Category Archives: Social commentary

Griffintown co-op to be rebuilt; residents offered accommodation at nearby condo project

Brickfields Conceptual Rendering
Brickfields Conceptual Rendering

Some late breaking good news.

It appears the now homeless former residents of the Saint Anne housing co-op in Griffintown have caught a break after several days of devastating news.

To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.

The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the co-op’s insurer has insisted the incident was a ‘landslide’ and thus an act of god. They refused to compensate for the demolition. The condo developer has also indicated they’re not responsible either.

So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.

Today’s news is that three levels of government are going to collaborate in re-building the demolished homes, and that the nearby Bassins du Havre will provide temporary housing for the displaced, though details have yet to be worked out.

Brickfields Concept Rendering - Mountain Street Profile
Brickfields Concept Rendering – Mountain Street Profile

I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed façade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.

Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montréal re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”

He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.

So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.

Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.

Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block - Google Street View, May 2015
Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block – Google Street View, May 2015

There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.

Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.

That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.

Maybe it will become a restaurant…

Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.

The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.

Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.

While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.

I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.

Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.

What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.

Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.

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.

Children’s Hospital Field at Cabot Square®

Ceci n'est pas une stade de baseball...
Ceci n’est pas une stade de baseball…

Urban development news of the day: the former Montreal Children’s Hospital building at Cabot Square has been sold to real estate developer Luc Poirier for an undisclosed sum. The MUHC’s asking price, as reported a few months back, was about $45 million, though neither Poirier or the MUHC would confirm the value of the transaction (which is odd given that we’re talking about a public building and everyone’s talking a good game these days about transparency… but I digress).

Luc Poirier also won’t specify exactly what he has in mind for the site, though he hinted strongly at a baseball stadium. Apparently he has an important meeting this week with someone of significance vis-a-vis the much bandied about plan to return professional baseball to the city.

Now before we get ahead of ourselves, nothing is set in stone. The deal won’t be official for another three months, at which time the public will be told how much the hospital sold for. Poirier has no specific plan for the site. Inasmuch as he indicated he believes it’s an ideal site for a downtown ballpark, he remains open to myriad other potential uses. He offered condos, offices or a seniors residence as possibilities. That being said, his plan involves demolishing the six buildings that comprise the hospital complex, as he believes the buildings are insufficient as is for housing.

As to a professional baseball stadium, Poirier was very candid in stating a new ballpark would require not only demolishing the hospital buildings, but further would require expropriating at least some of the streets and public spaces (i.e. the newly renovated Cabot Square and Place Hector-Toe-Blake and Place Henri-Dunant) that surround the hospital complex.

Ergo, not only does the public lose institutional space in the form of a hospital, but further loses three parks. Cabot Square just received a $6.3 million renovation, paid for by the city. If Poirier’s plan for a baseball stadium gets the green light, it would not only waste that sum but further require extensive city involvement, consuming public tax dollars for a private interest.

Assume the new ballpark would occupy the grounds of the former Children’s Hospital, the three aforementioned parks and public spaces, as well as Sussex, Hope, Tupper and Lambert Closse streets. The city would have to plan for the loss of those side streets, not to mention re-locate the bus terminus co-located at Cabot Square. If you thought there wasn’t enough parking in downtown Montreal to begin with, imagine the loss of those parking on those streets compounding additional parking requirements on game days.

Even if Poirier plans for an extensive excavation of the land to build a massive underground parking garage to compensate for parking demands, building a ballpark on this site will still require additional roadwork on Atwater, Sainte-Catherine and René-Lévesque to accommodate higher traffic loads. I can’t imagine how the city could this and also somehow make Sainte-Catherine more pedestrian friendly simultaneously.

A major advantage of course would be that this location would provide immediate access to Atwater Métro station, which would in all likelihood help mitigate traffic congestion (though by no means would it eliminate it). Atwater is an ideal Métro station because it was designed from the outset as a high-capacity inter-modal transit station (Bus/Métro) adjacent to a major sporting and performance venue (the Forum). But we could count on congestion there too. If the exhibition games at the Olympic Stadium over the past two years were any indication, the Green Line would slow down considerably on game days (though this would be mitigated at least in part with people opting to disembark either at Lionel-Groulx or Guy-Concordia). All told, it’s not a bad location strictly in terms in terms of access to public transit infrastructure.

