Montreal Movie Palaces – What are they now?

Edifice Robillard, 1921
Edifice Robillard, 1921

The very first film ever projected in North America for a paying audience was shown in this building – l’Édifice Robillard (standing yet abandoned at Viger and the Main) – on either June 27th or June 28th of 1896, one-hundred and twenty years ago.

Montreal would beat Manhattan for the North American premier of cinema by just two days.

The projection was organized by Louis Minier and shown at the Palace Theatre on a screen no larger than a beach towel. The evening’s entertainment featured ten short films – at the time, essentially the only ten films there were to watch – all between 38 and 49 seconds in length. They were the films of the Lumière Brothers catalogue, and included moving images of people exiting a factory, a street scene of a Parisian city square, a train, a ship and what is arguably the first ever comedic film, that of a child playing a prank on a gardener, resulting in the latter getting sprayed by his own hose.

Simpler times…

The Palace was a modestly-sized vaudeville theatre with three-hundred seats. Its typical fare included singers, dancers, soloists or small musical ensembles, comedians and magicians. Four years earlier, the Palace was known as the Gaiety Museum and Theatorium (no I’m not making that up), which included both a museum of ‘curiosities’ (mostly wax figures) and a small theatre. A demonstration of cinema would certainly have been curious by the standards of 1896.

Why the Palace was the chosen location of the first public film projection in all of North America isn’t entirely clear. There were several larger performance venues at the time – the Monument National would have been brand new and much, much larger, not to mention just up the street. Perhaps the Palace was simply all Minier could afford to rent to demonstrate what would have been a suspect new technology.

Within ten years of film’s local debut our city boasted the first dedicated movie theatre in Canada.

The Grand Ouimetoscope, named for its proprietor, the early Canadian film pioneer Léo-Ernest Ouimet, had over 1,000 seats. It was richly decorated; ornate and impressive. In the early days of the art form, a night out at the cinema was serious entertainment, and luxurious purpose-built movie theatres would soon become the norm.

As it happened, the birth of cinema coincided with Montreal’s evolution into a modern North American city. Given the immense popularity of the new art form it might not surprise you to learn that at least one hundred small single-screen largely storefront cinemas opened in Montreal in the first three decades of the 20th century. More significantly, between 1884 and 1938 forty-two opulent ultra-luxury high-capacity theatres were built in our city, nearly all of them in competition with one another to produce the most exquisite viewing experience possible. These were our ‘movie palaces’ – richly decorated single-screen cinemas that featured design elements carried over from the grand tradition of European theatre design.

42 movie palaces… for comparison’s sake, consider that there are only 40 registered Broadway theatres operating in Manhattan right now.

There were three main design phases roughly covering the period 1880 to 1940; the first phase was the most directly inspired by classical theatre design and featured Beaux Arts design influences. The second phase represents the ‘atmospheric theatre’ movement, in which the ceiling of the main hall was decorated to look like a night sky and the interiors decorated to give the impression of a courtyard in an exotic locale. These theatres contain Art Nouveau design influences and were among the most innovative in the city. The third phase theatres tend more towards Art Deco designs and decoration, and unlike theatres of the earlier generations were often designed from the outset to feature films exclusively.

Our city at one point not only boasted forty-two movie theatres from all three of these important design phases, it also happened to have some of the very finest examples in existence anywhere in the world. Even more significantly, they were designed, built and decorated almost exclusively by Montrealers and represent a massive body of work that’s been almost entirely erased from history. The lifetime achievements of architects, theatre designers, interior decorators, painters, sculptors and myriad other artisans… and there’s very little left for us to enjoy today.

As hard as it might be to believe today, Saint Catherine Street was once – not too long ago – lined with extraordinary theatres, such as in the photo up top. They were large, very large in fact, some with seating in the thousands. They were richly decorated, multi-functional, and for most of their lives popular attractions that provided exceptional economic stimulus to entire commercial thoroughfares all over the city.

In sum, if you ever wondered how Montreal earned its reputation as a hub of exciting nightlife, it’s largely thanks to these theatres and the culture of live entertainment they stimulated.

As incredible (if not unbelievable) as this all might sound, what’s truly stupefying is how many of these monumental establishments were destroyed without the slightest effort by the city to protect them. In one embarrassing episode, the City of Montreal designated one of our now lost movie palaces as a heritage site several weeks after it had already been demolished. And that’s just one example of over a dozen instances in which public opposition to theatre demolition fell on deaf ears. Of the four grandest, largest movie palaces to have ever existed in our city – the Capitol, the Palace, the Princess and the Loew’s – only the last remains, and today it serves as a private health club.

