City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Mus̩e Рdate and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Money for Nothing

Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 - credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 – credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The Mordecai Richler Gazebo will now cost the taxpayers of Montreal nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

And a series of granite waypoints, apparently taking the form of stylized tree-stumps, are to be installed across Mount Royal at an estimated cost of $3.4 million.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory will get over $62 million in public money over a five year period to make it a better tourist trap, or as Mayor Coderre put it: “a heritage site… for god’s sake, it’s an investment.”

Credit where credit is due: Coderre is a great populist. He’s quirky and has a knack for puns and one-liners.

However, he’s also spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Sometimes I wish he and the city would stop trying to spend money. I understand municipal government can help stimulate the economy by spending public money on make-work projects designed to keep people employed. And I’m generally in favour of doing so in the name of public beautification projects.

But in Montreal – astoundingly – such efforts seem increasingly misguided if not wholly illogical. For every success – like the multimillion dollar multiphase overhaul of Dorchester Square and Place du Canada – there are far too many projects that are so outrageously ill-conceived it begs the question what our city planners are smoking.

What I find particularly astounding – in our age of austerity for education, health, transit and welfare – is our ability to spend astronomical sums of money to accomplish, in some cases, quite literally nothing at all.

Take for instance the recently cancelled police and firefighter games; if the city is successful in recuperating half the sum already allocated to the now-cancelled event, it will still cost us nearly $3 million.

More jaw-droppingly, the city’s plans on installing over two-dozen granite ‘tree-stumps’ all over Mount Royal.

Paul Arcand interviewed Réal Ménard, a member of the city’s executive committee, and asked him whether the city was really going to spend over three million dollars to erect a series of granite structures (that resemble tree stumps) all over the mountain. Ménard did his best to attempt an explanation, but did so by a) indicating the stumps are in fact part of a much larger eight million dollar project designed to ‘link’ the peaks of the mountain, and b) that (after much obfuscating) the cost of the planned park installations is in fact going to be about three million dollars. It didn’t help that he spent much of his time accusing Arcand of positing the city was intending to build granite trees on Mount Royal, an entirely unconvincing tactic Arcand saw right through and rightly ridiculed Ménard for having the gall to suggest.

It was also delightful to hear Arcand chiding Ménard for not reading the Gazette…

Research by the Gazette’s Linda Gyulai indicates the cost of the winning bid for the granite installations is 43% higher than the city’s initial estimate, and that the whole contract is 27% higher than what the city was estimating before the call for tenders.

The list of over-the-top civic beautification projects, all of which are being rushed through with seemingly no concern for appallingly high cost estimates so that they can coincide with the essentially pointless 375th anniversary celebrations, has grown steadily for the past few years, and this on top of a steady supply of infrastructure mega-projects that either never get off the drawing board or wind-up being delivered late and over-budget. Unfortunately, given the decades-long dearth of Stanley Cup victories, this has now become our most consistent accomplishment as a city: we’re spending a lot of public money for nothing.

For his part, Mayor Coderre insists the project will make the mountain more accessible and help beautify the city. The reaction of Arcand, the Gazette and much of the local social media sphere, is one of derision and incredulity. The firm that won the contract to build the granite ‘statues’ (in more official parlance) is Aménagement Coté Jardin, a landscape architecture firm that’s responsible for Domtar’s ‘front yard’ (by Place-des-Arts Métro station’s stand-alone édicule on Bleury) and more recently, the renovation of Cabot Square.

To put it succinctly I’m disappointed it would cost so much to accomplish so little. I doubt you could make Mount Royal any more accessible than it already is, and given that it is valued almost entirely because it is a refuge of wilderness in the very heart of a bustling metropolis, installing granite stumps and concrete slabs is fundamentally flawed. It makes me wonder when exactly was the last time Denis Coderre took a walk on Mount Royal…

If the plan is to spiff up Mount Royal for next year’s ‘spendiversary’, I’m fairly confident three million dollars could buy more than enough trees to replace those felled to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It would likely be enough to also replace or repair the park’s existing benches, water fountains and garbage bins and maybe even pay for a year’s worth of superior park maintenance too. Whatever the final call, the city (more than anyone else) should be acutely aware that Mount Royal is precisely what it is because it was designed to be as such. We have a great park designed by one of the all time greatest park designers, and it is in part because of this that we can claim our status as a UNESCO City of Design (and by the way, we’ve gotten far more than our fair share of milage out of that ten year old distinction). This is not a wheel that needs to be re-invented, and there are far superior, less expensive methods to renew Mount Royal than by turning half of it into a construction site in the very same year we’ll want to have the greatest access to it.

If the gazebo project is any indication, Montrealers can be forgiven for being so intensely critical of yet another suspiciously expensive civic ‘beautification’ project. And much like the inappropriately rechristened gazebo, the granite stump project is also amazingly ill-conceived in that it will likely do the very opposite of what it ostensibly intends to do. Montrealers have contently stretched out their legs in the tall grass of Mount Royal for just about 375 years… all of a sudden we need concrete curbs and granite stumps, and this has something to do with maintaining our status as an important centre of design?

I don’t buy it. If this was an aspect of the plot of some novel about the intriguing life of an urban planner you’d find it completely absurd. The city’s plan to beautify Mount Royal is an excellent example of missing the forest for the trees.

And like just about everything else in this city, ultimately it’s not actually the city’s decision to make. Because Mount Royal is a heritage site, it’s the province that will decide whether this plan goes ahead. So there’s always the outside chance the province’s incessant meddling in our affairs may actually be worthwhile, if they put the kybosh on this ridiculous project.

Plus que ça change. Forty years ago the city was doing precisely the same thing, albeit with the hope of a greater return on investment than the 375th anniversary.