Tempest in a Teapot

New Azur Métro train test run - 2013
New Azur M̩tro train test run Р2013

Story out today in the Journal de Montréal about how the Azur Métro cars will be ‘too big and too heavy’ to operate in our Métro tunnels and that work had to be done to adjust the infrastructure so as to prevent trains from tipping over is about as good as it gets in terms of local media’s response to a slow news day.

The article is presented in such a fashion that makes it seem the STM only just found out about this and that these renovations may be somehow related to the delay in receiving the new Métro cars, which were initially due last July but now likely won’t be in service until the end of this year.

But according to the STM (and mentioned in the JdeM article), they new about the requirement to modify a 200 metre stretch of the Orange Line to accommodate the new trains from day one, and that the work has already been completed and factored into the overall budget.

If this is indeed the case and the STM isn’t perjuring itself then there isn’t much of a story in the first place. Yes, the new Bombardier-Alstom Azur Métro trains are heavier and bigger and will even consume more electricity than their predecessors but all of this was expected and understood since day one.

After all, these are entirely new vehicles. They are not carbon copies of the existing MR-63 and MR-73 trains. They’re bigger to accommodate more passengers. They utilize new technology. They will have a different layout and, perhaps most importantly, will permit transit users to move between Métro cars while the train is in motion. I think it’s safe to assume that, if you’re building something entirely new, it might not perfectly fit in a system it wasn’t designed for.

But, with all that in mind, the modification to the tunnels only seems to have involved 200 metres out of a total length of 71 kilometres.

In other words, less than half a percent of the Métro system needed to be modified for these vehicles. Peanuts. The STM knew this and made the decision to modify a portion of the tunnel rather than scrap the project and go back to the drawing board.

If we want to have a conversation about how private enterprise can’t ever seem to deliver a government project on time and under budget, this is another conversation (and one I’d say is well worth having). It seems to me that, time and again and at various levels of government, contractors working on government-sponsored mega projects are consistently late and chronically appealing for more money.

This is true about our new Métro cars, about the Train de l’Est project, about double-decker dual-power commuter trains, about fighter jets and maritime helicopters.

Every time government appeals to the private sector to work on public projects, they pitch it against an illogical assumption the alternative is to have the state build a factory and assume all related project costs. Over and over we’re told that appealing to the private sector saves money and will get the job done faster because of ‘the principles that guide the corporate world’ are ostensibly principles that prioritize efficiency and staying true to your word vis-a-vis project cost and delivery.

Bullshit.

The private sector’s interest in government contracts big and small is twofold, but neither has anything to do with efficiency and/or cost control. The interest lies chiefly in that a) government typically continues throwing money at the project and extending deadlines to save face and b) there are no repercussions to the provider, regardless of how late or how over-budget the project is, because they typically arrange to be the sole provider for after the fact maintenance, not to mention the fact that they own type certificates and other key pieces of intellectual capital that will keep whatever’s being built working. If a government upsets the private firm, they have very little recourse and will likely pay dearly at the polls. It’s not terribly expedient for a politician to campaign on keeping government contractors in check. People respond much better to hearing how much a politician intends on spending rather than how they plan on saving money.

We want to feel wealthy, not cheap, and we want our politicians to reflect this.

Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things at a reasonable, audited cost on the timeline set by the people.

Monsieur le Maire, Tear Down this… Railing?

Community Housing, Montreal - Spring 2014

I don’t really know what to call that metal bar running along the edge of the property pictured above, but I’m pretty sure I know what it represents.

I snapped this pic in Saint Henri but if you live in this city you’ve doubtless seen these pseudo fences elsewhere. They typically run just along the edge of a given property, though providing none of the privacy of a normal fence. The buildings inside the rail are always sullen looking, worn out and cheap. Unless I’m gravely mistaken, from what I’ve seen and heard, these rails not-so-subtly announce the presence of subsidized housing.

