Category Archives: Cultural commentary

Nothing succeeds like excess

The City of Montreal has announced plans to renovate the northernmost section of Dorchester Square at an estimated cost of $4.2 million. A $700,000 contract was awarded to noted local landscape architect Claude Cormier to prepare the design and tender specifications.

The section of Dorchester Square to be renovated runs between Peel and Metcalfe from the south entrance to the Dominion Square Building to the ‘camilienne‘ (also known as a vespasienne, it’s the small stone octagonal building with a café in it, identical to the similarly-purposed building in Carré Saint-Louis) and would include extending the green ‘footprint’ of the city square by reducing the number of lanes on the street that runs between the square and the building. Additionally, land around the entrance and exit to the underground parking lot would be reclaimed, somewhat, and pedestrian bridges are to be built over them.

As Andy Riga puts it in the Gazette “Under the current layout, pedestrians must contend with cars entering and leaving an underground parking garage adjacent to the square.”

Contend seems like an odd choice of words to me, as it gives the impression of a taxing struggle. We’re talking about cars slowly moving in to and out of a parking garage in a space that naturally attracts large numbers of pedestrians and has a posted speed limit of 10 km per hour. I no more have to ‘contend’ with the difficulties of navigating vehicular traffic here than any other intersection in the city, but I digress.

Perspective from Dominion Square Building looking 'Montreal South'
Perspective from Dominion Square Building looking ‘Montreal South’

What slays me is the bridges over the parking garage access ramps; talk about an over-engineered solution to a non-existent problem.

I can’t recall any serious incident involving a pedestrian struck by a car or a bus on either the side-street or the garage ramps, such that it requires physically segregating one from the other. That said, it might be neat to have a vantage point on the square from several feet above the ground.

But the cost… $4.2 million is a lot of money to be spending on parks beautification in an uncertain economy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like that the city is spending money on our parks and public spaces, I just wonder if we’re really going about this in the most efficient way possible. It seems that all too often the city waits for major renovations and redesigns when better year-to-year maintenance would make that unnecessary.

For your consideration: the Mordecai Richler Memorial Gazebo, Viger Square, Cabot Square up until about half a year ago…

The other thing to consider is that, as far as Dorchester Square/ Place du Canada is concerned, this would be the third phase of a project that stretches back about seven years and has so far cost $15.4 million. The third phase would increase the total to just under $20 million, assuming the new project’s current estimate is accurate.

It’s worth noting that the plan is to have the renovation completed by August of 2017, after one year of work.

I can imagine at least part of the $4.2 million project cost is related to this unusually rapid turn-around time. The first phase of Dorchester Square’s renovation, completed after about two years of work in 2010, cost $5.4 million and the southern section, Place du Canada, opened in November of last year after being worked on for about the same amount of time, at a cost of $10 million.

Consider that we’re spending $4.2 million to renovate a section of park roughly one-third the size of the space renovated six years ago at a cost of $5.4 million.

In other words, we’re spending a lot more per square meter to renovate a much smaller space.

So perhaps we need to reconsider the expensive novelties – like the pedestrian bridges and the half-fountain.

Bird's eye rendering of new Dorchester Square; note the pedestrian bridges
Bird’s eye rendering of new Dorchester Square; note the pedestrian bridges

Public consultation can’t replace vision

If it weren’t for the fact that it’s apparently a great excuse for a lot of infrastructure spending, would anyone really care about the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville Marie, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017? Are these dates important to us for any other reason than that politicians can use them as focal points?

There’s interest in renovating and redeveloping Montreal’s Old Port as part of this anniversary, and to that end the city has authorized renovation projects both for Place Vauquelin and Place Jacques Cartier. There was a public consultation at the Montreal Science Centre held on Thursday of last week that was apparently well-attended, and the intention is that a master plan will be completed by next year.

Note: the plan is only expected to be completed by 2017, there’s no word on any specific projects or what, if anything, might actually be improved/renovated by then. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear either what precisely needs to be done in the first place.

