Resurrecting Windsor Station

Windsor Station, looking north along Peel, 1926

I regularly take the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line to commute to the city from Pierrefonds, and like many other commuters, I’ve noticed something – a significant lack of space. The Deux-Montagnes line is regularly over-capacity; it’s not so much that there aren’t any seats, it’s that there’s barely anywhere to stand. And this is apparently the same for most of the AMT’s other lines as well. While the agency moves forward, albeit slowly, on the development of new lines to serve new areas, it hasn’t done much to alleviate over-crowding on the existing lines. As such, the commute isn’t terribly pleasant, and the infrastructure within the city designed to handle the commuting masses has left a lot to be desired for quite some time. It’s woefully inadequate and lack of planning today will only lead to a worse situation tomorrow.

Gare Centrale seems to be over-capacity in general. Massive cues to board VIA trains now regularly stretch the length of the station, and during rush hour congestion is even more severe as throngs of office workers huddle around waiting for up to twenty minutes in order to ensure they get a seat on the commuter trains. It’s beginning to seem very clear to me that concentrating all inter-city and commuter traffic in the same space isn’t such a great idea, especially if we recognize the growing trend in the use of passenger and commuter rail options in Montréal.

As it happens, there was once a magnificent train station but a few blocks away from Gare Centrale, a station very well integrated into the urban transit and traffic fabric inasmuch as the urban core it was designed to serve. Today it is little more than commercial office space, an underused public square and a seldom used convention space. The Bell Centre stands between Windsor Station and the open-air platform that is the Lucien L’allier. If only we hadn’t been so myopic in the past, we could have endeavoured to secure investment in rail travel. It is after all a cornerstone of our local economy, as true today as it was when we were the commercial capital of the entire country.

It occurred to me, as I was walking through Place Ville-Marie to make my way to the station, that fifty years ago we accomplished a magnificent feat of engineering and architecture, by building a heart of the Underground City and one of our most vital skyscrapers and office complexes above what had previously been an ugly, exposed railway pit.

If we could do that fifty years ago, surely we could do the exact opposite today. What if we were to resurrect Windsor Station by running the CP tracks which currently terminate at the Bell Centre, under it, and build a new platform under the station and arena in much the same fashion as Gare Centrale?

The first issue would be the Métro tunnel for the Orange Line which runs parallel with the tracks, so such a tunnel would have to start just to the West of Guy in order to avoid having to build under the Métro tunnel. Building a new train tunnel alongside it may be practical, and being able to remove the Guy and Lucien L’allier viaducts would improve the somewhat dour aesthetics of the area, not to mention allow real-estate developers the chance to build new buildings aboveground. Given Cadillac-Fairview corporation’s interest to build new condo towers and office space at the site, you’d figure it’s high time the multiple implicated parties collaborate to ensure Windsor Station can rekindle it’s former use as a major point of integration in the urban traffic scheme. Certainly, new residential and office development would be more attractive if the aim was to, in essence, create another PVM, though from below.

As it happens, this particular area may become the next major focal point for urban re-development in the City of Montréal. Consider not only Cadillac-Fairview’s proposal, but the open lots at Overdale, the parking lot across from the Bell Centre and the decrepit old buildings south of Saint-Antoine. Establishing a massive new train station in the middle, with an appropriate expansion of underground tunnels, passageways and access to other points in the Réso system, would stimulate growth in the area around in a manner similar to the way PVM anchors much of the CBD. It’s a natural extension, and the area could use the stimulus of people power.

Granted, it would be costly, it would take time and we’d have to overcome some significant obstacles, but the long term implications of alleviating over-crowding at Gare Centrale, expanding the Underground City and newly desirable land in the urban core, ripe for redevelopment, is worth the investment given the long-term return.

And the added advantage is that by not doing this, by leaving things as they are, we ensure no new development will take place in this area, or at least it won’t nearly be as impressive, important and fiscally sound. The status quo is inefficient because the status quo doesn’t suit our current nor future needs. By developing a whole new train station and subsequently spreading out commuter and passenger traffic between two inter-connected stations, we can increase the area of economic activity stimulated by the increasing group of people who fall into this category. In addition, we right a historic wrong, secure the use of a landmark and subsequently provide an economic stimulus with significant indirect stimulus spin-off. Transformative is an understatement.

Something to think about. There are about seven large tracts of land around the site which seem to be ideal for redevelopment, as office towers, condominiums, mixed-use developments etc, and all of them could be very easily inter-connected. That’s got to encourage the city inasmuch as the construction and real-estate development sectors in this city. A little bit of ingenuity and the will to invest in a much needed mega project of the kind that was once matter-of-fact in Montréal could help spur an urban development scheme of epic proportions.