If this really is the case, I’d like to know what the justification is. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a decorative element from a bygone era that serves no real purpose. If so, all the more reason to remove them. It’s not a fence, it offers no privacy nor added security. In every instance I’ve ever seen one of these they always look ugly – a half-hearted and half-assed rusting attempt at decoration that makes cutting the grass around it unnecessarily difficult.

And if in most cases these bars do indeed surround city or provincially-owned low-rent housing, all the more reason to remove them completely and replace them with a proper fence.

How is it beneficial to point out subsidized real-estate in a given neighbourhood? How does it benefit the residents, either of the building in question or those who live around it?

It seems to me it would be more advantageous for everyone concerned not to draw attention to subsidized housing, so as to allow it to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding environs.

So please Monsieur le Maire – tear down these eyesores.

I’m sure there’s some money to be made scrapping the metal.

The Future of Institutional Space in the Mountain Domain

Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal - circa 1895
Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal – circa 1895

An important public forum will take place at the Maison Smith up on Mount Royal Thursday night beginning at 18h00 and dealing with the future of the soon to be vacated hospitals within the ‘Mountain Domain’.

The forum will be presented by Les Amis de la Montagne and will feature three presentations, one on the mountain itself, another on the Plateau Mont Royal’s plan for the Hotel Dieu and another concerning McGill’s plans for the Royal Victoria Hospital. Presenters will include municipal councillor Alex Norris, McGill University external relations VP Olivier Marcil and Marie-Odile Trépanier, urbanism professor from the Université de Montréal.

I’ll write more on the specifics later, but for the time being it seems like the Royal Victoria Hospital will be annexed by McGill University.

Not the worst idea in the world. McGill apparently needs the space and annexing the Vic makes a lot of sense given that the university has grown up all around it, not to mention that the hospital is part of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

In other words – this was expected.

The hospital was a gift from two prominent figures in our city’s history, the cousins Donald Smith and George Stephen (later the Lords Strathcona and Mount Stephen). They were the men principally responsible for the creation of the nation’s first transcontinental rail line, but it is the Royal Victoria which is arguably the greater legacy. For as central and important as rail has been in our city’s economic development, I don’t believe it equals the global significance of the medical innovations that have come from this institution, nor the building’s role as a local ‘lieux de mémoire’ for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Montreal moms.

Though the deed to the land initially stated the land be used in perpetuity in the service of the public as a medical institution, the remaining heirs have relinquished this requirement. Instead, they have simply requested that the soon-to-be former hospital be used to serve the public interest.

Enter McGill University. If the choice is between handing these buildings over to the university or developing the land into luxury condominiums I’d be the first to rig up and hoist the Martlet flag from the turrets of this masterpiece of late-Victorian Scottish Baronial institutional architecture.

That said, I’m concerned McGill will use this space for dormitories and not classrooms.

I’m also concerned the new MUHC Glen Yards campus will not be able to fully replace all the hospital beds it currently operates. The MUHC has acknowledged the new superhospital will indeed provide fewer beds than currently available in the extant hospital system.

So, with this in mind, is it really wise to eliminate all hospital operations from the Vic?

Is it not possible to keep at least one pavilion open for public medical purposes while handing over the rest to the university?

The hospital has a particularly strong link with the women of our city, principally owing to the strength of their maternity ward. Why not keep the main pavilion operating as a maternity and women’s hospital? It’ll ensure more beds are available and permit at least part of the building to retain its original function.

As to the Hotel Dieu, I’ve heard murmurings that at least one proposal would seek to have the rather expansive facility converted for the purposes of becoming an old age home.

This isn’t an altogether bad idea either given our aging population and the shrinking retirement assets of the working and middle classes. Private elder care is outrageously expensive and public facilities leave a lot to be desired as is, so converting a hospital into a massive retirement home seems opportune. It’ll certainly cost less than building a new structure and you can make the argument that, as far as institutional buildings are concerned, it’s well suited and well situated for the purpose.

