Category Archives: Unrealized development projects

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.

Rethinking Viger Square’s Rehabilitation

Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.
Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.

This is a bit late, but there’s a petition circulating I urge you to sign. We need to save Viger Square for demolition, as the city now intends to do.

In point form, here’s why:

1. Viger Square’s reputation isn’t reason enough to demolish it.

2. Demolishing the existing square doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

3. It doesn’t make any sense to spend $28 million to demolish the square and build a new public space when the existing square could be rehabilitated at a lower cost.

4. Rehabilitating the square is an opportunity to fully realize the original artistic vision of three prominent Quebec artists.

5. Doing so would likely eliminate all the factors that make Viger Square so generally undesirable to all but the homeless.

6. Improving sight-lines across the park by eliminating the outer walls of parts of the square, in addition to better general upkeep and better lighting is a subtler way of improving security and making the area more inviting. The original plan also called for permanent park fixtures, such as a café and public market.

7. Once the CHUM superhospital opens there will be a significant increase in the number of people living and working in the area, and the only reason why Viger Square became ‘homeless park’ in the first place was as a result of poor city planning resulting in local depopulation. In terms of serving as an important urban focal point, the new hospital will be as important as Gare Viger was a century ago.

8. To my knowledge, there’s an abandoned former convent up on René-Levesque which could be used as a large homeless shelter (it’s outlined in red in the photo above). Viger Square and Berri Square have the same problem – semi-permanent homeless populations that give both spaces poor reputations. Clearly what’s needed most is additional shelter space and social workers to help get these people off the streets, not an entirely new (but ultimately less interesting) public space.

For more information on what was originally intended, check out this video featuring the voice of UQAM architecture professor Marie-Dina Salvione:

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Viger Square, it’s a bit of a local anomaly.

It’s underused public green space, a park many try to avoid in a city that generally values (and uses) its public spaces.

It’s also a radical re-thinking of landscape design, and the creative effort of three noted Quebec artists. That it has developed a poor reputation as a result of being associated with homelessness and drug use is not reason enough to destroy it: reputations can be rehabilitated.

The Coderre administration’s plan to spend $28 million to demolish Charles Daudelin’s Agora is shortsighted and unnecessary. Worse, it neglects the sad fact that the square was never completed to the original design.

Had it been, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Viger Square is a historic public green space; it’s been used as such since the mid-19th century, with its present boundaries taking shape in 1892. At the turn of the 20th century two major institutions took up positions on either side of the square – the École des hautes études commerciales on the Viger side (today a provincial archives building) and Place Viger (Canadian Pacific’s eastern Montreal passenger station and hotel, today a mixed-used residential, commercial and retail space) on the Saint Antoine side. At the time the area would have been bustling with activity, its immediate surroundings supporting a growing French Canadian middle and upper-middle class community.

Place Viger as it appeared in 1900
Place Viger as it appeared in 1900

The area’s high point occurred during the period 1898 (when the station/hotel opened) to 1935 (when the hotel closed) as Place Viger interacted closely with the park across the street, the hotel inviting guests to stroll ‘it’s vast gardens’. The train station would close in 1951 and the building was then sold to the City of Montreal to be used as office space. What destroyed the neighbourhood, so to speak, was the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the early 1970s. For whatever reason the decision was made to sacrifice the entirety of the park for the highway trench and then to build a new, modern, park atop the exposed trench.

This work was started in the late-1970s and completed in the mid-1980s. Modern Viger Square was designed as a public square in three distinct parts, set atop the highway to reclaim lost space. Have a look at Kate McDonnell’s photos of the site today.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Montreal never got the public space envisioned by Charles Daudelin, Claude Théberge and Peter Gnass.

The idea they came up with was to create an urban oasis, a place of refuge in the heart of the city. The original design included permanent fixtures, like a café and a small public market, as well as a comprehensive lighting scheme, and vegetation chosen to best interact with largely concrete structure.

None of this was ever implemented. The end result was perceived as cold and uninviting. Daudelin’s Mastodo fountain (in the western square) broke after a few months and never seems to have been repaired. Claude Théberges’ Forces fountain (in the central square) hasn’t been turned on in years. In the late 1980s the redesigned Viger Square began to attract a semi-permanent homeless population, one which exists to this day (the great irony being that the square would indeed serve as a refuge, albeit in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of way for the homeless).

