Category Archives: West Island

Of Montreal and Manhattan

How much of the Island of Manhattan do you think would fit into the space above?

I want you to imagine driving along Highway 40 heading west. Imagine starting at the intersection of Highway 13 and driving all the way to the Ile-aux-Tourtes Bridge. How long would that take driving at the speed limit with no traffic? Fifteen minutes? Maybe five minutes more?

Now imagine tracing that same route as the crow flies, and you are surveying the roughly one-tenth of the entire Island of Montréal which stretches out to your right. It would include Pierrefonds, DDO, part of Pointe-Claire, Kirkland, Ste-Anne’s and Senneville. That area, my friends, which seems so diminutive to so many West Islanders, is in fact just slightly larger than the entire Island of Manhattan. That most vital of New York City’s five boroughs, where 1.6 million people live, could easily fit in that space. In fact, you could put ten Manhattans on the Island of Montréal. Put another way, Manhattan is roughly the same size as Ile-Perrot. Or, if you were to look at the photograph above, everything south of Highway 40.

So what does this all mean? Well for one, we live in an exceptionally low-density city. And as the cost of petrol increases and citizens continue to move back to first and second ring urban suburbs on island, land value on island will invariably increase. As the urban core fills with medium-high density condominiums, the core will expand, as will the area in which high residential density is expected. I can imagine that if these trends are supported proactively by the city’s administration, a great many citizens may find themselves living on land worth far, far more than the value of the house they live in! Suburban land-owners may retire wealthier than expected by selling their properties for larger-density developments given that most of the newer generation of suburbanites have moved to the far less expensive (and lower density) developments off island, notably in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Ile-Perot, St-Eustache and Deux-Montagnes areas.

Just spectacular, I don’t know who took it, but great job.

In Manhattan, there are families whose wealth is owed principally to at one time owning large tracts of land which they sold for development. There are many more land-owners (and far more land) in private hands today on the Island of Montreal than on Manhattan in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when the city extend much further than what today would constitue their Downtown. If our city were to invest in major public transit infrastructure development, such as a massive expansion of the Métro and commuter-rail network, we could encourage this conversion process. City’s densify along public transit system corridors, and there’s more than enough demand for greater accommodation on island.

Manhattan has a population density of roughly 27,000 per square kilometer, whereas Montréal has a density of 2,200 per square kilometer. The total area of the Island of Montréal (including Ile-Bizard, Ile-Ste-Helene, Ile-Dorval, Ile-Notre-Dame and Ile-des-Soeurs and several other small islands in the archipelago) is roughly 500 square kilometers. If Montréal was a single city covering that area, with Manhattan’s population density, it would be home to 13.5 million people.

Now I’m not advocating that we seek Manhattan’s population density, but we might want to consider the actual massive size of our island, and whether or not we’re using our land as efficiently as possible. Imagine if we were to double or triple our population density – it would still be less than a quarter the density of Manhattan spread out over an area ten times its size. That’s a far higher return on property taxes for the city while being able to simultaneously provide the additional tax revenues to protect a significant quantity of land for a much-discussed greenbelt.

More people paying taxes to a centralized city administration, with far more people making excellent use of our city services, stimulating our businesses etc, provides a more stable local economy. There’s no greater foundation than a lot of people living in close proximity, sharing a city they equally enjoy and appreciate, and running businesses providing all manner of services. The more people, the higher the land value, the greater the city’s budget grows, meaning larger sums can be issued as down-payments on loans for major development projects.

In any event, just some thoughts when comparing two interesting islands. I think we need to get bigger in order to exert a stronger influence in provincial and federal projects, not to mention greater economic muscle. There’s a perfect foundation for precisely this kind of growth which lies in a bigger population under a single administration.

Final thought РNew York City is about 500 kilometers due south of Montr̩al, a pleasant drive through the Adirondack region along the Hudson River Valley. Montr̩al is the preferred tourist destination for Manhattanites right now, and that could be potentially very lucrative. There are restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn specializing in Montr̩al cuisine, and some people have commented that Montr̩al has replaced Brooklyn as the new epicentre of the music scene. I think we may have the start of a special relationship Рso why not capitalize on it?

There’s been talk of a high-speed rail line running between our two cities, in the bucolic Hudson River Valley, for years and years now. There may be no better time to find private sector investment for such a rail line to capitalize on our newfound interactions with New York City, as the citizens of that city represent a considerable investment potential.

A high-speed line with pre-boarding clearance operating on a segregated track could potentially reach speeds in excess of between three and four hundred kilometers per hour.

Imagine Gare Central to Penn Station in an hour and a half. What could that mean for our tourism industry, not to mention our economy in general?

