Quick Fixes for Vieux-Montréal

Clock Tower - Montréal, Taylor C. Noakes 2009

There are none. I think people want one, but what can I say – it’s a complex problem.

I’ve been having a hell of a time getting my thoughts organized on this issue. We all know ‘something ain’t quite right’ with the Old Port and Old Montreal – it’s too touristy, it’s a little trashy (be honest…) and it seems oddly out of step with the rest of Montréal – and yet no one really knows what to do. It’s not a failure, far from it – the area has come a long way in the last forty years, but I feel a great number of Montrealers share the opinion that it’s not as good as it could be. Perhaps as it should be. A public consultation is underway to determine the area’s identity with the aim of improving it (or better aligning it with whatever the consultation comes up with) in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017. We should note that the last time the area got a big face-lift was 25-30 years ago in preparation for the 350th anniversary in 1992. What we have today is largely the legacy of that project, and I firmly believe we gained something significant. There is a community there, of sorts, it’s home to about 4000 people and another 30,000 or so work there.

So I suppose now is the time for refinement, and the creation of a tangible neighbourhood to finally cement the old quarters’ purpose within the city. This is far from an easy task, though from some of the discusion I’ve heard concerning the future of Vieux-Montréal, many seem to think all it may require is a grocery store. Certainly, a Marché PA (or better still, a proper full-service public market, such as the Atwater), would be a boon for local residents, but it’s not going to forge an identity.

Bonsecours Market, Montréal - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

It’s really quite ironic – the place we saved as a living reminder of the original city, our supposedly most emblematic and iconic quartier, is itself without a purpose and has the appearance of artificiality. It may be iconographic, an attained ideal of urban preservation, and we should be lauded for it. But without purpose identity is impossible. It’s a leisure-plex of epic proportions, but is far from self-sustaining. It’s a Disneyfied reality. And for many Montrealers old enough to remember, Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux-Port has undergone a transition away from being a functioning part of the urban core, a place where port and commerce interacted directly, to a legislated tourism and leisure zone. Suffice it to say I think the Old Quarters need both the social and cultural services of a neighbourhood in addition to being better integrated into the Central Business District that surrounds it on all sides.

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In any event – before I start going off on weird tangents – let me just churn out some ideas I think might help focus urban development in the coming years onto what we can collectively refer to as the historic districts. The Old Port, Old Montreal, the International Quarter, Faubourg des Recollets, Faubourg de Québec, Cité-du-Havre, Griffintown and the park islands present a unique opportunity for a broad re-densifying and re-purposing of the urban core of Montréal. And through this process we may end up with the elusive identity we’ve been seeking. Through legislation and civic-driven redevelopment these historic districts could become something truly great – a real neighbourhood many people interact with on a daily basis. I’m going to re-visit this issue in several separate posts, so here are some broad problems and potential solutions.

Here are the guts; I’ll expand later.

1. The over-riding solutions should be focused on quite literally re-attaching the area to the rest of the city. The good news is that the Bonaventure Expressway is supposed to be coming down (or at least there’s a public consultation to determine what to do with the area, assuming it will be demolished and brought to grade) but of course the elevated Bonaventure Rail Viaduct still acts as a psychological barrier on the West side, whereas the dual mega Molson and Radio-Canada complexes cut the historic districts off on the East. To the North, too few large public spaces, the exposed highway, and monolithic mega-structures occupying excessively large blocks. Every effort should be made to psychologically and aesthetically (and, of course, structurally) erase these useless divisions, scars if you will.

2. Continuing on this theme, enhancing public transit in the area and the interaction with the so-called underground city.

3. Doing so would ideally lead to the creation of an interaction between an urban residential community, the city’s primary tourist area, and its commercial, corporate an institutional quarters all as logical extensions of the more modern city that has grown up somewhat distinctly from the historic quarters, existing as it does in a crescent around them. A transit system that is emblematic of the area works to further solidify a local identity, and offers another method of bringing people into the area.