I guess the question is how to get all the specific parties into the same room so as to pitch the idea.

Let’s Think About the Future

So it looks like the over-loaded Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) has asked the struggling English Montreal School Board (EMSB) if a ‘co-habitation’ initiative, wherein two of the province’s largest school boards will seek to actually put students in the segregated language streams in close proximity with one another, is feasible. The plan would be to run French schools in the excess space of EMSB schools in the city and first-ring suburbs, allowing Anglophone and Francophone public schooling to continue serving many urban neighbourhoods from under the same roof.

Quel horreur…

Now nothing’s yet carved in stone, but I find it remarkable that the CSDM has come to such a conclusion. Not too long ago such an idea would have been unthinkable. In fact, twenty years ago the PSBGM made such a proposal to help keep some schools in Cote-des-Neiges open. It was rebuffed. Perhaps times and attitudes have changed. I’m optimistic this may lead to more than just sharing some important neighbourhood institutions. I’m hopeful that this eventually leads to integration of the boards and the end of segregated schooling in Montréal.

There’s a practical economic issue at play here I’m sure all parties are very much aware of. Mayor Tremblay is keen to continue residential development within the city and first-ring suburbs, attracting new residents, but families in particular, closer to the urban core. Good public schools are part of the allure of living in the city, and because both boards face diametrically opposed enrolment problems (and their subsequent effects on funding, staffing and space/resource allocation) neither the EMSB nor CSDM are overly attractive, and there can only be so many private schools for a given market. Ergo, should the boards decide to embark on a co-habiting solution, the total student population can be more evenly distributed and urban schools can be re-invigorated. In addition, if this space-sharing agreement is worked out and brought to its logical extent, it will ultimately translate into increased operational efficiencies and a better return for the local tax dollar.

1920s perspective of what was then the High School of Montreal

And perhaps this is step one towards integration of the city’s linguistic boards. If they can share a building, they can share a library, a cafeteria, a gym, sports teams, staff etc. Doing so will allow the boards to cooperate on establishing more comprehensive education solutions for multiple schools and by extension provide neighbourhood stability and promote higher urban land-value. It’s high-time we re-invest in public education in such a fashion that we also remove the barriers keeping us from getting the highest possible return for our investment.

It’s 2012 and it seems as though we’ve finally come up with the most obvious solution beneficial to both school boards. A win-win situation we could have implemented forty years ago if not for the myopia of the political ‘leadership’ of the day. I’m certain that Ms. De Courcy’s plan will meet with some opposition from the hardcore péquiste community, but hopefully the majority of the school-tax paying among us, regardless of mother-tongue, will endorse it and welcome the change.

Now imagine if we abolished the linguistic boards altogether, and simply accorded school boards per city or region. We would endeavour to maximize efficiency and educate our children collectively, principally in French and with a focus on the culture and society of Québec, but with the aim to ensure complete bilingualism as a cornerstone of our local education system. Children can learn multiple languages early on without any detrimental loss to their capacity to master one specific language. Considering the pervasiveness of English in North American media and the fact that we all share in a responsibility, as Québecois, to succeed in preserving the French language here, as an element of our culture, then we should strive to ensure our public system can effectively do just that. Why settle for anything less.

Aerial perspective of FACE School in the 1970s

It’s not just that we could save a bunch of money, keep schools open, increase residential land value and the stability and vitality of urban communities, reduce crime and the drop-out rate, reduce class sizes and sew the seeds of racial and cultural-linguistic harmony, but that we can collectively make money off it as well. The full integration of Montréal’s linguistic boards will result in a generation of children fluent in both English and French, well versed in Québecois cultural and social studies. We can make French attractive to youth by capitalizing on the fact that it a) makes them unique in a North American context and b) prepares them for a future where they’ll feel comfortable interacting on a global level. This will draw corporations, NGOs and all manner of international agencies to our city, not to mention lead more children into the post-secondary sector. Being able to speak multiple languages is hard, but not impossible, and mentally rewarding inasmuch as its challenging. We need to instil in our children a desire to speak both languages perfectly, and to prefer French, so that we instil in them a desire to overcome challenges and follow-up on their curiosities.

It’s long-term economic strategizing, fundamentally. It’s also advantageous socio-culturally speaking too.

Now if only we can manage to stop over-analyzing our separate pasts and start thinking about our collective future…