For too many years Viger Square was the public space the city tried its best to forget about, but now that the CHUM superhospital is taking final form and the surrounding land values have increased there’s increased interest to invest in city beautification projects in this specific area. I suppose the city is trying to avoid the embarrassment of an opening-day ceremony taking place next to the city’s premier homeless camp…

Thus, the Coderre administration has come up with a plan to knock down Agora (the collection of raised concrete ‘boxes’) and radically transform the Daudelin and Théberge sections of Viger Square. Conceptual renderings of the proposed new space can be seen here.

This is a terrible idea.

For one the new design is completely uninspired. Whereas Daudelin, Théberge and Gnass came up with an original (though not fully realized) idea for an urban sanctuary, the proposed redesign is flat, banal and too open. Though the city intends to keep the Mastodo sculpture, it looks like it will be moved and decontextualized. As originally conceived, the Mastodo fountain arrangement was supposed to fill a channel with water, collecting in a pond adjacent to a ‘water wall’. In a similar vein, the Forces fountain was to demonstrate water ‘breaking’ through several granite pillars. It’s all quite avant-garde for landscape design, but because the city doesn’t want the homeless bathing in public fountains none of us get a chance to appreciate it as originally conceived.

And this is what brings us back to square one – bulldozing Viger Square and transforming it will make it a less desirable location for local homeless, but it does nothing to solve the homeless problem.

Nine Reasons Why the Métro Blue Line Won’t be Extended Above Ground

Ceci n'est pas une système de tram
Ceci n’est pas une système de tram

Call it a problem of thinking aloud…

Last Wednesday Denis Coderre was musing about public transit expansion and improvement when he let slip that he thought it might be possible for the Blue Line’s projected expansion to be moved outdoors.

His argument was simple – the average cost of at-grade light rail is roughly a quarter of what it would cost to extend the Métro underground.

And this is true, to a point.

However, there are several reasons why the Métro cannot be expanded outdoors, which I’ve listed here:

1. Our Métro trains aren’t designed to be used outside. This is true of the existing Métro trains as well as the new Azur trains (production of which has been delayed six months because the automated control software doesn’t work – the trainsets were ordered in 2010); ergo, if the Blue Line were extended above ground, the line would require an entirely new set of trains designed with outdoor operations in mind.

2. It’s because the system is ‘sealed off’ from the elements that we’ve been able to get so much service out of our Métro trains. The oldest trains have been in service since 1966. They would not have lasted nearly as long had they had to contend with snow, slush, corrosive road salt etc. (not to mention the wear and tear on the exposed tracks and the problems inherent with using an electrified third rail at ground level). We want the Azurs to be inservice even longer than the MR-63s and MR-73s – exposing them to the elements they weren’t designed to encounter will likely result in a shorter operational lifespan.

3. Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely new train be created to operate both inside tunnels and above ground, and this hypothetical train could operate exclusively on the Blue Line. This would be expensive. It would also prevent any future ‘interlining’ initiatives (wherein trains could hypothetically switch lines while in operation, offering more potential routes) and eliminate an efficient aspect of the Métro’s original design. If the whole reason behind considering the above ground extension option is cost effectiveness and efficiency, this is the wrong way to go about it.

4. Subterranean mass transit systems are subterranean for a reason. Usually, the presence of buildings above ground is the chief motivating factor for burrowing underneath. This is pretty elementary. It’s also why subway systems are typically found in the most densely populated parts of the city. So we need to ask ourselves – where is this above ground extension supposed to go? The AMT’s plan has been to follow Jean Talon Boulevard east from Saint-Michel station towards a likely terminus at the junction of highways 40 and 25 at the Galleries d’Anjou. If it’s too expensive to tunnel underground, how expensive will it be to expropriate the land necessary for a new above ground rail line?

5. Alternatively, if the above ground extension were to be simply a tram line running on Jean Talon Boulevard, why go to the trouble of integrating it into the Métro system? Call it a tram and have people transfer onto the Métro at Saint-Michel. Again, if keeping costs down is the ultimate goal, creating a Métro line that requires its own trains and operates both as a subway and a tram is not the way to go about it. It would require a substantial investment in new technology and infrastructure, and the Blue Line simply doesn’t generate enough traffic to merit it. The Blue Line is underused – it is the only Métro line to use six car trains rather than the standard nine car trains.

