The last thing Brian Mulroney ever did as Prime Minister was to officially break ground at the site of the Molson Centre, now the Bell Centre, current home of the Montréal Canadiens. It was one of those great photo-ops, as ‘the Chin’ heralded in a new era for his favourite city’s favourite sons. Progress, development, and a PM delivering a gift to the city (though of course he had nothing to do with it officially, but given his method of slime-based business practices, it wouldn’t surprise me if he made some backdoor profits). What he didn’t know is what it would cost us in the future, as Canadian Pacific would vacate Windsor Station, its home for over eighty years, four years later. In addition, the placement of the Molson Centre immediately to the west of the station severed it from CP track, which now stops at an open platform on the east side of the venue. I doubt Mulroney had any notion rail travel would be so important seventeen years later, and that if the city has any real interest in expanding service and operations, another station would be necessary. What makes the Molson/Bell Centre so infuriating is that it added nothing to its surroundings in terms of business development, as a stroll down the south side of St-Antoine will attest to. So we got a state-of-the-art venue, but we lost the functionality of a landmark, a major corporation, and by extension, the move from Atwater further led to the detriment of the neighbourhood (let’s face it, the Pepsi Forum is an eyesore and the whole western edge of the city has slowly eroded since 1996).
There’s no doubt the Bell Centre is a success unto itself; it’s an excellent hockey rink which has sold out every game for the last four years – certainly the Habs have a lot to do with it, but if the building weren’t well designed and an experience unto itself, I’m certain more people would stay home to watch the game. Moreover, it’s also a half-decent music venue, attracting the overwhelming majority of the city’s big-name acts. This last point is contentious, as many hard-core concert goers have told me the acoustics could be better, but I digress. The question is – is the Bell Centre replaceable?
I’d argue that it is, that its probably already being discussed and that the further inconvenience of its placement is justification alone to demolish it and have the Habs play somewhere else.
Architecturally, I’d say it offers nothing to the cityscape. It is a purely functional building with a design and style thoroughly influenced by commercial concerns – it’s not a landmark, it’s already beginning to look dated, and has all the soulful expression as a highway 40 turnkey warehouse built by Broccolinni!
So perhaps its time to move hockey back to Atwater?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Atwater area is in dire need of a major overhaul and renovation, especially considering that this used to have a very different aesthetic and character – it was upscale, a prestige address. With the Montréal Children’s Hospital set to vacate their Cabot Square address in a few years when the Super-hospital is completed, the area is going to need a few new anchors to inject new revenue into the area. Recycling the existing Pepsi Forum into a new sports and entertainment venue seems logical, given the attachment the area has with such diversions. Moreover, the Forum block is a very large piece of property, one of the few within the urban core capable of supporting such a large building. Ideally, a new Forum would be built to accommodate some of the current tenants, while others could be moved to Place Alexis-Nihon, or integrated into an expanded Atwater Underground (why the Forum isn’t directly connected to the Metro never made any sense to me, this could be fixed).
Now, with the Bell Centre demolished, Windsor Station could be renovated into a fully functional train station, meaning that Central Station could move some of its VIA operations to make room for additional AMT operations, allowing for the expansion of Montréal’s rail capacity by having a segregation of services between two dedicated stations, each connected to the other, the Underground City and four Métro stations. The concentration of services, hotels, connections etc between the two stations is exceptional, and a fully functioning Windsor Station could provide the necessary localized economic spin-off an insulated building like the Bell Centre could never offer.
Food for thought – I think we had it right back in the day, and this is something worth reconsidering.