Category Archives: Economic commentary

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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 Musée – date 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.

Port of Call, Montreal

Days after Montrealers went home salivating at the thought of a proposed new trans-regional light rail system, the Port of Montreal, in conjunction with the municipal and provincial government, announced a $78 million renovation of the Alexandra Quay and Iberville Passenger Terminal, and an opportunity for citizens to ‘reconnect’ with the river.

The renovation and improvement project is expected to be completed in time for the 2017 cruise season, and so will result in the closure of the quay and terminal this summer. Cruise ships will instead dock east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, with shuttle buses ferrying passengers into the splashy tourism zone delineated by antique buildings harbour-side.

You might be wondering whether it’s wise to spend $78 million building a new passenger terminal for an antiquated method of high-volume transport, but alas it seems a fair number of people do indeed access Montreal via the Old Port, and up until now they’ve been welcomed by an outdated, if not dilapidated passenger terminal.

And just how may people are we talking about?

The answer is perhaps unexpectedly high: 91,000 people last year, twice as many as in 2011. The Port Authority has been actively courting cruise lines and it seems like their work is paying off. If everything goes according to plan, annual traffic is expected to reach 120,000 passengers by 2025, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But of course this isn’t really a ‘transport infrastructure project’ in the same vein as the proposed ‘réseau éléctrique métropolitain’ (REM), as it will primarily benefit people who have the luxury of time and money to cruise up the Saint Lawrence. Also worth noting, some of these ships are of the casino-cruise variety. Whereas the CDPQ’s REM system still needs Ottawa and Quebec City to provide $2.5 billion in combined funding, this project has the green light with money already apparently ready to go.

So yes, public money will be spent to support private businesses and the wealthy of our society.

That being said, the most historic section of the city is largely preserved thanks to the tourism industry; so updating the passenger terminal isn’t just good for the tourism-driven businesses of Old Montreal, but the area’s physical vitality as well.

And that’s something we all ultimately benefit from; for better or for worse tourism helps protect our architectural heritage. Moreover, it should be noted that the new configuration of the quay will incorporate significant public spaces, including a green roof atop the terminal. Again, everyone gets to benefit from this as well. It’s in the port and city’s interest to encourage public use of what would otherwise be a wholly private affair.

Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay - Provencher Roy
Conceptual rendering of Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay – Provencher Roy

And perhaps that’s leading to a more novel use of the terminal: an important part of Provencher Roy’s plan involves ‘lowering’ quay, and this may make the terminal accessible to smaller vessels, like passenger ferries (or dare I say it, perhaps some kind of Lachine Canal hydro bus).

So given the city’s only investing $15 million out of the total project cost, on first impression it seems like the public will at least gain access to additional public spaces, and an attractive and interactive new public space.

Coderre, with typical ringmaster showmanship, boasted to the Gazette that ‘it was an easy decision’ to allocate $15 million in municipal funds to the project, given the ‘major economic impact’ a shiny-new cruise ship terminal will provide the city.

Hard numbers to prove that point might be hard to come by, but what we have (at least as far as cruise ship terminals go) is in pretty rough shape and Provencher Roy’s design is both intriguing and seems to have the public in mind. The new passenger terminal will be modern and designed to permit two ships to dock simultaneously. Passengers will disembark nearer to ground level, traffic will be streamlined, and the terminal located closer to Old Montreal. Public spaces will include the water’s edge park at the end of the pier, in addition to the terminal’s year-round green roof, and possibly an observation tower as well.

I have my doubts renovating the passenger terminal will have a ‘major’ impact on the economy of Montreal in the broad sense, but we can let Denis boast. It looks like a lot of bang for a reasonable amount of buck, and at the end of the day a port city that’s also a major tourist destination should have a proper passenger terminal. That we get more public space to boot isn’t half bad.

I suppose I’m a touch biased. A long time ago I had a weird summer job processing passengers during cruise season. The terminal is well past its prime. I remember the first day I worked at the Iberville Terminal thinking that this must be the first year in decades that any passenger ship had docked in the port. For a moment I was convinced the terminal had only recently been reactivated, as all the workspaces, computers, scanners, tables (etc ad infinitum) we used had been brought in on wheeled carts and set up, apparently, just for this one occasion. I later discovered it was cheaper to rent the requisite equipment and drive it to the docks rather than have to maintain a full-time passenger terminal, considering how few ships docked here at the time. Not having brought a lunch that day, I was quite dismayed to discover the café at the far end of the terminal had evidently not been opened in many years; a thick layer of dust coated the ashtrays left out on the counter.