Dawn Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

Also worth noting, though this CBC article seems to have missed the point, is that the Old Port does not actually belong to the City of Montreal, but to Canada Lands Corporation through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation. Ergo, while Montreal may be interested in developing the Old Port, the Fed is still ultimately responsible and they have no interest in ceding ownership of the land to the city. Mayor Coderre has argued that it’s vital for Montreal to take ownership of the Old Port in order to fully realize it’s revitalization.

As far as renovating the Old Port is concerned, the last time there was a significant investment was 24 years ago when Montreal was celebrating its 350th anniversary.

Since 2012 the operating agency has spent $14 million on new installations and activities, though the general manager of this same agency called the Old Port ‘tattered’ in a Montreal Gazette interview from a few days ago. An investment of $125 million back in the early 1990s gave the Old Port its modern form after the area spent much of the 1980s as a bit of a no-man’s land.

City from the Harbour - Summer 2015

Just to be clear on what we’re talking about, the Old Port is a very specific part of Montreal. It essentially consists of the long linear park running immediately south of Rue de la Commune, as well as Windmill Point and the four principle quays. Everything north of de la Commune is Old Montreal, and as things go in this city, despite the intimate relationship between these two sectors they administratively have nothing to do with one-another.

Why the Old Port needs to be ‘renovated, rejuvenated and revitalized’ doesn’t seem to be clear either. For the six million or so tourists who visit it every year, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining: it’s a park with various attractions next to the city’s premier tourist destination; what’s not to like? And either way last week’s public consultation wasn’t about what tourists want, it was about what we want.

Clock Tower Quay - Montreal, Summer 2015

I had registered to go and say something but then decided not to when I realized the crux of my argument – as a Montrealer – was that the last thing the Old Port needs more of is tourists or tourist-attractions. It seemed counter-intuitive to me as I can’t imagine this is what the operating agency wants to hear. They want to make money, point finale.

I’d argue strongly the investments made in the last few years – notably the beach you can’t swim at, the zip-line, haunted house and pirate-themed jungle gym – are all terrible and not worth the money spent on them. Moreover, I’m fairly certain these ‘attractions’ were only brought in after public consultations and/or market research indicated the Old Port was lacking in things to do. They all feel like the terrible ideas only a group of otherwise unemployable market research study participants can come up with.

Silo No. 5 - Montreal, Spring 2015

From a completely historical point of view, even calling it the Old Port seems misleading: the new attractions have absolutely nothing to do with the area’s history and the entire space has a decidedly modern feel to it. Jacques Cartier did not zip-line his way into Montreal in 1534, we’ve never had a serious pirate problem and, if we do have a haunted house in Montreal, my guess is that it’s probably one of the places where CIA-funded mind control experiments were conducted, and not an assembly of brightly coloured former shipping containers.

If the Old Port has a serious problem, it’s that it’s trying way too hard to be all things to all people, again, another problem stemming from public consultations.

I’m generally indifferent to all the Old Port’s crap because I know I’ll never be involved with it. I’m never going to buy any of the overpriced tchotchkes, knock-off handbags or t-shirts that say ‘Federal Breast Inspector’ on them from the spaced-out teenagers sitting in the nifty new container kiosks. Nor will I ever dine in the Old Port, given the food is overpriced and of low quality; this is a gourmand’s city, something which is not reflected in the Old Port or much of Old Montreal for that matter. I think I’ve been in the Old Port well over a hundred times in the last decade and I don’t think I’ve spent more than $20 in that entire time.

Attractions, Old & New - Montreal, Summer 2015

I also don’t think I’m alone. As far as I can tell, most Montrealers in the know know better than to waste their money in our city’s various tourist traps. And the Old Port is the biggest tourist trap we have.

Now all that said, I still thoroughly enjoy going to the Old Port, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever the city or Canada Lands Corporation comes up with. It’s a big space, there’s only so much damage they can do. The best parts of the Old Port, at least in my opinion, are either technically off limits or otherwise far from its central and most touristy part. There’s a look-out at the end of Alexandra Quay that offers amazing views of the city an the river, not to mention the grounds around Silo No. 5, which actually look like there was once a park located there that’s been since closed off to the public.