Ode to Pierrefonds

The Chateau de Pierrefonds, Oise Department, France

My hometown is named after the castle in the photograph above; there is nothing even remotely as grand as this beautifully restored 13th-century chateau in all of Pierrefonds, that much I can guarantee you, but it’s certainly inspiring nonetheless. I could not possibly have asked to be raised in a more ideal suburb. Over a century ago, a local and somewhat infamous notary by the name of Joseph-Adolphe Chauret created the first incarnation of Pierrefonds as a village separate from the Town of Sainte-Genevieve. Pierrefonds, like the adjacent communities of Roxboro, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Ile-Bizard, all grew from the parish and village of Sainte-Genevieve, which itself was established in the early 18th century. Chauret had seen an engraving of the eponymous chateau, which itself is of particular historical importance given that it was an early example of philanthropic cultural heritage preservation projects we now associate with urbanism in Montréal in general. He had a thatched-roof ‘seigneurial’ residence built so as to emulate the engraving; his house was completed several years before he had a chance to vist the real thing. When he returned, the locals turned up to welcome him. Pierrefonds Québec, prior to the late 1950s, was rural, agricultural and predominantly composed of old-stock French Canadians. Gouin Boulevard runs the entire length of the community, itself traced upon the path laid out by 16th century colonial urban planners creating the ring road then known as the Chemin du Roy. Habitant Homes still dot the path, and the area still maintains a small collection of very early 20th and mid-late 19th century structures.

Construction during the pre-war years was focused on summer homes built near Rivieres des Prairies, easily accessible by the train station in Roxboro. But during the post-war residential construction boom, the prospect of regular commuter train service to the expanding downtown of Montréal led to rapid residential, low-density growth. Much of what constitutes the Pierrefonds of today was built between the mid-1950s and early-1970s. All the houses are roughly the same size occupying similarly sized lots. It’s verdant, with many parks, green-spaces, playgrounds and public pools. Many of the residential streets turn back in on themselves, minimizing thru-traffic. Today it forms the largest single component of the West Island in terms of population, estimated at just over 60,000. Given its history, it is probably also the most francophone West Island community on the island of Montréal.

It is a profoundly middle-class, multi-ethnic community, closely integrated with Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Roxboro and Ste-Genevieve. Unfortunately, it lacks its independence, though there is undoubtedly a local character, given that many residents are themselves first or second generation middle-class and it’s in many ways emblematic of both the independent West Island communities and City of Montréal bedroom suburbs. It is modern in design with plenty of rural stylistic influences – the choice to leave many streets unlit and the rather spacious lots (in comparison to the generally modest bungalows) are well-stocked and over-flowing with flora throughout the temperate months. From what I’ve experience having lived most of my life here, I can only conclude its an ideal, if not superior suburban community and a more-than-ideal place to raise a family.

Unfortunately, for a variety of factors, Pierrefonds has a bit of a bad reputation. The generally bored SPVM West Island detachments seem to believe all gangs operating West of Highway 13 emanate from one part of Pierrefonds or another, and the merger hasn’t done much for community spirit. There are parts that are run down, but they are in the minority compared to the large sectors of stable, happy and prosperous detached homes. The schools are good and crime is almost non-existant. There are many local small businesses and some important cultural and community centres serving a large and diverse population. Perhaps most importantly, Pierrefonds is exceptionally well-served via public transit, making it an attractive location for white-collar families. Downtown is a mere twenty-five minutes away.

Let me be the first to say, nothing of consequence may have ever happened in the place I grew up in, and like many other parts of North America, it exists as a community to the degree by which the community invests in it. If we are to be more than we currently are, we’ll do so collectively. If not, we’ll simply exist as another component of the expanding City of Montréal; no harm, no foul.

But it makes me wonder, in these times of transition and change, what was necessary to establish Pierrefonds as more than simply a place where one lived? What made it so balanced, so equal, so ideal for suburban family living?

It’s odd – I used to joke about Pierrefonds as being nothing particularly special, even going so far as to over-emphasizing it’s ‘street-cred’ as it was perceived to be a ‘rough’ part of the West Island. Horseshit in hindsight. It may be one of the most ideal communities to raise children on the whole island of Montréal.

Come see for yourself I suppose, we have the largest nature park on the island. Stop by Vivaldi for supper (a shockingly excellent Italian restaurant on Gouin West). I really have no idea how to end this article, nor where precisely I’m going with it. So I’m going to end it abruptly here.

Inefficient by Design: Montréal Public Transit

I should start off by saying that this is not a criticism of the STM; I think they mostly do good work and I’m impressed with what they’ve done in terms of branding, marketing and communicating an idea that public transit in general and the Métro in particular as a chic, conscientious and cost-effective element of Montréal urban living. There’s always room for improvement and I’d like to see a system wide renovation of stations, but that’s an issue for another day.