But what of the old Shriner’s hospital, or the Montreal General? What of Hopital Notre Dame facing Parc Lafontaine, or the Thoracic Institute, or the Children’s?

Not all of these facilities are strictly speaking within the ‘Mountain Domain’, but they do represent the entirety of institutional space that will become available for repurposing over the next few years.

Which is why limiting the public conversation to those hospitals closest to Mount Royal Park seems illogical. All these spaces need to be considered in terms of the broad demands for public institutional space in our city.

We need more space to teach and to heal. We could use a lot more space to create and to exhibit our creations. We badly need space for the elderly, but not nearly as bad as we do for the homeless.

In any event, if we had a municipal institutional space oversight and coordinating committee I think our city would be able to strategize more effectively, respond more appropriately to public demand and ensure these prized properties serve the public interest to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, such is not currently the case.

On the STM’s Wasteful Renaming Policy

ICAO Headquarters, Montreal - credit to Provencher Roy
ICAO Headquarters, Montreal – credit to Provencher Roy

Recent news is that the STM will temporarily lift its self-imposed moratorium on renaming Métro stations so that Square-Victoria can be re-christened “Square-Victoria-OACI”.

The rationale is that it will help convince the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO or OACI in French) to continue operating from our fair city, this after an audacious attempt by the Qatari government to convince the UN body to move its operations to the Persian Gulf state last year.

We need to keep in mind that Qatar withdrew its bid after a roughly week-long (and uncharacteristic) lobbying blitz orchestrated by the Federal Tories (with considerable cooperation from the then separatist government of Quebec) that ultimately resulted in a near unanimous decision by ICAO’s member nations to refuse the unsolicited Qatari proposal outright.

Kudos on a job well done. It just goes to show that with the right motivation even the most diametrically opposed governments can cooperate fully to achieve a common goal. It’s clear to everyone concerned ICAO is better off staying in Montreal where it provides about 500 ‘big league’ jobs to our city’s knowledge economy, not to mention an immeasurable amount of global clout. That ICAO is located in Montreal says something about our city. In my eyes, it says we’re a safe bet, a solid investment, the kind of city where the world comes together.

Based on the response to Qatar’s push, I’d argue the world knows and appreciates this as well. Quite frankly I’d be astonished if the international community permitted ICAO to be moved to an absolute monarchy where dissent is punishable by life sentences and where hundreds of thousands of South Asian migrants are worked to death building sports stadiums in de facto slavery.

Say what you will about the quality of our construction industry here in Montreal, at least we don’t use slave labour.

In any event, the point is this: the Qataris have a long way to go before they can make a serious bid, so why is the STM going to the trouble of re-naming Square-Victoria Métro station at all?

Is ICAO looking to move? Do they really need to be convinced to stay?

If ICAO were actually seriously considering moving from Montreal, are we to believe all it would take to get them to change their minds is renaming a Métro station (by making it longer and more cumbersome)? Give me a break.

Despite this, the STM is going forward with their plan to rename the station – with zero public input. Total cost: $125,000

According to the STM the cost pays for printing new Métro maps, new signage at the station as well as new audio recordings of the station’s name. I can imagine the overwhelming bulk of the sum is in fact going towards printing.

I think this is supremely wasteful. It’s unnecessary and it won’t accomplish anything concrete. Worse, the public wasn’t consulted – this is a unilateral decision of the STM – and, as if this wasn’t bad enough, the STM’s renaming policy is still in effect for all other Métro stations, despite public interest in getting other stations renamed.

It wouldn’t be quite as bad if the STM were to instead select a certain number of stations and solicit the public for suggestions on how they should be renamed. In doing so, not only would they have directly engaged with their clientele, but they would ultimately get a greater value for the money they’ve allocated to new printing.

Keep this in mind – the printing costs will remain about the same even if a dozen stations were to be renamed.

So with that in mind let me put it to you – what stations would you rename?