4. This means new transit hubs would be required in the area, and this in turn provides local poles of social attraction, which in turn sustain the cafés, bistros, and myriad services an identifiable neighbourhood tend to support.

5. But more will be required, because we’re not just looking at sustaining a neighbourhood or providing it with a façade in lieu of real identity. For that the area will require the socio-cultural anchors – a school, a library, a community athletic centre, daycares, community cultural space.

6. This in turn requires the city to play a leading role in redeveloping the area, and by this I mean purchase property, introduce new zoning regulations, lead residential development through structural and socio-cultural infrastructure development and further encourage small-business development through preferential leasing, city-backed loans, and the provision that proprietors live within proximity of their business. That the city would have to take it a step further and encourage the creation of schools and a CLSC, in addition to diverse other services, certainly puts the redevelopment I’m imagining well beyond what we’ve been used to for the last few years.

Windows Through Time - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Public spaces:

Off the bat the entirety of public spaces in Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux-Port could stand to get a facelift. Place Jacques Cartier, Place Vauquelin, the Champs de Mars and waterfront park could all use some general sprucing up. Place d’Youville, between McGill and the history museum where the old parliament once stood and today a parking lot, should most definitely be converted into some kind of public green space (though if the money were available I’d prefer to rebuild the Saint Anne’s Market that once stood there and served as Canada’s Parliament as originally designed, serving to educate the public on the subject of the founding of Canada during the period 1837-1867 in addition to providing a potential market and rental hall location, but I digress). We’d also be wise to finally do something with Place Royale, which today is a granite tomb, though it was once a cute and well manicured public square with actual grass and trees you could touch to make the physical connection with the wilderness the city’s first citizens encountered back in 1642. Why on Earth city planners decided to remove every bit of green from Place Royale is beyond me.

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And something has to be done with Viger Square. As it stands today it’s a summertime vagrant campground – I know, I used to live across the street. The problem as I see it is that for the most part Viger Square is surrounded by a wall or hedge – and as such it’s difficult to see across, difficult to police. Urban squares and public greens should, in most cases, be open – walls and dividers of any kind send the wrong message. Something open and a little more ‘classic’ might work a lot better with the area as opposed to the hyper modern conceptual park currently on the site.

That said, though I generally avoid going there, it’s nonetheless an interesting park design and I can imagine it working somewhere else.

Infrastructure:

This leads conveniently into some key infrastructure issues we should consider. Viger Square, much like the Palais des Congrès, was a smart initiative in that it permitted something useful on top of the exposed Ville-Marie Expressway. There’s still quite a bit left to cover up, but these days it seems everyone’s afraid (somewhat ridiculously so) that covering over the expressway would assuredly lead to its total collapse. I’m of the opinion we should reinforce the expressway with a steel cage and put a lid on the open wound from St-Urbain to Hotel-de-Ville, putting a massive public green and possibly a ballpark on top (utilizing the block directly across from the Palais des Congrès between Viger and St-Antoine across to the Main (the buildings on this block are old, architecturally insignificant and dilapidated; moreover their occupants could easily be relocated)). This would provide a large new urban park on which buildings could be oriented, in much the same fashion as Dorchester Square provides a ‘front lawn’ function for the city’s iconic temples of high finance and commerce downtown (though curiously uptown from Old Montréal). There are several empty lots along Viger which would doubtless attract the development of large capacity condo towers, if not the privilege of an office tower, and further empty lots just beyond in dire need of development.

It goes without saying that we must continue pushing a ‘no empty lots’ policy regarding the entire area – this means that city needs to lead urban redevelopment from the front, and plan the city’s evolution on a quartier by quartier basis, directing real estate development rather than leaving it up to chance.

Corridor to Place d'Armes - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

It further goes without saying that real-estate development could be facilitated at least in part by the development of the Réso in the area. Consider this: Place-d’Armes Métro station is not actually connected to Place d’Armes. A simple tunnel (which could potentially use existing subterranean constructions in the short distance from the Palais des Congrès to the plaza) is all it would take to psychologically extend the reach of the Underground City directly into the heart of Old Montréal. For that matter, it never made any sense to me that the Old Royal Bank building on Saint-Jacques wasn’t connected to the World Trade Centre directly across the street via a Réso tunnel. Would it not increase the value of the building substantially? Not just in terms of convenience but further still as a potential extension of the modern, integrated system of class-A properties that make up our rather expansive Central Business District?

