a radical re-thinking of landscape design, and the creative effort of three noted Quebec artists. That it has developed a poor reputation as a result of being associated with homelessness and drug use is not reason enough to destroy it: reputations can be rehabilitated.

The Coderre administration’s plan to spend $28 million to demolish Charles Daudelin’s Agora is shortsighted and unnecessary. Worse, it neglects the sad fact that the square was never completed to the original design.

Had it been, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Viger Square is a historic public green space; it’s been used as such since the mid-19th century, with its present boundaries taking shape in 1892. At the turn of the 20th century two major institutions took up positions on either side of the square – the École des hautes études commerciales on the Viger side (today a provincial archives building) and Place Viger (Canadian Pacific’s eastern Montreal passenger station and hotel, today a mixed-used residential, commercial and retail space) on the Saint Antoine side. At the time the area would have been bustling with activity, its immediate surroundings supporting a growing French Canadian middle and upper-middle class community.

Place Viger as it appeared in 1900
Place Viger as it appeared in 1900

The area’s high point occurred during the period 1898 (when the station/hotel opened) to 1935 (when the hotel closed) as Place Viger interacted closely with the park across the street, the hotel inviting guests to stroll ‘it’s vast gardens’. The train station would close in 1951 and the building was then sold to the City of Montreal to be used as office space. What destroyed the neighbourhood, so to speak, was the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the early 1970s. For whatever reason the decision was made to sacrifice the entirety of the park for the highway trench and then to build a new, modern, park atop the exposed trench.

This work was started in the late-1970s and completed in the mid-1980s. Modern Viger Square was designed as a public square in three distinct parts, set atop the highway to reclaim lost space. Have a look at Kate McDonnell’s photos of the site today.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Montreal never got the public space envisioned by Charles Daudelin, Claude Théberge and Peter Gnass.

The idea they came up with was to create an urban oasis, a place of refuge in the heart of the city. The original design included permanent fixtures, like a café and a small public market, as well as a comprehensive lighting scheme, and vegetation chosen to best interact with largely concrete structure.

None of this was ever implemented. The end result was perceived as cold and uninviting. Daudelin’s Mastodo fountain (in the western square) broke after a few months and never seems to have been repaired. Claude Théberges’ Forces fountain (in the central square) hasn’t been turned on in years. In the late 1980s the redesigned Viger Square began to attract a semi-permanent homeless population, one which exists to this day (the great irony being that the square would indeed serve as a refuge, albeit in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of way for the homeless).

For too many years Viger Square was the public space the city tried its best to forget about, but now that the CHUM superhospital is taking final form and the surrounding land values have increased there’s increased interest to invest in city beautification projects in this specific area. I suppose the city is trying to avoid the embarrassment of an opening-day ceremony taking place next to the city’s premier homeless camp…

Thus, the Coderre administration has come up with a plan to knock down Agora (the collection of raised concrete ‘boxes’) and radically transform the Daudelin and Théberge sections of Viger Square. Conceptual renderings of the proposed new space can be seen here.

This is a terrible idea.

For one the new design is completely uninspired. Whereas Daudelin, Théberge and Gnass came up with an original (though not fully realized) idea for an urban sanctuary, the proposed redesign is flat, banal and too open. Though the city intends to keep the Mastodo sculpture, it looks like it will be moved and decontextualized. As originally conceived, the Mastodo fountain arrangement was supposed to fill a channel with water, collecting in a pond adjacent to a ‘water wall’. In a similar vein, the Forces fountain was to demonstrate water ‘breaking’ through several granite pillars. It’s all quite avant-garde for landscape design, but because the city doesn’t want the homeless bathing in public fountains none of us get a chance to appreciate it as originally conceived.

And this is what brings us back to square one – bulldozing Viger Square and transforming it will make it a less desirable location for local homeless, but it does nothing to solve the homeless problem.

A tasteless, jingoistic, paramilitary embarrassment…

Lord what’s become of the RCMP Musical Ride?

The title of this post is a quote from former CBC journalist Frank Koller; you can read his blog post here.

The paramilitary demonstration in question, according to the RCMP, has been a part of the Musical Ride for roughly a decade (or roughly as long as Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, but that’s just a coincidence… right?).

Koller’s reaction echoed that of many in attendance who were shocked to see this military display at a Canadian institution that’s been described in the past as ‘ballet with horses’.