But the project’s various public costs can’t be overlooked simply because the stadium will be Métro station adjacent.

My major concern is the immediate effect a stadium will have on residential and retail rents in the Shaughnessy Village area. My fear is that commercial rents will rise very quickly, forcing out small businesses and replacing them with theme restaurants, high-capacity sports bars (à la Sergakis) and tacky souvenir stands. Residential rents will also rise, eventually leading property owners to convert their properties into condominium towers, which in turn would likely force out many residents.

***

The latest word is that the city is not keen on Mr. Poirier’s plan.

Richard Bergeron, formerly the leader of Projet Montréal and now Coderre’s right-hand man on all aspects of downtown redevelopment, said he’s not in favour and that the city is not ready to sacrifice public spaces and streets for a ballpark.

Bergeron also noted that the Children’s Hospital site, though promoted by Ernst & Young in their feasibility study, is not the first choice for the Montreal Baseball Project, which in turn prefers the Peel Basin.

Bergeron also stated that yet another site had been pitched to City Hall – that of Maison Radio-Canada’s extensive parking lot. Bergeron suggested the western lot, which runs between René Lévesque Boulevard and the Ville Marie Expressway along Wolfe. The eastern lot is much larger, but might not be as feasible simply as a result of congestion on Papineau (police operate the traffic lights manually on much of Papineau throughout the day).

All that being said, this proposal makes much more sense to me. For one, no expropriations of public space nor demolitions of any heritage structures; the lots currently constitute empty space. A ballpark at this location would still require excavations and a significant underground parking facility, but wouldn’t ‘spill over’ into the surrounding streets such as it would over at the Children’s. Even though this would also be a small-sized ballpark, there could be some integration with Maison Radio-Canada, such as incorporating seating atop the complex’s westernmost studios, if extra space is required.

Other benefits of this location: adjacent to established entertainment districts (i.e. Gay Village, Old Montreal) though not immediately next door. Four Métro stations within a five minute walk, including the Berri-UQAM, not to mention highway and bridge access. Fringe benefits: CBC/Radio-Canada and Molson gets free advertising.

All that being said, I’m anxious to find out who Mr. Poirier was supposed to meet with and what those discussions lead to.

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.

Flushgate: where do we go from here?

Montreal's massive east-end water treatment plant
Montreal’s massive east-end water treatment plant

#flushgate…

You can be forgiven for finding this whole affair rather annoying, though I will happily point out we’ve collectively never given as much of a shit about sewerage and sewage treatment as we do right now. Flushgate, as it’s come to be known, is single-handedly responsible for teaching Montrealers what the ‘Southwest Interceptor’ is, not to mention generating a very strong public reaction against the idea of dumping waste into the river.

So bully for us; we’ve collectively learned something interesting about urban planning (a notoriously ‘unsexy’ topic as the pundits will tell you) and have demonstrated, unequivocally, that we’re keen to de-pollute the waterways around the island. It’s Montreal’s dirty little secret – we’re generally of the mind the waterways around our island have been so terribly polluted by years of lax regulations and waterfront heavy industrial activity that we’ve shit the bed, so to speak, and ruined any chance at being able to go for a swim come summertime. Isn’t this why we don’t have any beaches…?

To recap the situation for anyone unaware: the City of Montreal wants to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage directly into the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps ‘want’ is the wrong word – the city argues it’s a necessity. But the city lacks the ‘sovereignty’ (if you will) to just up and do it, and so it consulted with both the provincial and federal governments.

The general consensus among environmental scientists is that, while it’s generally speaking not a good idea to dump raw sewage directly into the water supply (and we get nearly all of our drinking water from the river), Montreal lacks the infrastructure to do anything else given it needs to empty a sewage collector in order to execute necessary infrastructure work as part of the Bonaventure Expressway renovation project.