Abandoned Park - Montreal, Spring 2015

Assuming the majority of Montrealers do indeed agree the Old Port is ‘in tatters’ then why not just do the simple thing and fix it up? Fresh paint, new uni-stone, update the landscaping, improve the lighting. Whenever I go to the Old Port, this is typically what I notice first and foremost.

I feel there’s a prevalent belief in this city that we need to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that we won’t be truly happy with our city until it’s completely unrecognizable but teaming with tourists.

Obviously this isn’t what we want. If the powers that be want to best represent the interests of the citizenry, perhaps they should consider how Montrealers typically use the most successful of our public spaces (on top of what makes them so successful in the first place). Consider: the tam-tams are completely spontaneous and the city isn’t involved one iota. Most of Mount Royal Park is attraction-less and most Montrealers seem to be able to enjoy the mountain without having to spend much money. The lookouts are free, the trails are free, lying in the sun is free (etc.)

Windmill Point - Spring 2015

Rather than occupying public space in the Old Port with activities and attractions, why not just leave it open and accessible and let people figure it out for themselves?

On a closing note, I really hope they don’t do anything with Silo No. 5 – it’s a monument in its own right, and fascinating to explore. My main concern at this point is that CLC through the Old Port of Montreal Corporation will either try to redevelop the site into condos or some kind of half-assed attraction (like that virtual-reality thingamajig that was up and running for a few years on Sainte Catherine Street near McGill College… I think it’s a watch store or a Five Guys now).

Second closing point: though it’s outside the realm of the Old Port, I’d argue the single best thing the city could possibly do is to convert Bonsecours Market back into a public market (à la Atwater or Maisonneuve markets) and – by extension – use the market as a transiting point between Old Montreal and the Old Port. I think this would entail ‘opening up’ the Rue de la Commune side of the Bonsecours, such as with vendor stalls and additional doorways (etc.), but the point is if we want these tourist-driven parts of the city to still be attractive to locals, we need to offer a little more of what makes Montreal such an exquisite city in the first place. I’m sure the 3,000 or so citizens who live in the area would certainly appreciate access to a proper market, and the tourists would have better dining options (at least) as a result.

The odd saga of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s entrance

Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.
Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.

A few years ago I was at O’Hare with an hour and a half to kill between flights and after a quick bite and a coffee I was keen to go have a smoke. Unsure of where the exit was located, I approached two TSA agents and asked “how do I get outside?”

Annoyed, one replied “you go out through the front door.”

Indeed.

Whether notoriously complex to navigate Mid-West international airports or a stately fine arts museum, every good building needs a well-designed, fairly obvious, and effectively welcoming entrance.

Though this may seem obvious, consider there’s been considerable controversy concerning how Montrealers accessed their fine arts museum. The issue of access has led to a major renovation of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Hornstein Pavilion (the neoclassical structure on the north side of Sherbrooke Street), as well as the subsequent ‘permanent closure’ of that building’s massive wooden doors for nearly a decade. And when the museum sought a major expansion in the 1980s, what was ultimately completed was focused on yet another entrance.

I say this because I remarked last weekend that the MMFA’s entrance on the south side of Sherbrooke has been closed for renovations and that patrons were instead to enter through the portico, passing the immense marble columns and oak doors just as Montrealers had done a century ago when the Hornstein Pavilion was a brand new addition to Sherbrooke Street, the crown jewel of the Square Mile.

The front doors of the main pavilion were closed in 1973 when the museum undertook a three-year renovation. They’d remain closed after the MMFA re-opened on the 8th of May 1976 because it was thought the neoclassical styled entrance was elitist and ‘undemocratic’. This wasn’t a uniquely Montreal phenomenon either; several other major North American arts museums were closing the old doors and building new entrances to better connect with the public.

In the case of the MMFA, this move was likely a consequence of the MMFA’s historic attachment to Montreal’s Anglophone elites and the changing political climate of the day (it also happened that the MMFA was an entirely private endeavour up until 1972, at which point it began receiving funding from the provincial government, which in turn helped secure the expansion plan).