The rest were simply gutted and/or razed to make way for shoe stores or office space. The loss to our city and its cultural vitality is incalculable, and what’s particularly maddening is that those which survived to today largely serve as live performance venues, something we’re generally in short supply of. In one case the city proposed opening an opera hall across the street from where ten years earlier a massive theatre stood, yet the city did nothing to save that structure from the wrecker’s ball.

It goes on like this. So little effort was made by the municipal authority to save these buildings it really makes you wonder how a collective of people could be so collectively myopic for such a long time. Public opposition to these demolitions was generally high and sincere efforts were made to save them, though more often than not these efforts were undermined by uncaring or disinterested municipal officials – up to and including those for whom culture and heritage was a direct responsibility.

In two particularly tragic examples, beautiful theatres that today would be full every night were left to rot for decades, public money used to prop-up what private funds ought to have been responsible for. And in these two cases, the loss of the theatres would result in a ‘trickle-down’ effect leading all adjoining businesses to fail.

That this process has happened more than twice within recent memory should be alarming. That it’s happened perhaps a dozen times makes you wonder whether the City of Montreal doesn’t have an established vendetta against old theatres.

And yet, our present situation might surprise you.

In 1993 former Montreal Gazette film critic Dane Lanken published Montreal Movie Palaces, a retrospective on Montreal’s palatial movie theatres. Though it is not an exhaustive list of all the theatres built in our city during that time, Lanken’s list is essentially complete at least as far as the most historically, architecturally and aesthetically significant of vaudeville theatres designed during the early golden age of film are concerned.

Lanken’s book has a very pessimistic conclusion, and indeed the theatre situation in 1993 didn’t leave much reason to be optimistic. The preceding three decades had witnessed countless theatres destroyed, gutted and/or converted, while others sat empty and abandoned, with myriad new multiplexes springing up throughout the expanding residential districts to replace them.

What’s happened since is nothing short of remarkable. In 2016, Montrealers can be very cautiously optimistic about the fate of our remaining movie palaces, few though they are. Several theatres that were in serious danger of being destroyed in 1993 or had otherwise been abandoned for many years are today vibrant sources of performing arts, culture and entertainment. The Corona, the Rialto and the Outremont, to name just a few, had been in a very precarious state up until quite recently. In other cases, notably with regards to NDG’s Empress Theatre, citizens have taken matters into their own hands in an effort to rehabilitate that unlisted heritage site and bring what the aforementioned theatres provide the Mile End, Plateau, Ville-Marie and Little Burgundy to Montreal’s theatre-less West End. You can find out much more about the Empress project here.

I’ll be continuing this series over the next month or so; what we’ve lost is irreplaceable and unfortunate if not hopelessly foolish – I have a hard time believing any other city in Canada would have been so careless with so many exceptional theatres. That being said, no other city in Canada – not even Toronto – has ever had as many theatres as we have had and continue to have access to.

City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée – date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Money for Nothing

Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 - credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 – credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The Mordecai Richler Gazebo will now cost the taxpayers of Montreal nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

And a series of granite waypoints, apparently taking the form of stylized tree-stumps, are to be installed across Mount Royal at an estimated cost of $3.4 million.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory will get over $62 million in public money over a five year period to make it a better tourist trap, or as Mayor Coderre put it: “a heritage site… for god’s sake, it’s an investment.”

Credit where credit is due: Coderre is a great populist. He’s quirky and has a knack for puns and one-liners.

However, he’s also spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Sometimes I wish he and the city would stop trying to spend money. I understand municipal government can help stimulate the economy by spending public money on make-work projects designed to keep people employed. And I’m generally in favour of doing so in the name of public beautification projects.

But in Montreal – astoundingly – such efforts seem increasingly misguided if not wholly illogical. For every success – like the multimillion dollar multiphase overhaul of Dorchester Square and Place du Canada – there are far too many projects that are so outrageously ill-conceived it begs the question what our city planners are smoking.

What I find particularly astounding – in our age of austerity for education, health, transit and welfare – is our ability to spend astronomical sums of money to accomplish, in some cases, quite literally nothing at all.

Take for instance the recently cancelled police and firefighter games; if the city is successful in recuperating half the sum already allocated to the now-cancelled event, it will still cost us nearly $3 million.

More jaw-droppingly, the city’s plans on installing over two-dozen granite ‘tree-stumps’ all over Mount Royal.