Old Courthouse, Montréal - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

For some of the same reasons I’d argue strongly in favour of connecting Champ-de-Mars station directly to Place Vauquelin or Place Jacques-Cartier (or both) in addition to the numerous vital civic buildings in the area, such as the Palais de Justice, Old Courthouse, City Hall etc. It logically follows that the new CHUM Superhospital be connected to UQAM in one direction and Champ-de-Mars in the other. Investments in developing the Réso in this sector allow for the Vieux Quartiers to become far better integrated into the massive well connected city that exists on its periphery. It further permits the development of defined poles of activity, and a greater mingling of the population at large (consider the hypothetical North-South axis that would be created through such an extension of the Réso in this area – the Great Québec Library & Archives, UQAM, the Métro, the bus depot, Place Dupuis, more UQAM, CHUM, another Métro station, the city’s civic administrative and judicial centre, Place Jacques-Cartier and then the waterfront – imagine that all connected). It will assist, greatly, in moving large groups of people, merrymakers and tourists alike, in and out of the Old Port and Old Montreal, and work towards eliminating cars from the area’s streets. The psychological implications of extending the Réso into this area shouldn’t be underestimated.

We need to be honest with ourselves – if we want to keep our significantly large historic quarter alive and well and looking good, we’re going to need to phase out vehicular traffic as much as possible, and this will mean providing an enhanced public transit service unique to the area – the obvious choice being street cars given the area evolved with this mode of public transit central in the minds of the planners. The advantage of doing so is that we can popularize the mode as a historic innovation and novelty (at first) and regulate transit and transport in the sector with streetcar development in mind. Should we do this we not only develop an attractive solution to traffic problems in the area, we gain less wear and tear, speedier infrastructure repairs and snow clearance, pedestrian promenades and enhanced street-level socializing, fundamental necessities for the creation of a real sense of community. An identity at least partially defined by how one moves and interacts with their urban environment.

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Transit:

Say we implement a streetcar system in the area, the logical first step would be to build two intersecting lines, one working east-west to parallel the Métro line (say along Notre-Dame or Rue de la Commune) and another linking the park islands and Cité du Havre with the Old Port and Old Montréal, meeting at Place d’Armes. Eventually the streetcar system of the Old Quarters could be linked to the Métro/Réso concentration above the highway, with Rue de la Montagne, Peel, Berri, St-Hubert and/or McGill/Beaver Hall likely serving ‘inter-modal’ routes attaching the tram system to the underground city and Métro lines of the upper city. In total, maybe we develop a system of six or seven lines, none too long, to provide an enhanced transit service integrated with the rest of the public transit network, that not only serves a growing residential population in Old Montreal, but further serves to further stitch up the Modernist Era slashes on to the urban fabric. There are people in this city would would prefer to live in an environment in which streetcars replaced automobiles within what they’d refer to as their ‘neighbourhood’, so why not offer the opportunity? Novelty is one thing, but if the novelty actually works and is determined to be vastly superior to what we currently have, it will assuredly develop into an original driving force in local residential construction. Remove cars from our streets and you can suddenly do a lot more with them.

SdH tramway proposal

And the development of such a transit system could certainly provide a practical use for the numerous public spaces of the sector, such as Square Victoria, Place d’Armes and maybe give Chaboillez Square and Viger Square a chance to return to significance. These vital poles of attraction in turn stimulate the variety of services, businesses, that see the a financial advantage by being within proximity of such spaces. Opportunities get created as a consequence of public transit development, the icing on the cake is that it gives us a justifiable reason to breathe new life into our historic public spaces as well.