To coincide with the opening of the new pavilion built further up Avenue du Musée, architect Fred Lebensold closed the main doors and inserted a new double-ended entrance under the monumental staircase. In lieu of ‘being uplifted physically into a temple of art’, visitors instead went through revolving doors located under bubble domes on either side of the staircase, and down into a main lobby. Organized in this way, visitors would walk through the museum – and the history of art – chronologically, with the oldest items in the museum’s collection located at the lowest level.

There was a practical concern as well – Lebensold argued the opening and closing of the main doors too radically altered humidity levels within the museum. The grand re-opening of the front doors came about in the summer of 1983 to coincide with a major retrospective on the works of William Bouguereau; it would signal the beginning of a new era for the museum, one of large-scale and very popular exhibits, along with new plans to expand.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.

The Bouguereau exhibit and the desire for a major expansion of the MMFA came at around the same time as Bernard Lammare was appointed president of the museum’s board of directors. He was the major driving force, along with Paul Desmarais, to build the museum’s third pavilion, across from the original pavilion and aforementioned 1976 addition (now known as the Stewart Pavilion). What would become known as the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion (completed in 1991), is known to most people today simply as the primary means by which one enters the MMFA. It’s an immense arch made of the same Vermont marble quarried for the original building’s columns and façade, and is located on the south side of Sherbrooke. Standing on Avenue du Musée looking down, it’s just about all you see; the archway defines your path as always leading back to art. From other points on Sherbrooke, it blends into the background a bit better.

Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1990
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1990

I’ve always been intrigued by Moshe Safdie’s Desmarais Pavilion because the most obvious and monumental portion – that of the glass-atrium entrance – isn’t a gallery and doesn’t really involve any art. It’s more like a foyer, a controlled and separate environment where a combination of environmental effects give the impression of grandeur without drawing your eye to any one particular element. You’re simply standing in a deceptively large room that leads to anywhere and everywhere. I feel this impression is emphasized by the notorious staircase that forces visitors to move at half-speed. The galleries, bookshop, restaurant and assorted offices and classrooms are all ‘hidden’ behind the white-marble ‘entrance cube’ and the adjacent remaining façade walls of the New Sherbrooke Apartments, built in 1905 and integrated into the Desmarais Pavilion after a fair bit of lobbying on the part of heritage activists like Phyllis Lambert.

Top: Safdie's first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel built in 1905.
Top: Safdie’s first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel.

Lamarre initially wanted to have the remnants of the New Sherbrooke razed so that Safdie could have a clean slate and create something modern and monumental. Opposition to this idea came not only from heritage activists like Lambert, but also from then-new mayor Jean Doré, who had promised greater public consultation when it came to major urban redevelopment projects. Ultimately, with the excellent examples of Maison Alcan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture perhaps providing some additional motivation, it was decided the new pavilion would integrate the façade of the New Sherbrooke, despite the additional complications of having to work around supporting beams. The end result was widely praised, a nice balance of the modern and innovative combined with the protection and renewal of the antique; new inserted into old without much disturbance.

In the span of 20 years the MMFA changed its front entrance three times, but with the Desmarais Pavilion, it finally had something people seemed to really like. Attendance began to rise steadily and has been high ever since. For the past two years, the MMFA has held the title of most-visited arts museum in all of Canada.

So who knows, maybe there really was something to be said for putting the entrance at street level and closer to the people. If the museum’s attendance numbers continue to rise, I suspect they may need to open more doors.

The human cost of school segregation in Quebec

It's hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.
It’s hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.

In my estimation and opinion, there’s no better demonstration of Bill 101’s flaws than the current local controversy concerning the project to settle Syrian refugees, and the Quebec government’s outright refusal to allow Anglophone school boards from participating.

The situation is as follows: Quebec is going to receive 7,300 Syrian refugees as part of the Trudeau administration’s larger plan to settle 25,000 refugees in Canada between now and next Spring. The lion’s share of that number will come to live here in Montreal. Roughly a third of that number will be children. The Quebec government has asked the province’s Francophone public school boards, as well as some private schools, to assist in this endeavour.

Quebec’s Anglophone schools are prohibited from assisting in this humanitarian project because, according to the Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) all immigrants to Quebec must place their children in Francophone schools. Full stop.