The RCMP in turn responded by down-playing the demonstration, arguing that it’s only a part of the Ottawa-based sunset ceremony and not the touring Musical Ride. They also mentioned it was just a few minutes in a two-hour presentation, and re-iterated the supposed longevity of the display to make it seem as though it’s a perfectly normal component of the Musical Ride (the Emergency Response Team or ERT has existed since 1977, and the Musical Ride has been going on since the late 19th century, but it’s only in the last decade that these ‘long-standing’ displays have popped up).

Also – mass citizenship oath? When did that become part of the ceremony? One of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy is not being compelled to demonstrate your citizenship in mass recitations. That’s more of a North Korea type of thing…

Some took issue with Koller’s use of the term ‘paramilitary’, as the RCMP was, in a sense, a paramilitary organization. I’d argue this hasn’t been the case for much of the organization’s recent history, as the 19th century need for a paramilitary police force has disappeared. The RCMP are not tasked with defending Canadian territorial sovereignty, this is the job of the military. The ERT is indeed the paramilitary component of the RCMP, intended to be used as an aid to the civil power in extreme circumstances warranting the use of military-grade equipment and tactics.

My question is what precisely they’re trying to demonstrate. I know the ERT exists, I have an idea about what it would be used for, but I just can’t fathom what this has to do with the Musical Ride, or why this component of the RCMP should be demonstrated at any public event in the first place.

Think about it: wouldn’t it be odd for Montreal’s SWAT team to put on public displays during Jazz Fest?

What are they trying to show us? A forceful traffic stop? This isn’t what an RCMP take-down of suspected terrorists would look like at all… it’s unrealistic to the point of being comedic, and if this is in any way comparable to an actual RCMP training operation we should all be very worried.

And this is aside from the fact that we still haven’t produced ‘home grown’ terrorists since the October Crisis, and even then the FLQ was really little more than a loose association of politically-motivated bank robbers. Zehaf-Bibeault was a habitual offender with mental problems who somehow got himself an old winchester dual action. He was only ‘radicalized’ by his own sick mind, not a Canadian based Islamic fundamentalist terrorism network. On a day to day basis the RCMP spends a lot more time and effort responding to domestic disputes and highway code violations than combating domestic terrorism.

So again, what is this idiotic spectacle supposed to demonstrate?

When are RCMP tactical units going to be cruising around the neighbourhood searching for slow-moving pickups with shirtless terrorist drivers?

Furthermore… as a patriot I feel compelled to explain that the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols references the community of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec (pistoles were an old French currency, not a gun), and that the song itself is a kind of interpretive biography of the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson.

So there’s that… on top of this being nearly Monty Python-esque in its asinine absurdity, this demonstration was set to an inappropriate musical choice, one that indicates a superficiality and lack of general awareness again, I would hope is not actually indicative of the RCMP.

A display like this doesn’t make me feel any safer, and knowing that I’d be subjected to this kind of tastelessness gives me every reason to avoid paying money to see the Musical Ride. This spectacle reminds me of the evident Americanization of Canadian police and this in turn is of no benefit to anyone but chiefly American arms dealers. The fact is crime has been falling for decades not as a result of this recent trend, but rather the result of sound public policy enacted by democratically elected responsible governments. Buying armoured trucks and flash bangs for the RCMP is of no particular strategic advantage, and it would be in our strategic security interest not to demonstrate how the ERT actually operates at public functions. If anything, we should treat the ERT much like JTF2, keeping them out of the public eye until absolutely necessary.

This demonstration is a farce we should be embarrassed of.

Montreal’s Central Business District in Evolution

The latest additions to Montreal's skyline taking shape - June 17th 2015
The latest additions to Montreal’s skyline taking shape – June 17th 2015
Overdale, we hardly knew ye...
Overdale, we hardly knew ye…
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future...
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future…
The new urban chasm
The new urban chasm
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L'Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L’Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction

Panorama of new downtown towers - June 17 2015

The Tragic Mayorality of Jean Doré

Jean Doré and Nelson Mandela - July, 1990
Jean Doré and Nelson Mandela – July, 1990

Former mayor Jean Doré passed away on Monday, June 15th, after a seven month battle with pancreatic cancer.

From 1986 to 1994 he was our geeky young mayor with the Magnum P.I. moustache and something of a breath of fresh air after twenty-six uninterrupted years of Jean Drapeau. He led the the opposition Montreal Citizens’ Movement to a landslide victory in the 1986 municipal election and will be remembered for a number of modest accomplishments, many of which revolve around the 1992 celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.