There are two proposals that come to mind already. First, there’s been pressure from Jewish and Black communities for several years to rename Lionel-Groulx. The reason is that, despite the Abbé Groulx’s contributions to writing the nationalist interpretation of French Canadian history, he was also a ell-known anti-Semite who founded a local fascist organization. As you might expect this doesn’t sit well with many people. Oscar Peterson, the ‘Maharaja of the keyboard’ who helped solidify this city’s position as a focal point for jazz music, is often mentioned as a preferred name choice, given Peterson’s legacy and his attachment to the area the station is located in.

Also, if I recall correctly, the Gay Village merchant’s association has proposed changing Beaudry station’s name to ‘Beaudry-Le-Village’. I’d prefer it simply be renamed Le Village.

I’d also like most of the religious station names, like Assomption or Pie-IX to be renamed, and I’m not too keen on First World War French generals (De Castelnau) or battle sites (Namur, Verdun) either.

Anyways – let me know what you think; which stations would you rename and why?

The CBC should consolidate its operations in Montreal

Maison Radio-Canada
Maison Radio-Canada

Recently announced cuts to the CBC/Radio-Canada got me thinking: why is this particular crown corporation’s operations split between three different major Canadian cities and why is the CBC/SRC trying to rid itself of potentially lucrative real-estate?

I can’t fathom why the CBC and SRC aren’t located in the exact same place. As it currently stands, French media is consolidated in the Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal, English media consolidated in the Canadian Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto, and corporate operations located in Ottawa.

Perhaps this was necessary in the past, but is it still necessary today?

Consolidating all of the CBC/SRC’s major operations in a single location is far more efficient and, perhaps most importantly, would allow a greater degree of cooperation between the two halves of Canada’s public broadcaster.

Quite frankly, the CBC could learn a lot from Radio-Canada. The latter is far more successful than the former in terms of creating interesting, engaging, high-quality programming.

To put it another way, I’d like to watch an English version of Tout Le Monde En Parle.

Or put it this way: 19-2 is a successful police procedural/crime drama set in Montreal created by Radio-Canada that, beginning this year, will appear on the CTV-owned Bravo Canada as an English-language equivalent. An idea created by the public broadcaster succeeds in French but is then sold to private interests for English language development. Why the CBC didn’t develop the English-language version of 19-2 is beyond me; it makes absolutely no sense.

Further, there’s been a plan in place for a few years now for CBC/SRC to sell the Maison Radio-Canada for redevelopment. According to the corporation’s public documents, they’re not supposed to invest in real-estate, and this is why they’re looking to rid themselves of an absolutely massive piece of purpose-built broadcasting property. Apparently, it’s too expensive to invest in upgrading existing facilities, and so they’ll sell the land to become a tenant. Whatever money is made from the sale, if it follows an unfortunate trend established by the Federal Tories, will likely not be equal to the actual and/or potential value of the property. Moreover, whatever money is made from the transaction will ultimately disappear paying the rent.

It’s illogical, in a time of constrained budgets, to limit a crown corporation’s ability to develop long term wealth. There is no wealth, no value, in leasing.

It’s also illogical to spread out a corporation’s major operations in three locations when one could easily be expanded to accommodate the whole.

What’s worse, one of the driving forces behind this proposed sale and redevelopment is that the Maison Radio-Canada has too much space for Radio-Canada’s current needs. In a sense I agree – the parking lots are a huge waste of space begging for redevelopment. But it’s the space inside the building which is thought to be superfluous. If that’s actually the case, why not sell off the corporate HQ in Ottawa and the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto and put the whole operation in the Maison Radio-Canada? Proceeds from the sale of those properties (particularly the latter) could finance the modernization of the MRC for just such a purpose. If they were to go a step further, they would use their real-estate holdings for the purposes of generating revenue to fund a public broadcasting trust, much in the same manner as the BBC has. I’m in favour of the plan to redevelop the expansive Montreal property with residential buildings, commercial and green spaces, but I think a far greater value could be derived over the long term by maintaining ownership of the Montreal site. There’s more money in the long term owning several condos, apartment blocks and commercial spaces than simply selling off the property. The undeveloped property is less valuable than a developed property.