6. Trams are fundamentally different from the Métro and have different service expectations. Our Métro trains don’t have to contend with traffic, their routing and speed is centrally controlled by a computer. Unless the tram line is grade separated or otherwise runs on an express right of way, it would have to deal with traffic congestion on the street it runs on. Automated controls wouldn’t work with half the line having to deal with street traffic. Again, this would be an expensive alternative to what’s already assumed to be too expensive.

7. The mayor is right to be thinking with an eye to efficiency. Yes, tunnels are expensive and yes, light rail systems offer an efficient alternative. There’s considerable interest in developing a mass transit system based on standard gauge railways – which Montreal has in excess – and, based on the most recent news, will be building more of. Light rail’s main advantage is that it uses the same tracks used by heavy rail – freight, passenger and commuter – but can also be integrated into the existing roadway network. The other advantage is that a hypothetical light rail system would likely be electrically powered by overhead wires, the same method currently favoured by the AMT for its commuter rail lines. But integrating light rail with our existing Métro system would likely be a step too far, presenting a multitude of new costs. For this reason we should be prioritizing tram development over the Blue Line extension generally speaking.

8. But this doesn’t mean we should rule out the Métro altogether. If the province has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on the Métro, spend it on system improvement first. Before expanding, we need to assess what we have and bring it up to the highest possible standard. If there are deficiencies in the current system design, fix those defects first. Consider how few of our Métro stations are universally accessible. Or the complete and total lack of public washrooms. And let’s face it – some of our stations are downright ugly and most are aesthetically dated. Renovating and improving what we have could help encourage greater use and fundamentally, this ought to be our primary concern. Moreover, is the Blue Line the most deserving and requiring of expansion? Wouldn’t it be more effective and useful to close the Orange Line loop instead? Or to improve the tracks so as to permit line-switching, in turn allowing for express Métro trains?

Isometric view of Edouard-Montpetit Métro station's original design

9. And if the money is to be spent specifically on the Blue Line, wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the line’s usefulness? One of the reasons I suspect is responsible for the generally lower usage rate and smaller trains on the Blue Line is that it doesn’t connect directly to the downtown core, but rather serves to move people to either side of the Orange Line. Originally, the Blue Line was supposed to be connected to the Mount Royal Tunnel at Edouard-Montpetit station, permitting Métro users to transfer onto commuter trains underground for the five minute trip to Gare Centrale. If there was ever an improvement to make, this is it. It would give the Blue Line an entirely new raison-d’etre, cut down on passenger congestion on the Orange Line and Parc and Cote-des-Neiges bus corridors. Most importantly, it would provide an excellent impetus to Blue Line expansion in both directions, given that the Métro primarily serves to move citizens between the urban first ring residential neighbourhoods and the Central Business District.

Now, all that said, a few things to consider. The Blue Line extension project was a PQ initiative and so far all it is is a feasibility study whose results are due later on this year. The AMT is not actively planning a new Métro Line, just doing a study on an extension project that dates back to the mid-1980s. I’m not sure what it is they’re studying for the umpteenth time. The current Liberal government is not actively pursuing the Blue Line project – the official line is ‘wait for the feasibility study’.

Light rail seems to have a bright future in our city – based on the recent ‘agreement in principle’ with the Caisse de Dépot et Placement concerning infrastructure project financing, rail systems will be prioritized in the near term (such as the Train de l’Ouest) and light rail will hopefully be integrated into the new Champlain Bridge and airport express projects. Light rail is an attractive and generally uncomplicated option.

So let’s not re-invent the wheel trying to integrate outdoor rail systems with a very unique subway.

I don’t think we can handle any more feasibility studies.

A few things every Montrealer ought to know about Mirabel International Airport {Updated – May 2014}

Recent news is that the unelected government agency responsible for Montreal’s airports will seek to demolish the iconic main terminal of Mirabel International Airport, effectively shutting the door on ever using it again. The terminal has been abandoned, but maintained, since passenger flights ceased using the airport in 2004, and apparently this costs somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million annually.

I’m of the mind this is a colossal mistake and I’ve modified a previously published article to point out why. Enjoy.

1. We still need it.

Montréal is a major international tourism destination in addition to being a key port of entry for immigrants and refugees. Our city is growing as is interest in our city, this is undeniable. As we stimulate our development and continue on our path to becoming a truly global city, we will require an airport that can handle a steadily increasing number of passengers. Such an airport will grow, by necessity, to serve a steadily increasing population base and will stimulate industrial development around it.