To say the least, it was odd working there. A quick panic of activity and crowds before the whole place fell back into its more natural state of slow urban decay.

I rather liked it. It seemed fantastically anachronistic, and yet it also felt like I was carrying on in some long tradition of Montreal dock workers too. Naive teenaged romanticism aside, what’s clear enough is the sorry state of the Iberville Terminal and Alexandra Quay as is. It’s virtually a no man’s land throughout most of the year, and there’s nothing really to do there. The quay and terminal complex’s last major renovation dates back fifty years to Expo 67, perhaps ironically at a period in time in which sea travel was becoming, for the masses, quite obsolete. I would say the last time it got a fresh coat of paint may be as long as 24 years ago, when the city celebrated its 350th anniversary.

I quite like the pier as it is because, for the most part, outside of the cruise season it’s essentially abandoned. There’s an ostensibly off-limits look-out at the end of it from which a few tattered flags remain beating against the wind, but other than that it’s one of those places I go in the city to get away from it all and enjoy a moment of silence surrounded by cacophonous city.

I suppose I’ll trek out one more time to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of calm in the midst of so much activity. If this project is completed as conceived, I’ll be glad to soon share this space…

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism*

Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington
Conceptual rendering of planned LRT station, possibly at Bridge and Wellington

Michael Sabia can’t catch a break.

First he faced opposition for even being considered for the role of CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) back in 2009. It was quickly pointed out that an English-speaking Canadian, born in Hamilton, would become the head of the Caisse, the institutional investor that manages a portfolio of public and para-public pensions in Quebec, arguably one of the province’s greatest economic accomplishments. Seven years ago, former premier Bernard Landry was concerned Sabia would bring in unwanted “Canadian national culture” (whatever that means) and poison the well of the cornerstone of Québec, Inc.

And how!

Under Sabia’s leadership, the Caisse has grown considerably since losing $40 billion in 2008. At the beginning of this year, it managed net assets of $248 billion.

Now the Caisse’s leader wants to invest in public transit development in Montreal, proposing the single largest transit development project since the first iteration of the Métro was built fifty years ago, not to mention the prospect of 7,500 jobs created over the next four years. If everything works out, within four years a vast geographic area within Greater Montreal will have access to a twenty-nine station mass transit system connecting the urban core with Brossard, Deux-Montagnes, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and the airport.

And we’ll likely be riding in automated trains built by Bombardier.

Nonetheless, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, among others, is concerned the new system ignores the central and eastern parts of the city. The Parti Québécois leader undoubtedly wants some kind of commitment to the long-planned Blue Line extension towards Anjou, as the PQ got the ball rolling on studies for this long-planned extension with much fanfare back in 2012.

But let’s be real for a moment: all of Greater Montreal has been neglected vis-a-vis public transit development for quite some time, and it’s entirely a consequence of the unending public transit ping-pong match between competing parties and levels of government. The Caisse’s plan is ambitious, but right now is no more real than the Blue Line, the Azur (still haven’t rid it despite near daily Orange Line use… it’s a ghost) or a catapult to the Moon.

It’s completely unreasonable to suppose any part of the much-discussed light rail system proposed Friday is in any way, shape or form politically-motivated.

If anything, the proposed light rail system seems motivated chiefly by keeping costs comparatively low. The plan, if realized, will use existing, automated technology (likely the Bombardier Innovia Metro design) on track largely already owned by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport. The provincial public pension investor has proposed a five and half billion dollar public transit expansion project, the single most audacious plan seen in Montreal in fifty years, and is volunteering $3 billion to kickstart the program.

And this is precisely what we want the CDPQ to do: invest our pensions in necessary mega-projects that will create local jobs, employ local expertise, and are based on prior recent successes so as to guarantee a strong return on investment. The CDPQ is one of the financiers of Vancouver’s Canada Line, a light rail line that connects the city’s downtown with Richmond and the airport, opened in time for the 2010 Winter Games.