Portal

In purely practical terms the situation is illogical to the point of absurdity. Montreal’s French public schools are in poor physical shape due to generations of financial mismanagement and several have been closed without replacement. As such, over-crowding is a consistent problem for the city’s largest Francophone school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). Incidentally, the CSDM (for myriad complex and inter-related reasons I won’t get into here) has a generally low overall performance rating and the highest dropout rate in the province. Meanwhile, the city’s Anglophone schools are so underpopulated at least one board is preparing to close several of its schools in an effort to cut overhead costs. Of the city’s five on-island school boards, two have a surplus of space and resources and could easily handle the load. They are the city’s two English-language school boards.

Downtown, Chinatown

Bill 101 was created to protect the French language in Quebec, Canada’s historically majority Francophone province. There are 6 million Native Francophones in Quebec. There are fewer than 600,000 Native Anglophones. Bill 101’s mandate that the children of immigrants to the province be educated uniquely in French was intended to ensure French-language dominance in minority communities, at least in part to compensate for the declining birthrate amongst Francophones at the time the bill was enacted. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem in my view is that the Charter of the French Language is considered sacrosanct by the province’s political elites and can’t adapt to the province’s current linguistic reality.

Concrete Cathedral

What’s particularly absurd here is that situations such as this demonstrate Bill 101 is incapable of adapting to its own success. If there was a legitimate concern Quebec was becoming ‘too English’ in the late 1970s, then Bill 101 has succeeded in eliminating that threat fully and completely. The cultural supremacy of the French language is evident province-wide and especially in the province’s largest city, which is perhaps somewhat paradoxically where the majority of the province’s Anglophones happen to live. The number of Quebec Anglophones educating their children in French, and in turn the level of bilingualism among that population, has been steadily rising for generations. Quebec’s Anglophone school boards have adapted to the linguistic realities of the province and the inherent benefits of multilingualism; the Lester B. Pearson School Board, metropolitan Montreal’s second largest Anglophone board, offers bilingual education as a minimum in all of their schools, with the number of full French immersion programs steadily increasing.

St. George the Dragon Slayer

In other words, not only do Montreal’s Anglophone school boards have a surplus of space, teachers and other resources, they could also theoretically offer full French language education to Syrian refugees as well.

And yet, according to the Couillard Administration, this is impossible.

And on top of all of that, Bill 101 has a humanitarian clause that would allow the government to suspend aspects of the Charter of the French Language on humanitarian grounds. Evidently, the Couillard Administration does not consider the Syrian Civil War a crisis worthy of invoking the clause.

If settling refugees from the worst civil war since the breakup of Yugoslavia isn’t clause-worthy, what is?

What remains unsaid is all that is unfortunate and dehumanizing about Quebec language politics. Though a degree of cultural and linguistic separation predated Bill 101, the cultural segregation of public education in Quebec was solidified after the bill was enacted, and re-affirmed in the wake of the 1995 Referendum when Quebec abolished religious school boards (some of which offered services in both languages) and replaced them with linguistic ones. Though countless jurisdictions worldwide have eliminated segregated schooling and have embraced multilingualism and multi-culturalism, modern Quebec thinks itself to be exceptional, and that even placing Francophone or immigrant children within proximity of Anglophone children would strike a debilitating blow to the linguistic supremacy of French in Quebec. Consider that despite years of over-crowding in the Francophone sector, and simultaneous years of steadily decreasing enrolment in the Anglophone sector, there is but one jointly administered and semi-integrated school in the entire City of Montreal (FACE school is for ‘gifted students’ and has a population of 1400, it has earned a reputation for being one of the best in the city and yet, for reasons quite beyond my comprehension, stands alone).

Harbourfront, Clock Tower & Bridge (empty space)

Despite volumes of scientific, linguistic and cognitive studies that have proven bilingual education works and makes for smarter children, Quebec vigorously opposes any and all opportunities for greater integration. As far as I’m aware there are no public exchange programs offered between linguistic school boards in Montreal, despite increasing numbers of Francophone parents wanting immersion exchange programs for their children, and the increasing number of Anglophone parents enrolling their children in French schools.

