What were they thinking? {No.1}

Site of a former tram-tunnel, now open-air, on the Camillien Houde Parkway

(Part of an unfortunately on-going series)

The Camillien Houde Parkway has got to be one of the stupidest ideas ever conceived of in the history of Montréal, which is unfortunate given that its a beautiful and exciting parkway. Make no mistake – I love this street, I especially love all the great memories I’ve attached to it, such as taking it to go visit my newborn brother when I was three. Unfortunately, it came at too-high a cost, and any individual in this city who is concerned about the future of our most iconic landmark should see the Camillien Houde Parkway as public enemy number 1.

Here’s why:

a) It’s named after former Mayor Camillien Houde, well-remembered for his charisma, anti-conscription related internment during WW2, the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the many Vespasiennes (adoringly called Camilliennes for decades) he had constructed as make-work projects during the Depression. He also vehemently opposed the construction of any street or boulevard bisecting Mount Royal. At the very least could we consider changing the name?

b) As you can see from the map embedded here (use bird’s eye view for best results), the parkway cuts-off access to a small, but significant, portion of Mount-Royal Park. I say significant because the ‘dead-zone’ would allow better access to the undeveloped portions of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and the parkland owned by the Université de Montréal. Thus, any discussion of a Mount Royal pedestrian and cycling ring-road would have to consider whether such a path and the parkway could actually coexist. Chris Erb of Spacing Montréal discusses the proposal for a new park on the Outremont Summit, an idea which was floated around in the Fall of 2009 and, I believe, is still very much up in the air. If anything, Mount Royal’s protected status is more tenuous than ever with the announcement of a new fenced-off condo development at the site of the former Marianopolis College, and the still as-yet unfinished saga concerning the redevelopment of the former Outremont convent. That being said, if there’s an earnest will from the populace to increase the total protected space of the mountain-park, then the parkway will have to be the first to go, since it acts more as a boundary then bisecting scenic drive.

c) As a result of the parkway, there are several large parking lots on the mountain – land that had once been raw natural forest. Given that the mountain has, traditionally, been frequented overwhelmingly by locals, and not tourists, the necessity of so many parking lots near the summits can be called into question. Especially because, once upon a time, a tram ran the length of the parkway. Reclaiming the parking spaces could be done by investing in a new tram, one which would ideally run from the bottom of Guy (placing a terminus at the corner of William in Griffintown) up to Cote-des-Neiges, dropping people off at a mountain terminus near the pavilion at Lac aux Castors (you’ll notice, a loop already exists here). This could effectively allow the rest of the parkway and the parking lost to be reclaimed as parkland.

d) The photo above demonstrates another problem – there used to be a tunnel at that exact spot. The tunnel allowed people to get from the Mount-Royal side to the Outremont side over-top, not to mention offering considerably more room for the variety of animal species native to the mountain park. Even if the parkway remains, at the very least, a new tunnel ought to be built here, to allow for the maximum level of freedom of movement.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Mount Royal Chalet, 1960s - not the work of the author.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the summit, though I think I was up there earlier this Summer. The improvements to the Peel Staircase and the access to the Olmstead Trail are excellent additions, welcoming urbanites with elegant and naturalistic entrances that fit into the idea of the sacred, leafy refuge. I remember the last time I was up there a temporary fence had been put up to divide the belvedere into two parts, though no work was being done at the time.

Still, as the city grows and the last remaining scraps of undeveloped land in the CBD is gobbled up as it will be over the next couple of decades, protecting our green spaces is going to become an even greater priority.

We should remind ourselves that, while Mount-Royal Park is indeed exceptionally large and, in essence, our own little playground, it serves a very large geographic area and further supports an inordinately large population. This is a major issue for any urban citizens of Montréal, as the city and real-estate developers frequently point out our major parks when attempting to justify the destruction of smaller green-spaces. Such as it was with regards to Parc Oxygene, a small green-space developed by community members on a piece of otherwise unusable land. The apparent ‘owner’ of the plot has told residents they can just as easily go to Mount Royal Park, Fletcher’s Field or Parc Jeanne Mance, all of which are about a block away. However, much like theatres, concert halls and bars, parks have a capacity, and overloading our parks will inevitably lead to their ruin.

Don’t believe me? Consider the 1976 St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations, which saw tens of thousands of people descend on Mount-Royal. The damage to the park and pollution from one day’s worth of festivities was more traumatic and required a more extensive clean-up than did the Ice Storm of 1998!

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