So they’ve done this before and it works, and Sabia’s recent success at the helm of the CDPQ gives us reason to be hopeful this proposal will succeed.

If the full version of the project is realized by 2020, Michael Sabia and the Caisse will have managed to out-do the comparative light-speed pace of the construction of the first iteration of the Métro, and a vast swath of Greater Montreal could be served by this system within four years.

Though the proposal does not include branches towards the eastern sectors of the metropolitan city, the sheer number of people this system could conceivably serve would be so great there would ultimately be a net benefit to all sectors of the metro region by virtue of fewer cars on our roadways and highways on a day to day basis.

Crucially, given the expected use of existing railway infrastructure, it’s entirely conceivable this system could be expanded to all corners of Greater Montreal. Moreover, light rail systems (such as this one) can share the track with larger heavy rail, such as the AMT’s current commuter train network. Either the Caisse’s LRT will gradually replace the AMT network, or they’ll share the track and compliment one another.

Either way, if this system is fully realized, we all get to breathe a little easier, and congestion becomes less of a problem.

The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines
The new LRT system route and the LRT combined with Métro and AMT commuter rail lines

But herein lies the rub: though the CDPQ’s plan is ambitious and headed in the right direction (both in terms of how it will be financed and what parts of the city it will connect), it needs to be integrated into the rest of the city’s mass transit systems from the get-go.

I was very happy to see that the Caisse has indicated a desire to do so in that they listed two potential stations (Edouard-Montpetit and McGill) that would allow the light rail system to connect directly to the Blue and Green lines of the Métro. This not only makes the LRT system more useful and accessible generally-speaking, it would also permit the Blue Line to connect more or less directly to the urban core, long the line’s major handicap.

I’ve always been in favour of extending the Blue Line to Anjou if the line is first connected, by means of the Mount Royal Tunnel, to the city centre, as this will help get that line’s ridership up to where it ought to be. As it is, it’s the least used line in the Métro network. There’s no sense extending it if the root cause of its underperformance isn’t addressed first.

So if I could make a very strong suggestion to the Caisse it is this: work with the STM and AMT and ensure the whole plan illustrated above is realized as the first phase, and seek the greatest possible degree of integration with the extant Métro and commuter rail network. In this way, and perhaps only this way, will they quickly recoup their investment and lay the foundation for the Blue Line’s eventual extension.

I really can’t imagine it working out in any other way.

I’m oddly hopeful politics will not rear its ugly head and screw up this plan, as I’m convinced we can’t afford to wait much longer and that it would ultimately prove exceptionally useful in accomplishing what should be a clear goal for our city: get cars off the road and increase daily mass transit system usage. I find the Caisse’s plan very encouraging, despite my near endemic cynicism and the ample proof we’re not very good getting things built or delivered on-time.

But who knows, maybe things change.

Or maybe once in a while it takes an outsider to get us back on track.

Initially I wanted to write about how this proposed system will work in the broader scheme of things, what this might mean for homeowners living in the expansive corridor to be served by this light rail system, and what kind of organizational response is needed to provide a truly world-class mass transit system at large. But given that we’re already 1300 words in, that’ll have to wait for another time.

*One of former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s more colourful quotes. Agnew was the second and most recent VP to resign from office, and so far the only to do so as a result of criminal charges, these including: extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy, all while he was holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland and Vice-President. Journalist and historian Gary Willis described Agnew as “No man ever came to market with less seductive goods, and no man ever got a better price for what he had to offer.”

Tourisme Montréal actively soliciting Ripley’s to build aquarium, believe it or not.

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - photo credit to B+H Architects
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – photo credit to B+H Architects

A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.

As Réjean Bourdeau points out, it’s the second time in fifteen years that the Pattison Group has been approached to build an aquarium here in Montreal. The last attempt was made by the Société du Vieux-Port, which has been conducting surveys and public consultations of late on how to make the Old Port more inviting and interesting.

Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.

What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).

Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966
Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966

That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.

The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.

I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.

Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.

That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.

And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.

I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.

At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.

And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.

We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.

Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…

It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.

Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”

As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.

My guess is it’s likely the former.

Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.

Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.

Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.

So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.

So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?

The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.

It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?

And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.

Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).

The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s

What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.

So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?

It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.

Contact:

Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.