Bill 101 has had an overall pernicious effect on the quality of education in Quebec, to say nothing of how it has unfortunately served to perpetuate the cultural divisions of a less evolved era. We cannot be held hostage by antiquated legislation, and Bill 101 impedes this province’s development and social evolution by ever greater degrees with every passing year. It is profoundly discouraging that the Quebec Liberal Party feels it is politically expedient to court the sensibilities of hardcore nationalists and language supremacists by playing hardball on a humanitarian issue. What could they possibly stand to lose by allowing Anglophone school boards an opportunity to help integrate and educate Syrian children?

Think about the message the Couillard Administration is sending the Anglophone population of Quebec, a community that for the most part helped him get elected. He is saying we are either unfit or incapable of integrating immigrants into Quebec society, and that the threat of the English language is so great he’d rather put refugee children into over-crowded under-performing schools than the empty classrooms of the schools that taught Quebec Anglos how to speak French.

Bienvenue au Québec.

Denis Coderre needs to stop spending money on parks

City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin
City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin

Another week, another colossal waste of our municipal tax dollars.

Tuesday’s announcement: $12 million to renovate Place Vauquelin, the public square between City Hall and the Old Courthouse. Among the many exciting new features: a redesigned fountain, heated granite paving stones and, as the Gazette reports ‘the return of the massive Christmas tree for the holiday period.’

Apparently the province will kick in $3.5 million, and it’s supposed to be completed by December of next year.

I won’t hold my breath… the Coderre administration so far is as well known for constantly pitching the inevitable return of the Montreal Expos inasmuch as their total inability to execute urban renovation projects on time or on budget. Coderre routinely over-promises and under-delivers, despite his ‘hands-on’ approach to dismantling poured concrete…

Given his administration’s track record with the Mordecai Richler Gazebo, Peel Street infrastructure repairs, Place du Canada’s multi-year $10-million renovation (not to mention the stalled Viger Square project and the plan to cover over part of the Ville Marie Expressway), we would wise to ask Mayor Coderre to simply stop undertaking any renovations of public spaces, and leave that to whomever his successor might be.

Place Vauquelin
Place Vauquelin

Moreover – $12 million to redo Place Vauquelin is excessive as is, and we’re assuming, with cause, that it will ultimately cost even more. How much can we really afford to spend on city beautification?

Don’t get me wrong – I want to live in a beautiful city with many well-maintained, well-conceived public spaces.

But don’t forget as well – we’re living in a time of austerity, or at least we’re supposed to be. All levels of government have indicated time and again since the Crash of 2008-09 that budget cuts are necessary so as to lower the debt, and that this, along with tax breaks for the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, will help revive our lagging economy.

Our economy is still lagging, and spending municipal tax dollars on city beautification projects is not the kind of economic stimulus we need.

Moreover, the underlying problem is – and always has been – that the people have no apparatus to measure government budgetary efficiency. There is no constant public audit of the spending habits of the City of Montreal, and we accept the city’s cost estimates for various projects without the means to judge whether these costs are reasonable or justifiable in the first place.

Take the Mordecai Richler Gazebo example: the Cadillac of modern gazebos, locally sourced, clocks in at a cost of about $25,000. Such was offered to the city, as well as the cost of construction, pro bono by a local entrepreneur a couple of months back. The mayor declined the offer, stating (weakly I might add) that the Richler Gazebo is a heritage structure and as such the current cost estimate of $592,000 is appropriate. It is already well-known Mordecai Richler never wrote of (or in) the gazebo that will bear his name, and by my estimate about half the total sum is linked to the city commissioning ultimately incomplete studies relating to the history and heritage of the structure. Information that was already publicly available, that any university student could easily have prepared in a report, could have saved this city at least a quarter-million dollars in costs associated with this project, and would have made a compelling argument in favour of simply demolishing it.

Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations
Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations

Another example: the $70 million renovation of part of Parc Jean-Drapeau to facilitate large open-air concerts is not only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, it will likely wind up exclusively benefitting concert promoters. The project is intended both to create a permanent outdoor amphitheatre as well as a new promenade to link Calder’s Man with the Métro station. Additional support facilities, like public toilets and vendor kiosks, would likely be integrated into the plan. But the project won’t be completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017 (in fact it’s due to open in 2019) and the economic benefits to the city are dubious at best. Parc Jean-Drapeau may be part of the city’s ‘tourism sector’, but the nature of these massive outdoor concerts tends to concentrate most of their economic activity to the immediate environs of the concert. Put another way, you’re probably not going to have dinner in the Old Port if you’ve spent your day at Osheaga or Heavy MTL, and this is quite the contrary of the city’s other, more urban music festivals (like the Jazz Fest or Francofolies, which provide direct economic stimulus to the restaurant and hotel industries across a far larger area of the city). What’s particularly onerous about this proposal is that a) there aren’t that many massive touring outdoor concert festivals to begin with, b) the existing space is already adequate given the limited need and c) Parc Jean-Drapeau already has a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and it’s a derelict heritage structure to boot.

But wait, there’s more!

In January of 2014 the management corporations of both Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Quartier international de Montréal put together a project that sought to spend $55 million on a comprehensive renovation of Parc Jean-Drapeau in time for the 375th anniversary. At the time, the plan called for $12.5 million to be spent renovating and rehabilitating Place des Nations, $22.5 million to be spent building a three-kilometre long riverside promenade around both Ile Sainte Helene and Ile Notre Dame, $15 million on a new central promenade connecting the Métro station to Calder’s Man, and only $5 million to improve the open-air concert venue.

So in the span of just under two years the Parc Jean-Drapeau renovation project has increased in cost by more than $15 million and has been downgraded in terms of its scope (Coderre’s recent announcement seems to only include the Calder promenade and the infrastructure for a larger capacity and more permanent outdoor concert venue; there was no mention of Place des Nations or a riverside promenade). In addition, a larger and less expensive project that would have completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary is now only estimated to be completed two years later.

This is not an efficient use of municipal tax dollars, nor is it demonstrative of efficient urban planning.

Place Vauquelin, Viger Square, Place du Canada, Place des Nations and that wretched gazebo all fell into disuse and disrepair because they were not adequately maintained, as administrations from decades ago sought to cut costs for reasons that would be familiar to us today. Montreal has gone through several cycles of concentrated spurts of investment into massive urban beautification projects, most recently to celebrate oddball anniversaries (375th two years from now, 350th back in 1992, but the cycle goes back to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics as well), followed by prolonged periods where maintenance budgets are cut back to the bone. This is an advantageous situation for politicians and private contractors alike – every other mayor can triumphantly proclaim major investments of public funds to demonstrate that, unlike their penny-pinching predecessors, they are truly working to push the city forward, wisely investing public funds in large-format public works programs.

It all has the allure of being good for the economy but it’s all just an illusion.

***

Coderre announced Thursday, from the trade mission he’s on in China (?), that there will be consequences for those responsible for driving the cost of the gazebo renovation project up to $592,000, and also provided the nebulous quotation: “…but trust me, I’m not going to spend too much money on that one.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what precisely that means.

Sabotaging Viger Square

Rule no.1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase drew shady characters, install better lighting.
Rule number 1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase draws shady characters, install better lighting.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

A city builds a park costing x millions of dollars with the intent to rehabilitate a given sector of its urban environment and cover over an exposed highway trench. It hires leading landscape architects and local artists to develop a master plan for the park and then sets about building it. At some point in time between the beginning of construction and the new park’s opening day, the city changes fundamental aspects of the master plan and eliminates others with an aim to lowering overall projected costs, claiming the initial vision developed by the relevant experts was too expensive.

Smart politics: a park gets built and various officials make claims they got the job done under budget.

The park opens and then for the better part of the next thirty some-odd years the city a) stops fully maintaining the park and b) actively sets about removing the park’s infrastructure – benches, garbage bins, picnic tables, fountains, lighting etc.

At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square,  I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.
At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square, I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.

After thirty years the city proposes to demolish the old park and replace it with an entirely new park costing y millions of dollars because the park has become undesirable in the intervening thirty-year period. The city argues the park is considered undesirable because a semi-permanent homeless population now lives there, and that the solution to both the park’s undesirability and (somehow) the homeless camp is to spend public money on building a new park (and not a new homeless shelter).

