Can’t we do better than this? {Yet another Modest Proposal}

Close up of the Bell Centre from Boul. René-Lévesque and Rue de la Montagne - not the work of the author.

So here’s the deal.

This building pisses me off.

I know that may seem like a strange reaction to have to a building, but what can I say Рthe home of my favourite team is an unfortunate eyesore and a continuing annoyance for smart development and urban planning in Montr̩al.

The problem is this – twenty some-odd years ago people were convinced that the era of rail travel was likely over in North America. Both CN and CP were in dire financial straights, VIA ridership was at an all-time low, and the AMT had yet to be created. So when it came time to build a new, state-of-the-art arena for the Montreal Canadiens, the site chosen was on top of the CP tracks leading out of Windsor Station, which by that time had ceased all passenger operations anyways. A half-assed attempt at building a commuter rail station into the complex resulted in a grandiose platform and little else. The area has been a mess ever since. The Bell Centre failed to form a nucleus of new activity and the area south of St-Antoine quickly eroded away.

Today the Bell Centre is over capacity and regularly selling out. The Canadiens have out-grown it and have been speculating about a new arena. Moreover, the Bell Centre is a shitty concert venue, and a new rink with better acoustics is certainly in order for a city such as ours. The question is where to put it.

At the same time, passenger rail traffic has increased dramatically, both CN and CP have rebounded to become two of the largest railways in the entire world and the AMT and VIA are both under pressure to provide better service. Calls for airport express trains and a high-speed line between Montreal and Toronto grow every year, and it is becoming apparent that the plan to save Windsor Station from outright demolition was exceptionally wise – we may need to use it again.

Complicating this issue is Cadillac Fairview’s proposal to develop condominiums and an office tower around the Bell Centre, seemingly designed to be integrated into the featureless facade of the arena.

Regular reader EMDX provided this graphic of an overhead perspective of a train viaduct designed to connect the track leading from Lucien l’Allier around to Gare Centrale, something which has been floated around for a while now, and that Cadillac Fairview had also proposed as part of a plan to build a new train station south of Windsor Station.

But if the Bell Centre were simply torn down, we wouldn’t have to build a viaduct, which runs the risk of further cutting up the urban tapestry and creating a larger divide between the CBD and Griffintown, which is in the process of being redeveloped. In addition, we could return Windsor Station to its former grandeur and actually use it as a train station, while land liberated by the demolition of the Bell Centre would still allow for Cadillac-Fairview’s tower plan, should that ever get off the ground.

But perhaps the best part of this little scheme of mine is that there is a great deal of potential for a new arena, and I can imagine it would be the kind of thing that might be able to anchor a neighbourhood and lead to exceptional redevelopment. This could be the case of the Canadiens management were to consider purchasing the former Canada Post sorting facility in Griffintown along Rue Ottawa. See for yourself by checking this bird’s-eye view. The adjacent lots are all 1970s light industrial and are prime for redevelopment. Furthermore, it’s just a couple of streets down from uber-trendy Notre Dame West and the plot of land, currently owned by Canada Lands Corporation, is considerably larger than the Bell Centre site, possibly allowing for a much larger arena, not to mention more parking space. CLC is looking to rid itself of the building, and such a development, specifically on that site, may allow for a complete re-genessis of the area.

I really wish I could get someone in Canadiens management to consider demolishing the Bell Centre and making this move – it would give a whole new meaning to the term ‘nos amours’ in my eyes. An urban-planning conscientious professional hockey team – how much more Montréalais could it get?

Historical Perspectives of Montréal

The Laurentian Hotel (1948-1978) and the old bus terminus - not the work of the author.

Facing East on Dorchester Boulevard, late 1950s, early 1960s. You’ll notice the recently completed Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the background and the bus depot in the foreground. Pic seems to have been taken either from Drummond or Mountain. What’s fascinating here is that the Laurentian Hotel, which at one point would have anchored Place du Canada much like the Sun Life Building or Windsor Hotel would have anchored Dominion Square immediately to the North. Further, up to the demolition of the Laurentian in 1978, this area would have had four major hotels facing the combined Dorchester Square – the Queen E, Windsor, Chateau Champlain and Laurentian, with the Sheraton nearby. The Laurentian wasn’t terribly attractive on the outside, as you might be able to see in this photograph, though the interiors were apparently quite well done.

It would take nine years for the Canadian Pacific project to re-develop their lands adjacent to Windsor Station, and by 1987 the Laurentian Bank/Lavalin project had been considerably scaled back. The CPR wasn’t nearly as successful at developing their lands as was CN; quite a pity too, given that some of the shelved CP plans called for major renovations and some epic construction in this area. Seems as if they got the shaft, and that may account for CP’s re-location to Calgary in 1997.

Phillips Square, late 1950s - early 1960s. Not the work of the author.

And this is Phillips Square around the same time, facing Northwest across the square from near the centre, with Christ Church Cathedral taking up most of the frame. Consider that this area isn’t nearly as green as it is today. Check this old Kondiaronk article for more percent pictures of the square. You can see that the cathedral now serves as a green space and urban park inasmuch as Phillips Square does. Notice as well the lack of concentrated vendors here (as street vendors were the norm back then), and the planters we have today were back then public toilets – those little towers are in fact ventilation shafts. Apparently you can still access the old toilets if you know what manhole cover to pry open. I wouldn’t recommend it, probably smells quite bad down there, and will doubtless quickly get you arrested.

Westmount Train Station, early 1970s - not the work of the author.

A view of Westmount Train Station and the Glen Yards, back before the Superhospital. With the closure of Westmount Train Station in the 1980s, Westmount’s public transit access dwindled to a handful of bus lines and a long tunnel to Atwater Métro. Vendome station, much like Atwater, is physically close to Westmount though still in the City of Montreal. It’s unfortunate that this station will almost assuredly never operate as intended again, lest there is sufficient traffic heading West from Westmount. Pity. To my knowledge it lies completely abandoned at Victoria and Saint Catherine’s West, almost within sight of Vendome Station. It’s bizarre that the commuter trains don’t disembark at Westmount Station – which is a proper train station, and have some sort of covered walkway to Vendome and the bus terminus there. It may be wise to try and reduce congestion so close to Vendome and give commuters the advantage of utilizing the train station.

Something tells me that this whole area will be the focal point of year’s worth of renovation work and re-design. Guess we’ll have to wait.