Concentration and consolidation make a lot of sense to me, mostly because I firmly believe it will lead directly to greater cooperation and operational efficiency. I think it would accomplish the task of making our public broadcaster ‘leaner’ due to resource sharing, not to mention the fundamentally lower operating costs and greater quality of life offered in Montreal (as an example, and quite unlike Toronto’s Canadian Broadcasting Centre, properties within walking distance of Maison Radio-Canada are still affordable and there’s an established community of people who work in media located nearby, not to mention a concentration of competition). But to top it all off, if the CBC were to consolidate here with Radio-Canada, maintain ownership of their property and redevelop it, they could potentially get themselves back in the green sooner as opposed to later.

A closing thought. Shame on Heritage Minister and Tory cheerleader Shelley Glover for doing fuck all to help the CBC.

It’s a line anyone interested in Canadian politics is likely to hear time and again as Tory ministers dodge any and all kinds of responsibility for their own portfolios: ‘the (insert vital national interest here) operates as an arms-length government agency and thus we’re not responsible for it’.

Well what the fuck are you good for then?

The whole idea behind crown corporations is that they serve the interests of the people, either by providing a necessary service or by generating revenue for the federal government to lessen the tax burden. In some cases they can do both, but the key is that, if the crown corp is in the red or otherwise not accomplishing its goals, the peoples’ recourse is to elect individuals with plans to make these organizations succeed.

The Tory political playbook goes in the other direction, distancing government from crown corps in an effort to both deny any responsibility (breaking the public’s indirect involvement in the direction of the corporation) in an effort to prime it for privatization. Both the Harper and Mulroney administrations have a bad record of selling off major assets for next to nothing. The end result has almost always been the same: worse service, higher costs to the consumer, less competition. I have no doubt at all the Tories would like nothing more than to privatize the CBC, though for the moment they recognize the negative consequences.

Thus, their policy is that the CBC should die a death from a thousand cuts, a ‘creeping normality’ strategy that makes it impossible for the CBC to compete at all but would ultimately serve to facilitate its dismantling and privatization. If the problem, as a spokeswoman for Ms. Glover puts it, is that “the CBC (needs) to provide programming that Canadians actually want to watch” then why did the Fed not step in to protect the CBC’s lucrative monopoly on sports broadcasting rights? Why isn’t the Fed encouraging the CBC to develop a trust whose value is derived from the corporation’s real estate and infrastructure assets as a means to generate revenue?

And why is the minister responsible for our nation’s cultural heritage blaming the CBC for its shortcomings rather than coming up with a plan to make the CBC a focal point of our cultural identity?

What are we paying her for? To find fault or find solutions?

Pointe-à-Callière Going Underground

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal - photo credit to Derek Smith
Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal – photo credit to Derek Smith

The Pointe-à-Callière historical and archeological museum is going underground and expanding for the city’s 375th anniversary.

Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÉSO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.

What can I say? This is brilliant.

The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.

Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.

The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.

It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.

And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.

The new Pointe-à-Callière will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Éperon, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering
Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).

This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.

I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.

Under ideal circumstances the underground passageway would be open to the public as a branch of the RÉSO. Under really, really ideal circumstances they’ll continue expanding underground – albeit in the opposite direction – so that you could walk from Place Royal to Place d’Armes by way of Notre Dame Basilica, eventually leading to the Métro station and RÉSO access point at the Palais des Congrès.

(Yes, I think it’s weird that Place d’Armes is not connected to Place-d’Armes; it’s really not that far and the ground underneath the square was partially excavated long ago for the former public toilets. Plus, climbing up the hill from the Métro to the square in winter is a pain in the ass).

Place Royale set up as a kind of 'living history' temporary exhibit - photo credit to McMomo, 2009
Place Royale set up as a kind of ‘living history’ temporary exhibit – photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-à-Callière. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.

But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-à-vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.