Three days before the federal election, then Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a ministerial order cancelling the planned dump, so that an independent environmental assessment could be conducted to determine what if any effects this might have on fish reproduction around the island and downstream (and by the way, there’s nothing like being on verge of losing a federal election to get a chain-smoking Tory do-nothing cabinet member to suddenly take her job very seriously, but I digress). And so, even though Montreal’s assessment was that it was a necessary evil that wouldn’t ultimately do much harm to the local environment (and the provincial environment ministry agreed with that assessment), we nonetheless had to wait for Ottawa to confirm what was already known.

And as of the day of this writing Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has given Montreal a conditional green light to dump the waste. The conditions are principally that Montreal develop a contingency plan and increases both the quantity and quality of its environmental monitoring during the dump. The dump is set to commence in the evening of November 10th 2015.

An alternative solution, proposed by the environmental group Fondation rivières, argues that tanker ships should transport the waste and, conceivably dump it out in the Atlantic, where the waste would dissipate over a far larger area. I can’t imagine this could be done cheaply, and I don’t think there’s any port infrastructure designed to pump sewage onto tanker ships (because why?).

The waste, by the way, is mostly human in origin, and not industrial (which, as far as I know, is treated differently). So if the ‘tanker option’ were explored, someone would have unenviable job of cleaning out several tanker ships’ worth of human waste residue post-dump.

The Environment Canada report issued on November 6th indicated that if the dump takes place before the annual winter freezing of the river, then it will likely not have any particularly deleterious effect on local fish reproduction. Also, given the strength of the current, the waste likely won’t be concentrated at our island’s shoreline, but will be dispersed downstream.

Again, it’s far from ideal, but it won’t be an ecological disaster. Aside from these rare instances of raw sewage dumps (it’s happened twice before in the last 12 years), Montreal normally treats its sewage, and is one of the few major North American cities to do so. And of the wastewater treatment engineers who have been consulted (or otherwise have commented) on this issue, it seems that the immense volume of the Saint Lawrence River, in addition to the speed of the current, will pretty much ensure the waste water is diluted to the point it will be harmless. Dilution, as they say, is the solution.

Though Environment Canada favours the dump as a necessary evil, they also want the city to start collecting hard data so that the impact can be fully measured. Apparently this was not already the case, something I find rather alarming. Perhaps I’m naive, but I assumed the city would have already been conducting environmental assessments of this type. Environment Canada also indicated that, if the dump is delayed and the infrastructure work is put off, it may lead to more dumps at less opportune times in the future as a result of a system rupture that would be very difficult to contain.

This is the expert opinion on the matter.

The question is, where do we go from here, and what can we do to ensure we’re not in this situation again in the future?

The problem is that our municipal administration all too often seems to wait until the last minute to even attempt solving a problem, and further never seems to propose long-term, forward-thinking solutions to long-standing environment concerns. If sewage collectors are old and there’s concern they will break, we may need to do more than just emergency repairs whenever a problem develops. Perhaps we need to build new collectors. If our sewage treatment plant is incapable of fully treating sewage after a heavy rainstorm, or if it lacks the capacity to handle an increased volume from time to time, shouldn’t we consider enlarging the existing treatment facility, or building a new one altogether? And if our existing treatment facilities aren’t sophisticated enough to break down the chemicals found in human waste – the pharmaceutical residue we know is wreaking havoc on fish reproduction – then isn’t it time to invest in new technologies and new systems to better treat our waste?

And do we really have to wait for the province or federal government to intervene? Shouldn’t we be able to judge the local situation by ourselves? Shouldn’t we have strong local leadership on issues of importance to the local population?

Montreal may have North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant (third largest in the world, apparently), but it has only ever offered a basic level of treatment, whereas other cities with smaller treatment plants can do a better job of truly purifying wastewater. Having a large capacity system is certainly a step in the right direction, now we need to invest in upgrades and improvements. It isn’t an appealing topic of conversation and politically-speaking is basically valueless – no one remembers the mayor who poured public money into improving the sewerage system, it seems.

But Denis Coderre should take note: whereas not everyone in our city will benefit from a professional baseball team (or even be able to afford the tickets), everyone – literally everyone in Montreal shits at least once a day, and it’s toxic human shit that’s both closed all of our beaches and made fishing strictly ‘catch and release’.

A city on an island should provide access to a clean shore and waterways for the benefit of all citizens.

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.