Conceptual rendering for Labatt Park as it was planned in the late-1990s.
Kristian Gravenor commented recently on the perennial professional opinion that Montréal is a prime location for Major League Baseball expansion – apparently Keith Olbermann is a fan of baseball’s return to our fair city, thanks largely to the convincing data we have more than enough of an established fan base to support it. As though the enduring popularity of the Expos logo on baseball caps wasn’t enough of a reason…
Kristian proposes the location of Bridge and Mill in the former Goose Village neighbourhood (near the foot of the Victoria Bridge) as a potential location for the construction of a new ballpark to host what would become a reincarnation of the Expos.
I think his choice has some excellent advantages. He points out that it would be close to the site of the first professional baseball games played in our city back in the 1880s, and would likely aid in the revival of an otherwise forgotten and historic part of the urban tapestry. Other practical advantages include the site’s proximity to the Victoria, Champlain and Cartier bridges, the Bonaventure and Ville-Marie expressways and other major thoroughfares, such as Wellington, Charlevoix, Notre-Dame, St-Patrick and Rue de la Commune. While the closest Métro station is Lucien-L’Allier, it is but a bit further than the distance of Molson Stadium to Place-des-Arts (though is admittedly mostly uphill and through a light-industrial/construction zone, and not an exciting and rather stately residential zone) and STM shuttle buses could be used in the same manner as currently employed for Alouettes games. This site would necessitate the demolition of several light industrial buildings, and finding new locations for these enterprises so as to execute the necessary land acquisitions may present some problems. Alternatively, I suppose it would be better to construct on the south side of Bridge as the Costco could be re-located just about anywhere, though building here would potentially require re-designing the adjacent railway lines. All of this to say, it would be a compact, urban stadium.
Another advantage would be the integration of this ballpark into what will soon become an entirely new neighbourhood of medium-density condominiums extending south from the central business district all the way to the Victoria Bridge and the underused Montréal Technopark. If we somehow manage to avoid a market correction and can maintain steady residential development in this sector over the next couple decades, I think it’s only natural that this specific kind of residential expansion occurs. The area is blighted and simply put must be better used than it currently is. If it succeeds it will provide accommodation for thousands of middle and upper-middle income earners paying taxes directly to the city government and work to better integrate Pointe-St-Charles, Little Burgundy and the Cité-du-Havre into the public conception of urban living in Montréal. As it is these places are somewhat distinguished by their inaccessibility. A renewed Griffintown and Goose Village would do quite a bit to remove the physical barriers erected a half-century ago. And a new ballpark here would be a step in the right direction, possibly propelling the development of residential buildings and doubtless launching many new small enterprises, part of what the new neighbourhood will need to secure its long-term vitality.
But can we successfully re-launch a pro-sports franchise?
And what role does the stadium as lieu-de-mémoire and cultural landmark play in how a franchise is reborn?
In our city’s professional sporting history this would not be a first – the Alouettes are an excellent example of the successful rebirth of a local sports franchise, and location had a lot to do with it. A chance move to the Percival Molson Stadium in 1997 (as a result of a scheduling conflict with a U2 concert at the Olympic Stadium) resulted in a curious increase of fan interest, and the game sold out rather unexpectedly. Keep in mind that when the Als reformed in 1996 it had been twenty years since we had had a successful professional football team and their first few seasons in the late-1990s were abysmal. The move to Molson Stadium is credited in having solidified the fan base, which played no small part in the twelve year development of a powerhouse CFL franchise – they play Sunday, Bloody Sunday before every game in tribute before every game now, and the Alouettes
So it begs the question – what is it about Molson Stadium that makes it work so well?
The Alouettes played at Molson Stadium from the time of their inception until 1968, when they transferred to the Autostade, located just to the south of where Mr. Gravenor proposes. The Autostade was built for Expo 67 and was intended to be the home of the Montréal Expos, but they instead chose Jarry Park – an excellent decision for that club as the proximity to large residential zones helped encourage early attendance. The Alouettes (along with the Expos) would both eventually move to the Olympic Stadium in 1976, and the Als had a few successful seasons there until the franchise eventually fell apart in 1986 after years of poor attendance and bad management. Conversely, at the time the Expos were doing rather well and attendance for their games was increasing.
I find this to be a fascinating point – the Expos were not necessarily undone by the location of their ballpark. For more than twenty years the Expos managed to have decent attendance, as did the Alouettes for a while, even though the Olympic Stadium was ill-suited for both needs and often appeared to be poorly-attended. The Olympic Stadium is located far closer to the geographic centre of the larger metropolitan area than the downtown core, and is connected to two Métro stations, not to mention the rather ample parking available at the site.
No, the Expos, much like the pre-1996 Alouettes, suffered and folded due to lack of interest as a consequence of poor marketing, bad management, disastrous trades and strikes beyond the team’s control. Regarding the stadium, it wasn’t so much the building’s location as the building’s unfair public perception as a White Elephant. Hardly motivating and bad for morale when coupled with losing seasons and the robbery of our 1994 Season.