I’m looking at this with a long-term perspective. Traffic congestion around Trudeau airport is bad as it is and without major changes to local transport infrastructure will only get worse. There’s no room to build additional runways or terminals and, because the airport is surrounded by residential housing, the airport has a curfew limiting its hours of operation. It’s more-or-less at capacity.

And at a certain point in our city’s future, the land the airport currently occupies will be more valuable as residential housing than as an airport. Demand for on-island residential property will increase with the cost of oil, and all the factors that once made Trudeau airport’s location ideal for air travel will, in the future, make it an ideal place to own a house.

Mirabel, by contrast, is located in a rural area with plenty of room to grow. Built away from the city, Mirabel can operate twenty-four hours a day and purpose-built infrastructure can be implemented so as to make access to the airport efficient and effective across the metropolitan region. Similar infrastructure redevelopment in Dorval is proving exceptionally difficult to implement.

When considering what to do with Mirabel, we should be thinking about our future needs.

2. It’s becoming more accessible.

The lack of access that lead to Mirabel’s demise is either currently being implemented, in use, or otherwise still on the drawing board.

Highway 50 from the National Capital Region (population 1.4 million) has been completed, and it intersects Highway 15 near Mirabel. There are many more international flights available from Montreal than from Ottawa and this is a market a resurrected Mirabel could have access to.

The AMT runs trains between Montréal and Mirabel, on a track which can access the Deux-Montagnes Line (and by extension Gare Centrale), in addition to the Parc Intermodal Station. The train station at the airport has already been completed. We’re closer to realizing high-speed rail access to the airport than we realize – the problem is that we’re focusing on the wrong airport. Completing Highway 50 so that it connects with Highway 40 near Repentigny will allow a northern bypass to mirror the now completed Highway 30 southern bypass of the Island of Montreal. And what better way to justify the construction of a new South Shore span than by simultaneously completing Highways 13 and 19? This way, the Montréal metropolitan region would be served by four East-West Highways intersected by a similar number of North-South Highways. A ring-road would be created, and Mirabel would finally be able to adequately serve the entire metropolitan region. And that’s just the highways. While the Fed claims high-speed rail is an expensive dream, the government of Ontario is pressing ahead with the development of a new high-speed rail system connecting Toronto with London.

I’m convinced this is precisely how high speed rail will be (re)introduced to Canada – the provinces will get the ball rolling on specific, tactical, routes which will ideally blossom into a federal system. So why not do the same here?

A bullet train running between Downtown Montreal and Mirabel could lead to the creation of a high speed rail link between Mirabel and Ottawa. A high speed train travelling at 320km/hour could run the distance between Ottawa and Mirabel in about thirty minutes. From Gare Centrale to Mirabel, the trip could be done in less than half that time.

Imagine a future Montreal in which international travel was as close to you as the nearest Métro station and didn’t require finding parking or calling a cab?

Imagine a future in which Mirabel didn’t just serve Metropolitan Montreal better, but the National Capital Region as well?

3. Competing with Pearson

Competition is economically healthy, so why not develop an airport that can compete with Toronto’s Pearson? Low jet-fuel prices and longer-range aircraft made stopping at Mirabel unnecessary in the 1980s and 1990s and gave rise to Pearson Int’l Airport in Toronto as chief Canadian gateway. Today, fuel prices are high and unstable. Mirabel is 600km (give or take) closer to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and a number of important cities on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. I think we could use some competition in terms of which city is the true eastern gateway to the country, and I’d honestly like to see what would happen if we pushed ahead with Mirabel to take business away from Pearson. It’s what capitalism is all about right? Better public transit access to strategically situated airports able to adapt to new technologies will define the gateways of tomorrow, and for this reason Mirabel is superior to Pearson in many respects. Let’s see what the free market has to say about it. Again, Pearson, though large, is nearing capacity and constrained from large-scale growth by what has already grown up beside it. And we can’t grow unless we have the infrastructure to allow for growth. So whereas the citizens of Toronto may one day have to plan an entirely new airport even further away from the city centre, all we have to do re-connect our airport to our metropolitan ‘circulatory system’. The advantage will soon be ours.