The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.
The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.

This is the situation with Viger Square; the city of Montreal intends to spend public money building a new park to replace the one they – for lack of a better word – sabotaged. Though Denis Coderre seems to have backed off a bit after considerable public outcry from preservationists, urbanists and the family of one of the people responsible for Viger Square’s design, there’s little doubt in my mind the political intent is fundamentally misdirected. As of this writing the proposal presented at the beginning of June has been rejected, more or less at the eleventh hour, after Coderre decided the project was unsatisfactory. Still, he qualifies the park as ‘a bunker.’

Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.
Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.

Up until quite recently the city’s plan called for the destruction of a significant work of homegrown landscape architecture and sculpture to replace it with something banal and unimaginative at a cost of $28 million. This is your money. It was your money that financed the extant Viger Square as well. The idea that we should pay a considerable sum (think of how many new elementary schools $28 million could build) to tear down a fine example of local landscape architecture and sculpture so that the CHUM can have a nondescript ‘front yard’, and then further to lay the blame for the park’s disfunction on its design, rather than the city’s perpetual disinterest in adequately maintaining it, is simply inexcusable.

Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.
Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.

Without question renovation and rehabilitation is the best way forward for Viger Square, but this doesn’t mean starting from square one. Elements of the original design, such as a café kiosk, or a public market, could be easily integrated into what’s already built, and would serve to draw new interest to the square.

Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.
Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.

But what drives me up the wall is that the simplest and least expensive solution would be not to add anything at all; fixing Viger Square is as straightforward as making the fountains work, re-installing park furniture and picking out the weeds. While there’s considerable debate concerning the application of the ‘broken windows theory’ by law enforcement, the idea that a well-maintained urban environment serves to dissuade petty criminality and attract respectable public usage is fairly sensible. If we don’t want our parks and public spaces to become open air drug markets and homeless camps, then we need to ensure these spaces are well-maintained as a bare minimum. It’s common sense.

Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.
Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.

As is, Viger Square is roughly as well-maintained as Place des Nations, which is to say the grass gets cut and that’s about it. As I mentioned previously, someone had the bright idea to remove all park benches and cover over all the garbage cans. No wonder people don’t go there to relax and read a book. Neither of the large fountains, arguably the main attractions to the square, work, nor do the smaller drinking stations. Weeds grow through the cracks of uneven paving stones, metal drains are broken, a waterfall, long since deactivated, has been painted blue. The only flowers I noticed were planted along the periphery; inside the square there are no gardens to speak of. And the periphery is probably the square’s single greatest problem – cement walls disconnect the squares from the street and provide too sharp a distinction from the surrounding urban environment. Removing these could do a lot to change the park’s fortunes.

There's no good reason for this wall. Removing it would  improve pedestrian access to the square.
There’s no good reason for this wall. Removing it would improve pedestrian access to the square.

But if we want a sustainable solution to Viger Square’s homeless population, then the city should consider acquiring the former CHSLD Jacques-Viger, located in the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute at 970 René Levesque East (a stone’s throw from Viger Square and the CHUM). The building is a threatened heritage site that was originally built as a convent and hospital complex, and was then used as a long-term care facility. This would be an ideal location for the CHUM’s public outreach programs, and could easily serve as a homeless shelter, and that’s ultimately what’s needed to make Viger Square inviting again. Closing the square for renovations will force the displacement of the homeless temporarily, but without better services and more beds to get the homeless off the streets, we’re either just delaying the inevitable return of homeless camps to Viger Square, or are displacing them to another public space.

This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?
This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?

Rehabilitating the square is a good idea, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to look beyond the mere aesthetics of the park, however, and address the core problem of lacking services for the homeless and transient population. This is why we should start thinking of Viger Square and the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute as inter-related urban rehabilitation projects. As inexcusable as bulldozing Viger Square without acknowledging the city’s role in its demise is, it is unconscionable for the city to displace the only people who have made any use of it, leaving them to continue sleeping outside when a usable building stands just up the street.

Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.
Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.