It happens in pro-sports much like in life – teams are born and teams die.
In some very lucky instances teams are reborn, and this is my most sincere hope with regards to the Expos – pro sports are good for business and society because they boost morale while drawing people’s attention at an inter-urban level. In this respect it would be wise to see what we can learn from the histories of both the Expos and Alouettes to see what worked for them in the past.
The Alouettes currently have the smallest stadium in the CFL, and they sell it out every game. A strong fan base has emerged and the renovated and expanded stadium is one of the oldest professional sports venues in use today. There’s an element of the antique and the distinguished present at our mountainside stadium; it seems to emerge from Mount Royal into the bucolic expanses of Fletcher’s Field and Parc Jeanne-Mance. It lies at a crossroad between different neighbourhoods, be it the Quartier Ste-Famille, Milton-Park or the upper part oft he McGill University campus and is little more than a stone’s throw away from the Mile-End and the Main. It is a most peculiar stadium, used by and integrated into a large university and situated between two ancient and elegant hospitals and across the street from a telephone exchange and student ghetto.
De Lorimier Downs, circa 1933 – currently the location of Pierre Dupuy High School on Ontario at De Lorimier
Despite what I would consider an odd location (Molson Stadium was apparently in an advanced state of disrepair in 1997, with a tree growing through the north stands), the decision to go with a smaller and historically significant building over one which had already been largely derided in the public consciousness for its exorbitant costs proved immensely beneficial not just for the team but for the area surrounding it in general – it stimulates land value and supports local businesses. The proximity to the the hotels and restaurants of the urban core are particularly advantageous for the local corporate community and this is at least in part a reflection of the changing nature of professional sports as corporate reward and business facilitator. In many ways I feel the Bell Centre is at least partially successful for the same reason. The relocation of the Montreal Neurological Institute to the new MUHC Superhospital campus at the Glen Yards may lead to the redevelopment of their facilities at the western end of the stadium into a new and larger Molson Stadium (I can imagine restaurants, a University Street entrance, parking garage, team offices, new private boxes, training facilities and a broadcast centre integrated into the facility simply by repurposing the adjacent buildings).
This idea of going small and re-purposing an existing facility has worked out very well for the Alouettes in the long-run, but the Expos will have little choice but to build an entirely new facility. The Olympic Stadium should probably focus on being our city’s principle over-size capacity venue – not ideal for any one particular team or sport but somehow excellent in a pinch for a large expected turnout, such as during a play-off run. In this respect, the onus is really on the Régie des Installations Olympiques to re-conceptualize the purpose of the Big O in our urban environment. It’s already well on its way to simply being another massive multi-function leisure space, not that different from Parc Jean-Drapeau or Mount Royal Park, though it would be far more successful if not designed to be more-or-less self-contained.
I’m a big fan of Miller Park in Milwaukee, as it uses a novel convertible fan-shaped roof.
A new ballpark should probably be placed as close as humanly possible to our central business district to take advantage of access to Métro stations, hotels, restaurants and local nightlife. Further, it should seek to occupy as much otherwise unused land as possible. Kristian’s proposal is a good one, but I wonder if there isn’t a location somewhat closer to the city to take advantage of that would result in fewer demolitions.
I’d counter-propose two other potential locations – either building over the Ville-Marie Expressway between St-Laurent and Hotel-de-Ville, in which otherwise wasted space could be put to better use, the venue would have access to three different Métro stations and a prestige address on the Main. Or, located between Duke, St-Henri, William and St-Maurice on the edge of Old Montréal and the International Quarter. This latter location would require the demolition of several small buildings but the quadrilateral is currently primarily a parking lot. A tunnel could link this location to Square-Victoria station and the Réso.
In both of these cases a stadium would quite literally be sewn into the urban fabric, providing a new anchor of activity in a well-connected and well-used area. The Bridge Street location could help that area develop, but that’s a little more chancy if condo developments don’t progress as we’d like. Regardless of the location, I think we’d be wise to design a compact throw-back design, such as Miller Park or Camden Yards (the developers of which were also involved in the rehabilitation of Molson Stadium) and that’s one reason I’d propose inserting a new ballpark into an existing, older part of the urban core. I’m particularly keen on the St-Laurent site because, as it stands right now, the highway is unsightly and serves as a rather unfortunate blemish. An old-styled ballpark here with a working retractable roof would be an amazing addition to the city-scape, and potentially allow for another large-capacity venue right in the heart of the city.
In any event, its still all up in the air, but on a closing note I would love to see an architecturally adventurous stadium that uses its ability to draw people together to pull disparate neighbourhoods into a more cohesive overall urban plan.
Food for thought. I wonder if street meat is the precursor to or result of downtown ballpark construction…