4. Mirabel wasn’t designed to fail – we let it fail.

Fixing it is still a possibility, but we need to act quickly so we can save what’s already been built. We don’t want to have to start from scratch at some point in the future because we lacked foresight today – that’s criminally negligent economic policy. We spent a lot of money in the past and haven’t seen a decent return on our investment. So, invest anew – but invest in fixing the problems already identified first and foremost. Whatever the initial cost, it cannot compare to the potential return a fully operational Mirabel would provide in terms of direct revenue and indirect economic stimulus. There are no mistakes, just innovative solutions. If we were really smart, we’d recognize that planned regional transit and transport projects can be brought together under a larger program to provide the access necessary to make Mirabel a viable solution to our airport problem. Ultimately, it’s all inter-related and could stimulate a multitude of key sectors of our local economy.

We were once a daring and imaginative people, we had bold ideas and planned on a grand scale. Somewhere along the way we became convinced we were no longer capable of performing at the same level, and settled into a holding pattern of socio-political malaise. Today we are restless, and we are daring to ask how we came to be, and where our former power came from. Of late, it seems that we’ve regained our swagger, our attitude. So let us push those in power to dream big once more, and push for the long-term, multi-generational city-building we were once so good at. We have it in our blood, but our pride is still damaged. Let us regain our spirit by turning our past failures into tomorrow’s successes.

Covering Over Modernity


This here’s a photo of what Montreal looked like back in the early 1930s.

To situate yourself, first you’re looking ‘Montreal east’ – that’s the Jacques-Cartier Bridge under construction, and by my guess I think the airplane was flying near the intersection of Rue de la Montagne and Boulevard Saint-Jacques, or Mountain and St. James as it was colloquially referred to back then.

This is Montreal right before the Depression really began to be felt in Canada, and right after about fifty years of considerable and near constant economic growth for our city.

This is Montreal back when Canada had but one metropolis.

This is Montreal back when it defined what metropolis meant in the Canadian context.

If you stare at this photo long enough you’ll see all that remains, and there’s a lot all things considered.

But consider as well that just about everything in the lower half of the photo is gone.

You can see the transition here (not my work, but hat’s off to the responsible party).

In the contrast you can see the effect of monumental construction projects and just how much space is actually eaten up by the Ville-Marie Expressway.

The depopulation of the central core of our city is clear, but so too is the amount of space we demand on an individual level also glaringly apparent. Back in the 1930s there was a lot more happening, so much more life, packed tighter together. At the top of the picture is more-or-less the limit of the ‘urban’ montreal of the day, and it wouldn’t have extended much father in other directions either.

This is back when NDG was the suburbs.

Montreal’s population was recorded at just under one million people in 1931, and you can imagine the majority of those people would have lived and worked in the area photographed above.

Montreal witnessed a steady decline in population between 1971 and 2001, from our all-time high of 1,766,000 to 1,583,000 at the start of the new millennium. The city lost 183,000 people, largely to suburbanization, during that thirty-year period. Concurrently, the city deindustrialized (as other major North American cities did at the time) and gave up considerable tracts of land to highways and parking lots, facilitating the new white collar workers who worked in the new corporate office towers of the urban core.

It’s unfortunate, because we’ll never have this kind of urban density again, and as a consequence I doubt we’ll ever be able to truly replicate the urban lifestyle aesthetic of our first metropolitan era.

René Lévesque Boulevard as it appeared circa 1962, looking east from about Bishop
René Lévesque Boulevard as it appeared circa 1962, looking east from about Bishop

This is downtown Montreal at the beginning of the 1960s. Here you can see the effect cars had on redesigning the city, as what was once an elegant and small street (Dorchester) was transformed into a major urban traffic artery. Dorchester, now Boul. René-Lévesque, was widened starting in the mid-1950s to make way for the new commuter class driving in from neighbourhoods located much farther away than had ever previously been convenient. As ‘Gilded Age’ mansions were torn down they were replaced with massive new buildings, such as the Tour CIBC (seen above, the slender slate-grey tower), Place Ville-Marie etc.