On that issue, returning back to Viger Square is the problem of Viger Station, another painful reminder of former glory. Once a grand railway hotel, today it’s bland municipal office space, and though we can’t return it to its former function, we could potentially make it a streetcar station, and giving people a reason to come back to this space, to use it, may provide the inspiration to return this building to the public consciousness by diversifying its functions within the urban core. The people need as many options as possible to interact with other citizens in beautiful public buildings, and a ‘build it (or in our case, renovate or rehabilitate it) and they will come’ mentality could stimulate small business and investor interest, in turn facilitating the rehabilitation of the area around it. But again, the city needs to lead on this, and the city has a responsibility not just to protect the outer look of a heritage property, but its social function too.

Old Royal Bank Building from an Empty Lot - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Let that be an over-riding theme – we must reject mere façadism. The reason we still have this fascinating collection of old buildings is because they maintained their form and function just long enough for us to realize this fact, and that form and function were valued by the population at large. Consider the destruction of the Van Horne Mansion in 1974. Citizens wept as they watched bulldozers annihilate a Gilded Age mansion none of them had ever set foot in, all because it represented something inspirational or significant to them, or more often than not simply for the fact that they’d no longer see the beautiful flowers growing in the wrought-iron greenhouse. A lack of regulation and forward-thinking city-planning or a cavalier attitude about free market capitalism in the real estate market could be disastrous for that which we find so iconic and emblematic of our city. Moreover, failure to maintain the Vieux Quartiers as a sustainable community runs counter to that which is so iconoclastic about the Montréal approach to architectural preservation. It’s bizarre that we could have such success in preserving and developing what has become the Plateau, the Mile End, NDG, Outremont, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, the student ghettos as we currently conceptualize them, and yet the same success at maintaing local socio-cultual vitality so eludes the historic districts.

McGill Street Glow - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

Other random thoughts I’ll have to expand on much later.

1. It’s part of the port – so why doesn’t it really feel like it? How about a thorough reconstruction of the Iberville Passenger Terminal so as to include a ferry terminal, a maritime museum, the offices of Atlantic Montreal Lines, a cruise booking agency, and a proper passenger terminal (etc., etc.). Encouraging the development of cruises stopping in Montréal is a job for our tourism bureau, but again, we’re in a better position to develop that kind of business if we have the facilities to handle the job.

2. I was very surprised to find out that Dawson, back during its very early days when the campus was spread out all over the city, had two campuses located in Old Montréal. I think this should be re-investigated; education is our business and we do it surprisingly well. We certainly have a lot of students, and it wouldn’t surprise me if another CEGEP or university is created at some point in the future (when the economy stabilizes). Inserting an institutional function into the historic quarters, possibly as simply as using existing office space, seems like a logical and straightforward way to secure both small business and residential interest in the sector.

3. An aquarium. Somewhere obviously closer to the water and a scientific facility, not some hokey ‘Marineland’ shit. We once had a top-flight aquarium at La Ronde, so I can imagine something a little closer to the tourist masses would likely work quite well. Plus it’s just one of those highly socially beneficial ‘status symbols’ for any city, it offers a public educational service and expands the city’s cultural and academic population. It’s a revenue generator and it’s fun. We just need to pitch the idea to investors, and I feel that’s a real problem too – capitalism isn’t overly creative.

4. Discretely open the gardens at Notre Dame to the public. No fanfare, no photo-ops, just a newly created means to access this beautiful treasure in the heart of the old city.

5. We’ve got two examples of former banking and finance halls being converted into theatres, though I’m not sure of what’s currently going on at the former CIBC main branch on Saint James (the other is of course The Centaur). Though I’m not a big fan of what the Centaur has produced lately, the idea of converting a banking hall into a performance space is unique, clever even, and something to be explored in our historic district. The Royal Bank vacated its historic property on Saint James and they have a spectacular banking hall as well. I think there’s a lot of potential in developing small and medium sized multi-functional performance space in the area, and it would certainly help a local character that would give Montrealers another reason to interact with the area.

Lego on the Saint Lawrence - Taylor C. Noakes, 2009

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