Under his administration the city got its first computers and adopted its first urban master plan. The Pointe-a-Calliere archeological museum, Place Charles de Gaulle and Place Emilie-Gamelin were all inaugurated. Major investments were made in renovating and beautifying Old Montreal, the Old Port and the park islands, not to mention turning the Champs de Mars from a parking lot into an open green space. Saint Catherine Street was renovated and beautified, McGill College was redeveloped to take its present form. Several tall buildings were completed, significantly increasing available class-A office space available in the city (this includes 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the Laurentian Bank building, the Montreal Trust building, Tour de la Cathedrale etc).

Despite these significant developments and the relative success of the 350th anniversary renewal and beautification initiatives, Doré lost the 1994 municipal elections to Pierre Bourque, the guy who had previously run the Botanical Gardens and was responsible for the vastly unpopular megacity merger of 2002-2006.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to explain how Doré could lose to Bourque. Doré was the first of three recent mayors who served roughly equal amounts of time, started with a lot of promise and ended their term unpopular and considered something of a ‘do-nothing’ mayor. That said, in terms of his individual accomplishments I would still rank Doré head and shoulders above Pierre Bourque and Gerald Tremblay.

Conflicts arose within the Montreal Citizens’ Movement soon after Doré was first elected in 1986. The major scandal of his administration being the Overdale fiasco, in which a small though vibrant community was expropriated and bulldozed to make way for a massive downtown condo project that never materialized (the location is currently being developed into the ambitious YUL condo and townhouse project). This led to the MCM losing some of its more prominent Anglophone members and support from the urban Anglophone community (a fact which was compounded by Doré’s insistence of a strict interpretation of Bill 101 as it pertained to outdoor commercial signage, not to mention renaming Dorchester after René Lévesque when the former premier passed away in 1987). Later still, his administration would be criticized for not paying down the massive debt left by the Drapeau administration, and was subject to enhanced scrutiny on public spending as a result of his predecessor’s lax attitude to keeping balanced local books.

Other economic and political factors handicapped Doré. During the 1986-1994 period there was a global recession tied to the end of the Cold War and localized restructuring as a consequence of NAFTA and the privatization of numerous crown corporations, many of which had been located in Montreal. The local manufacturing and civil engineering sectors took a heavy hit, as did textiles and food processing, areas of industry that were once foundational. All of these factors were well beyond the influence of the mayor of Montreal. The national question that resurfaced at the time certainly didn’t help, as Montreal, Quebec and Canada’s future was perhaps at its most uncertain point roughly during the same time period as Doré’s mayoralty (consider the failures of the Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown Accords (1992), the Oka Crisis (1990) and the re-election of the Parti Quebecois (in 1994, leading to the referendum the following year).

Call it a matter of bad timing – I think Doré would have been an exceptional mayor had he come to power a decade earlier and maintained closer ties with the activist/grassroots foundation of the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. And yet, conversely, the main problem with his administration lied in a lack of political maturity. He only shone compared to Drapeau for the latter’s long political demise over the course of a decade after the Olympics, and yet would ultimately be judged as inferior to man who saddled us with billions in debt and a depopulated urban core.

Personally, I think Doré shone brightest hosting Nelson Mandela in July of 1990 (click here for Mandela’s speech), shortly after Mandela’s release from a South African prison. He wasn’t supposed to stop in Montreal on his international tour, but Doré made it happen with less than 24 hours to organize a large public ceremony at the Champs de Mars. 15,000 turned up to see Mandela thank Montreal in its efforts to combat Apartheid. He then visited Union United Church, arguably the historic epicentre of Montreal’s Black community (on a tangential note, I’m very happy to see the UUC’s congregation returned home on Sunday June 14th to their historic church on Delisle Street in Saint Henri. The congregation had been forced out in 2011 after an inspection revealed the building was in danger of structural failure and required extensive renovations, renovations which have since been completed).

Mandela’s visit was a high point in an administration consistently beset by circumstances and events well beyond the individual control of the mayor but that nonetheless contributed to an overall sense of malaise that became somewhat entrenched in the character of Montrealers at the time (and which I’d argue we’re only beginning to really emerge from). Consider six months prior to the visit the city endured the horror of the Polytechnique Massacre, and a month after the visit we’d be contending with the Oka Crisis.

All things considered, he did a good job and the city benefitted (for the most part) from his administration, though situation and circumstances being what they were, he probably did as much and as best anyone could do.

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.

The view from Mount Royal