In all the renderings of exposed highway trenches developed for the city, they all sort of look like this - like canals in an American Venice
In all the renderings of exposed highway trenches developed for the city, they all sort of look like this – like canals in an American Venice

Hand-in-hand with the redevelopment of Dorchester came the construction of a major east-west highway, today known as the Ville-Marie Expressway. The Ville-Marie was a success in one manner of thinking because so much of it was put underground (as opposed to above ground, such as Metropolitan Boulevard north of the mountain), meaning it could be eventually covered over again. Unfortunately this took a lot longer and had a more deleterious effect than city planners had imagined. In the 1960s, when planning and construction of the Ville-Marie began, there was this idea, as you can see in the above rendering, that the new ‘sunken’ highway would take the form of a post-modern canal, stimulating new growth immediately next to it. This didn’t really happen as developers were disinclined to build right next to an open highway trench. Moreover, planners back in the 1960s failed to realize just how unappealing an open highway trench would actually be for all the people walking around above.

View of exposed sections of Ville-Marie Expressway, from the Tour de la Bourse, circa 2000
View of exposed sections of Ville-Marie Expressway, from the Tour de la Bourse, circa 2000

This is what the Ville-Marie looked like right before the first serious efforts to recover the lost land actually began. Notice that parts weren’t completely open – the tunnel roof is visible – but that for whatever reason no efforts had been made to reclaim this space. This would change at the start of the new century with the planned redesign of Victoria Square and the development of the Quartier Internationale.

The exposed section, recovered. Notice the CDP Capital building lower left corner, and the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès, over the former exposed tunnel
The exposed section, recovered. Notice the CDP Capital building lower left corner, and the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès, over the former exposed tunnel

During 2002-2003 the square was completely redesigned, concurrently with the construction of the CDP Capital Centre, the enlargement of the Palais des Congrès and the construction of Place Riopelle between the two. All of this was located atop the tunnel. The CDP Capital Centre is particularly impressive (and I’d encourage you to visit it during normal business hours) as the architect designed a building that sits atop the tunnel but doesn’t place any weight on it – the atrium is in fact located directly above the tunnel, with the weight of the building pushed off on to either side.

At around the same time, the Underground City was extended to connect the once separate eastern and western axes through this area. Arguably the most impressive and least used parts of the RÉSO can be found here.

So clearly it is possible to build on top of the tunnel/trench.

The question comes down to cost.

The last remaining exposed  part of the trench - a prime location for new construction
The last remaining exposed part of the trench – a prime location for new construction

This is the remaining open part of the Ville-Marie Expressway, between the new CHUM superhospital and the Palais des Congrès. As you can see, it’s a considerable amount of space. Mayor Denis Coderre wants to build a park atop the highway trench on the easternmost portion. Transport Quebec, the provincial transport ministry, has said, unequivocally, no. They argue it will cost too much without giving any idea as to what they think it will cost.

This is called ‘convenient political obstructionism. It isn’t the plan they don’t like, it’s that the Mayor of Montreal is planning it and, for reasons that still make no sense to me, a highway used almost exclusively by Montrealers is outside the jurisdiction of City Hall.

When the mayor can’t decide to build a park on top of a highway trench without running it through the often anti-Montreal Québec government, you know there’s a problem.

And as to the other two-thirds of the trench, well, there’s enough space here to build an entirely new Palais des Congrès (not that I’d advocate for another convention centre in the same space, but simply to illustrate just how much area we’re actually talking about).

It strikes me as odd the city, province and various private developers couldn’t get together and devise a plan to cover over this remaining section. If costs are as prohibitive as the province seems to believe, then perhaps the recovering job ought to be a public-private partnership. Get private developers to front part of the cost so that they can get the rights to build above. Something tells me this would be an excellent location both for office towers and condominiums, given that this open hole happens to be in the middle of just about everything. I can imagine living and working here would appeal to a lot of people.

The next phase - this is passed for a park on top of a highway in 1982; neat idea, poor execution, worse location.
The next phase – this is passed for a park on top of a highway in 1982; neat idea, poor execution, worse location.

And just in case there’s any doubt it can be done, it has been done before. The Agora pictured above is probably one of our city’s least used (and enigmatic) public spaces because it’s terribly uninviting. Moreover, due to its design and the relative poverty of the surrounding area for far too many years, it was taken over by local homeless people. My first apartment in Montreal was right in front of it and throughout the summer the entirety of Viger Square was a makeshift homeless campground. The single biggest problem with the public spaces created above the Ville-Marie in the late 1970s and early 1980s is that lines of sight across the spaces are blocked by walls and hedges.

