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 – the home of my favourite team is an unfortunate eyesore and a continuing annoyance for smart development and urban planning in Montréal.

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?

6 thoughts on “Can’t we do better than this? {Yet another Modest Proposal}”

  1. I wouldn’t tear down the Bell Centre, though what I would do is punch holes into east & west sides then restore the track to Windsor Station. The rink level would then be higher, but we have a good example of what should have been done in the first place, that being Place Bonaventure.

  2. You do have some factual errors in this post.

    1. Passenger operations never ceased at Windsor station. CP ran the Dorion-Rigaud service up to the early 90’s when the STCUM took over both the Tunnel service and the Lakeshore service and upgraded equipment on both runs. The CP then made an unsolicited offer to run a complete network for Montreal on both CN and CP tracks. Montreal then bought the Hawker Siddeley cars (white) from GO. CN then responded with another offer on a similiar plan. The then PQ government responded by creating the AMT and took over the Hawker-Siddeley cars. and the two existing services. During that time, bridge work on the Milles-iles necessitated a new ste-Therese -Parc station rail service using CP equipment. The service was so successful that the Parc service continued and the HS cars were brought in. During the construction the station was moved to stub on the existing platforms as the actual platfoms were moved long before. This was caused by CP having offices below the concourse that were too week for the weight and vibrations. Before the Bell, the platforms started just before the east edge of the Center and the temporary terminal was on the ‘plaza’ tile walkway with the bumpers on the Mountain St overpass.

    3. The development your were referring to was to build an el on St, Antoine to the old-old Gazette building, bypassing the Bell centre.

  3. Hi –

    Admittedly, it was a while ago. I think Michael Fish, a local architect and preservationist, brought it up with reference to a planned Cadillac-Fairview condo & office tower project around the Bell Centre. However, I’m pretty sure I read something about it on the Gazette website about three years ago. Hard to say, I really can’t remember.

    Either way, they’re probably not considering it right now, not before they have a good idea about what ticket sales will be like this season.

    But the point here is that we need to analyze the relationship between pro sports venues and the urban environment around then. When well executed, they can anchor activities in a community and provide multiple small and medium sized businesses around the site. But above all else, they shouldn’t prevent a perfectly good train station from being used as such. As popular as the Habs are, they’ll never draw a crowd as large as the number of people who need to use commuter and inter-city trains each day in the metro region of Montreal, and this number is expected to increase steadily over the next fifty years. The location of the Bell Centre is exceptionally problematic with rewards to urban planning, redevelopment and infrastructure, and moreover, is creating additional problems.

    So, given that it has reached its current capacity, it has only so-so acoustics and we could use a better, newer medium-large capacity venue, why not consider a better location for an arena.

    And incidentally, IMHO, I’d prefer to see a ballpark in Griffintown or Goose Village, and would rather see a new Forum built with recycled materials from the AMC Forum, which is an awful eyesore that has done nothing for that part of the city. Putting hockey back at Atwater may perpetuate a total renewal of that sector and allow the area closer to Windsor Station to be redeveloped as new office and residential towers.

    Bottom line about Pro Sports – they’re worth every dollar as long as it gives people elsewhere a reason to know about us, and I’m certain that was what underlies Drapeau’s interest in the Expos – it gave Americans a reason to know about us and a chance to see our stadium, our skyline on their TV sets. You can;t buy that kind of advertising, and it’s why I’d pump money into a downtown ballpark, an NBA franchise or an NFL franchise. I’d take further steps to develop strong community relations between the teams and the city, possibly even linking school sports teams with pro sports franchises so as to build a real sense of belonging and local team spirit. At the very least, the city needs to encourage healthy lifestyles and active residents…

  4. Where have you heard that the Canadiens are thinking of building a new arena? The Bell Centre is relatively new and is the largest capacity hockey arena in the NHL (and in tbe world if I’m not mistaken). Given the small size of regulation ice rinks (compared to say a football field) the capacity of NHL arenas will always be much smaller than NFL and MLB stadiums. If you look up the capacity of NBA stadiums you will find that they are also small capacity. The Canadiens fans could probably fill the Stade Olympique or even the new Yankee Stadium regularly but hockey would be unwatchable in either place.

    I agree with you that Montreal could invest a lot more in pro sports, although I’m pretty sure a new arena is just not necessary. To get baseball back in Montreal we would have to start by building a small stadium (like 9000 seats that could be increased afterwards) and attracting a minor league farm team. We really have to start from scratch. It tooks decades to convince the MLB that Canada was a worthwhile market and they will be in no rush to bring a team back to Montreal. Canadian football and soccer have replaced baseball in this city (both the Allouettes and the Impact have had their stadium’s capacity increased recently). The only advantage we have is that we are the largest city in North America not to have an MLB team.

    But really where did you hear about “speculating about replacing the Bell Centre”??

  5. Good catch! I love that my readers have hawk-eyes. Glad you enjoy.

    I’ve heard Nos Amours used in reference to the Habs, though I think you’re right in that it originally applied to the Expos. I guess when the Habs took up Youpie and those retired jerseys they got the nickname too.

    Pity, I really think this city needs to re-invest in MLB, not to mention an NBA or NFL franchise team.

  6. Just a small spelling mistake. You say “now amours” but I think you mean “nos amours”. On that, wasn’t “nos amours” used to refer to the Expos?

    Loving the blog man… big fan of Montreal history.

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