Pedestrianizing Ste-Catherine Street: How to Make it Work

Orange & Green denote the Métro lines that pass through the city centre, the red line indicates the possible route of a Ste-Catherine Street tram and the turquoise lines point out  where the RÉSO would connect the two
Orange & Green denote the Métro lines that pass through the city centre, the red line denotes the possible route of a Ste-Catherine Street tram and the turquoise lines point out where the RÉSO would connect the two

It looks as though Mayor Coderre is at the very least interested in discussing the possibility of pedestrianizing Ste-Catherine Street in advance of the city’s 375th anniversary.

This is as a consequence of needing to dig up the street and replace a sewer built in 1889, which as you might imagine is failing and causing a kind of chain reaction all along Ste-Catherine Street that has resulted in potholes, cracks and even a massive sinkhole that swallowed up backhoe last April. It needs to be replaced, post-haste, no question about it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fixing sewers and eliminating sinkholes, this is about as politically unsexy as it gets. No one appreciates it, regardless of how vital it actually is.

Ergo, the mayor floats the idea of redeveloping the street as a pedestrian mall as the ultimate end goal. People, idiotically, don’t like infrastructure repairs. They like birthday presents.

Smart politics. Getting cars of Ste-Catherine Street would certainly reduce wear and tear on the street, but the mayor knows there needs to be an added incentive to get the people on board.

I suppose the rationale goes ‘if it’s going to be shut down, dug up and re-built anyways, why not turn it into something truly unique for the city’s 375th anniversary?’ Besides which, we already know the idea is economically sound based off the seasonal pedestrian mall in the Gay Village. Concerns that removing cars from Ste-Catherine Street would damage local business is unfounded; if anything a pedestrian mall would likely encourage greater foot traffic and, in turn, more shoppers.

That said, as recently experienced on both Parc Avenue and The Main, prolonged unorganized roadwork that doesn’t seem to have any kind of lasting positive aesthetic or social effect has resulted in an unfortunate number of empty shops and boarded up windows.

With that in mind, if I could make three recommendations to the mayor to help guarantee the success of this project:

1. Make absolutely certain the street doesn’t need to be dug up again for at least fifty years.

If we’re talking about 375th anniversary projects, here’s the legacy you want to leave behind. Be the person who fixed our most important street, permanently. Don’t just build a new sewer, install a proper utility tunnel right next to it. As it is it seems utility pipes and cables are simply buried under a thin layer of asphalt, and those in turn lie on top of segments of steam tunnels and ancient sewers. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s remarkably disorganized.

Instead of the status quo, run all the pipes and cables through a new utility tunnel that runs the entire length of the street. Further, it could provide a solution to the problem of what to do with all the old Métro cars we’ll soon no longer need – the wagons could be modified and linked together forming a tube which could be sunk into the street, and the various utilities run along inside.

If you’re going to dig up the city’s most prominent street, you may as well give people something fascinating to look at as a means to sustain foot-traffic. I think burying Métro cars would qualify.

Placing all the various utilities in one easily accessible tunnel means we wouldn’t have to dig up part of the street each and every time something needs to be repaired.

2. Remove cars and increase foot-traffic simultaneously by installing a tram.

Close the street to vehicular traffic from Atwater to the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and give people a way to quickly traverse this distance in both directions. Installing a tram is a no-brainer. If we want Ste-Catherine Street to experience a renaissance that brings it back to its former glories, the city needs to give people a good reason to use the street. A tram is exactly that reason because it not only turns the entire street into a kind of immense, self-contained shopping and entertainment complex but also serves to alleviate congestion on the two most congested segments of the Métro. Because it parallels the Métro as it runs through the city centre it will appeal to locals and tourists alike, and it further connects to the RÉSO at multiple points. All of this serves to improve public-transit and alleviate congestion throughout the central business district. A tram on Ste-Catherine Street would help to redistribute traffic patterns and provide myriad new ways of accessing the city.

Fundamentally we want to broadly enhance the walkability of our city because this increases the quality of life of the citizens. It is supremely beneficial for a large city such as our own to be as walkable as it currently is, inasmuch as it is supremely convenient to live in a city where just about everything is either within immediate walking distance. But ‘walking distance’ takes on a vastly different meaning when you live in proximity of public-transit, especially our Métro.

Rejecting this idea off the bat is unwise. You can’t remove an entire street from the urban traffic and transit plan without providing some kind of a replacement. If a tram were installed on Ste-Catherine Street I have no doubts it would pay for itself in but a few years.

3. Foster the development of sustainable independent businesses.

Sometimes walking down Ste-Catherine Street feels like you’re in an old road-runner cartoon seeing the same background repeated on a loop. There are too few independent businesses and too many chains, and when it comes to the chains, there’s a lot of repetition. Ste-Catherine Street is supposed to be our city’s major retail and entertainment street, but there are far fewer restaurants, lounges, venues, bars etc. than there were back in the street’s glory days. In essence, the street isn’t terribly unique or interesting anymore. It’s all the same garbage you’d find on any other commercial artery in this or any other Canadian city. There’s no allure.

It’s up to city hall to do something about this. Legislation needs to be passed that limits the proliferation of chain stores on the strip, and rent controls need to be put in place to help small businesses thrive. A pedestrianized Ste-Catherine Street would be an ideal location for a concentration of vendors and could help add to the market atmosphere of the street. Perhaps most importantly, the city should try to facilitate a revival of the ‘entertainment’ component of the strip outside the Quartier des Spectacles, such as by redeveloping the old Loews and Palace theatres (or the Forum for that matter) as for-profit performance venues.

I think we’d be wise to look at what made the street a success in the past to see if we can find solutions to help guarantee it’s future.

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