I don’t want to see the Agora torn down because I think it might work very well in another part of town, but the fact remains, these places aren’t being used as best they can.

Especially considering the creation of the Ville-Marie Expressway caused the stately Viger Square to be destroyed.
Especially considering the creation of the Ville-Marie Expressway caused the stately Viger Square to be destroyed.

What I’d like to see is large, green, urban parks with clear sight lines across, much like Viger Square before it was demolished to excavate for the Ville-Marie. Given the new housing built in the area in the last decade, I think it would be wiser to create a more traditional green space in this area and move the post-modern agora a little closer to the city centre. I think the agora would work much better in an area in which thru-traffic can be guaranteed and stimulated. This is simply impossible where it currently stands largely because it’s bounded by two major boulevards and there’s not much going on in its current location to stimulate the much needed ‘ballet of the streets’.

All that said – this is our city, our highway, our public spaces and ultimately our problem. The effort to remove the scar left by our efforts to modernize fifty some-odd years ago has only been partially achieved. In order to build a more cohesive city, and further to beautify it and increase population density, we must be given the tools to be masters of our own domain.

Maitres chez nous…

The Ironic Demise of the Redpath Mansion

The Redpath House in better times...
The Redpath House in better times…

In the infinite wisdom of the Parti Québécois’ Cameroonian-born culture minister, the Redpath House is officially lacking in any historical or architectural merit worthy of its protection. The temporary injunction preventing the Sochaczevski family’s planned demolition of the house has been lifted and the structure will likely be demolished just as soon as possible. I can understand why they’d want to, given how they’ve been jerked around in the past.

That said, I’d prefer the owners of the defiantly anti-péquiste Suburban newspaper turn around – just for shits and giggles – and excoriate Maka Kotto for not recognizing the heritage value of the last remaining home of the family of the guy who financed the construction of the Lachine Canal.

Now wouldn’t that be grand?

Of course it’s not going to happen. There’s profit to be made.

And let’s not forget it’s in the long-term political interest of the PQ to gently erase the trace of Québec’s Anglophone community, and the Square Mile is as good a place as any to start not giving a shit.

The belief that Anglophone capitalists were recklessly redeveloping the city and destroying an element of our cultural aesthetic was somewhat prevalent among the early urban preservation movement and sovereignist movement, and indeed there was a lot of overlap in terms of public demonstrations of the time. Sovereignists, favouring a more socially-conscious method of urban redevelopment that encouraged public repossession and conversion of heritage properties by the state, were quick to join demonstrations against the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and iconic mansions. It was somewhat ironic, given that the people of the Square Mile during it’s golden era (from 1880 to 1930) were often thought of as those who oppressed working class French Canadians. In many ways the excess of the Square Mile and its people (who controlled 70% of the nation’s wealth for a time) played a role in the development of the Quebec independence movement.

In his judgement as culture minister, Maka Kotto believes the Redpath House is of no *ahem* national heritage value.


I’ll grant that the home isn’t the actual house of John Redpath (but I’m fairly certain is the last of the Redpath family’s Square Mile homes), and I agree with the minister for deploring that nothing was done back when the house was in better shape.

But the minister simply asked that the owner do something to remind passers-by that the home once stood there and should be recognized.

Like a plaque. Or maybe the Sochaczevski’s will call their new condo building ‘Le Redpath’.

Oooh! Sounds historical!

I just don’t understand why the province wouldn’t mandate that the new building incorporate part of the old. I’m not keen on this generally speaking but when it’s the only option in lieu of total demolition I’d go for it. Clearly the walls aren’t in that bad a shape – they’re still standing after thirty years of abandonment. At least if the few remaining Queen Anne style architectural details were preserved it wouldn’t be a total loss.

Either way, very disappointing. Pretty much everyone loses with the exception of the family who was jerked around for a generation by an incompetent heritage preservation bureaucracy.

And they’ve been on the losing end for thirty years. It’s hard to feel bad for rich people who find themselves unable to make more money, or feel good for them when they finally get some justice and can proceed to tear down some history to put up another god forsaken condominium in a high-density neighbourhood.

So I’m all kinds of conflicted on this one.

Ultimately I can agree with the minister – something should have been done long ago and shame on those responsible thirty years ago for not reacting as people today would have preferred.

You can understand why this really doesn’t make me feel any better. Blaming people from long ago for making poor decisions does nothing to protect the past from future development.