Paul Arcand interviewed Réal Ménard, a member of the city’s executive committee, and asked him whether the city was really going to spend over three million dollars to erect a series of granite structures (that resemble tree stumps) all over the mountain. Ménard did his best to attempt an explanation, but did so by a) indicating the stumps are in fact part of a much larger eight million dollar project designed to ‘link’ the peaks of the mountain, and b) that (after much obfuscating) the cost of the planned park installations is in fact going to be about three million dollars. It didn’t help that he spent much of his time accusing Arcand of positing the city was intending to build granite trees on Mount Royal, an entirely unconvincing tactic Arcand saw right through and rightly ridiculed Ménard for having the gall to suggest.

It was also delightful to hear Arcand chiding Ménard for not reading the Gazette…

Research by the Gazette’s Linda Gyulai indicates the cost of the winning bid for the granite installations is 43% higher than the city’s initial estimate, and that the whole contract is 27% higher than what the city was estimating before the call for tenders.

The list of over-the-top civic beautification projects, all of which are being rushed through with seemingly no concern for appallingly high cost estimates so that they can coincide with the essentially pointless 375th anniversary celebrations, has grown steadily for the past few years, and this on top of a steady supply of infrastructure mega-projects that either never get off the drawing board or wind-up being delivered late and over-budget. Unfortunately, given the decades-long dearth of Stanley Cup victories, this has now become our most consistent accomplishment as a city: we’re spending a lot of public money for nothing.

For his part, Mayor Coderre insists the project will make the mountain more accessible and help beautify the city. The reaction of Arcand, the Gazette and much of the local social media sphere, is one of derision and incredulity. The firm that won the contract to build the granite ‘statues’ (in more official parlance) is Aménagement Coté Jardin, a landscape architecture firm that’s responsible for Domtar’s ‘front yard’ (by Place-des-Arts Métro station’s stand-alone édicule on Bleury) and more recently, the renovation of Cabot Square.

To put it succinctly I’m disappointed it would cost so much to accomplish so little. I doubt you could make Mount Royal any more accessible than it already is, and given that it is valued almost entirely because it is a refuge of wilderness in the very heart of a bustling metropolis, installing granite stumps and concrete slabs is fundamentally flawed. It makes me wonder when exactly was the last time Denis Coderre took a walk on Mount Royal…

If the plan is to spiff up Mount Royal for next year’s ‘spendiversary’, I’m fairly confident three million dollars could buy more than enough trees to replace those felled to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It would likely be enough to also replace or repair the park’s existing benches, water fountains and garbage bins and maybe even pay for a year’s worth of superior park maintenance too. Whatever the final call, the city (more than anyone else) should be acutely aware that Mount Royal is precisely what it is because it was designed to be as such. We have a great park designed by one of the all time greatest park designers, and it is in part because of this that we can claim our status as a UNESCO City of Design (and by the way, we’ve gotten far more than our fair share of milage out of that ten year old distinction). This is not a wheel that needs to be re-invented, and there are far superior, less expensive methods to renew Mount Royal than by turning half of it into a construction site in the very same year we’ll want to have the greatest access to it.

If the gazebo project is any indication, Montrealers can be forgiven for being so intensely critical of yet another suspiciously expensive civic ‘beautification’ project. And much like the inappropriately rechristened gazebo, the granite stump project is also amazingly ill-conceived in that it will likely do the very opposite of what it ostensibly intends to do. Montrealers have contently stretched out their legs in the tall grass of Mount Royal for just about 375 years… all of a sudden we need concrete curbs and granite stumps, and this has something to do with maintaining our status as an important centre of design?

I don’t buy it. If this was an aspect of the plot of some novel about the intriguing life of an urban planner you’d find it completely absurd. The city’s plan to beautify Mount Royal is an excellent example of missing the forest for the trees.

And like just about everything else in this city, ultimately it’s not actually the city’s decision to make. Because Mount Royal is a heritage site, it’s the province that will decide whether this plan goes ahead. So there’s always the outside chance the province’s incessant meddling in our affairs may actually be worthwhile, if they put the kybosh on this ridiculous project.

Plus que ça change. Forty years ago the city was doing precisely the same thing, albeit with the hope of a greater return on investment than the 375th anniversary.

Actuaries make poor urban planners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Port of Call, Montreal

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

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

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

And just how may people are we talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism*

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

Michael Sabia can’t catch a break.

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

And how!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But who knows, maybe things change.

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

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

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

Montreal Journalist