The inefficiency I’m referring to here is the the fact that the Greater Montreal region is served by multiple transit agencies, companies and corporations with what appears to be little effort at organizing from a top-down perspective to ensure excellent coverage across multiple modes throughout the region. And if we, as a society, want to limit the amount of vehicular congestion on our roads by developing a truly world-class public transit system, we must ensure the highest degree of operational efficiency possible. In addition, such a system would always have to be the preferred method of transit within the city and to and from the cities and suburbs, in order to guarantee high general use. If we want our city to grow in population and prominence, then we need to plan for the public transit system which will encourage people to live here precisely because they could use such a system. It’s a marketing tool inasmuch as it is a vital social service, and it requires bird’s eye perspective planning. Ergo, it is time to establish a common fare, across the region and across services. I would further recommend instituting an ‘interconnectivity’ system, wherein, as an example, buses are scheduled to arrive and depart from train stations in such a fashion so as to allow passengers to transfer from one to another within a five minute window. A single transit security force would also be preferable to multiple distinct organizations with differing mandates and training, as would a single maintenance and utilities division. Streamlining transit operations across the metropolitan region would be beneficial for workers as well, given that they would be able to form larger unions with greater bargaining power and a larger pension plan, among other things.

The alternative is only the proliferation of additional transit agencies operating in the metro region as it grows and as the demands of residents, whether living in the City of Montréal proper or any of the surrounding satellite cities and towns, turn towards demanding better public transit services within their own regions. I’ve advocated in the past that the West Island communities would be wise to unite so as to create their own public transit service using trams, which in turn would allow the STM to consolidate their operations within the city and save them the high maintenance and operations costs of bus operations in sprawling suburban regions. That said, I feel a united West Island transit agency would be best employed as a lobby group, and even if such a system were to financed by the West Island communities, I would nonetheless argue in favour of a common fare, inter-connectivity and many other integrating elements. If we want change, we should be willing to put up the capital and subsequently negotiate preferential terms for integration, beneficial to all. But I digress…

Québec transport minister Pierre Moreau has indicated that the public transit agencies of the Montreal region will not be merged into a new version of the Agence Métropolitain de Transport, the Québec government-owned corporation that handles commuter trains and some express buses in the Greater Montréal region. Nor will the AMT be handed over to the control of the municipalities of the region of Montréal, something advocated by Mayor Tremblay. Moreau has indicated that, as he sees it, the new AMT should also involve itself in road planning.

An example of the AMT’s focus on road planning with public transit in mind, and the region’s key axial corridors

Tremblay’s proposal would put the AMT, as is, into the hands of the cities, towns and villages of the metropolitan region, but so far there’s no indication as to whether this would be done solely so as to make the AMT more directly responsible to the communities it serves or whether there would be an effort to stream-line the different public transit agencies of the region into a single all-encompassing, region-wide and single-fare system. I would argue that this ought to be the case for efficiency’s sake, as otherwise we’re left dealing with multiple service providers and multiple communities – there are too many moving parts. We need to streamline the service while incorporating multiple independent viewpoints in a separate over-sight and planning organization. Imagine a Transit Congress making legislative and executive decisions regarding transit development, with proportional, elected representation, administering a single regional system? It’s the ‘best of both worlds solution’ allowing for operational standardization and integration, while further supporting direct community involvement in the decision making processes.

Across the region we’re paying far too much for over-crowded buses and trains, which are all too often late or delayed. Most AMT stations, unlike the one pictured above, are nothing more than cement slabs and unprotected benches and kiosks. Development is retarded because we don’t have an agency which can actually negotiate with Canadian National, Via Rail or Canadian Pacific, and thus projects like the Train de l’Ouest is caught in total deadlock. Meanwhile, the Train de l’Est project is so over-budget the former president of the AMT abruptly resigned after an inquiry was called into, you guessed it – corruption in the construction industry. The Train de l’Est is actively killing the public’s consumer confidence in public mass transit, and this is coming on the heels of the over-budget Laval extension, the endless discussions around implementing gas-taxes and tramways and the never-ending road-work, all of which work together to undermine the public’s trust in government’s ability to get things done.

I think we need a new solution, one which recognizes the needs of the whole as well as the parts, but which is ultimately striving to provide excellent coverage and excellent service across the entire region. There will always be specific local requirements that need to be addressed when you’re building a comprehensive public transit plan – such as which systems should be used and where they need to grow, station-community integration, proximity to schools etc. – but all of this works in tandem towards a single comprehensive goal – to secure public confidence in the publicly-funded mass-transit system so as to raise the common standard of living and the value of metropolitan properties.

The ability to quickly, efficiently and cheaply cross great distances within an urban area in the comfort of a well-designed, clean and secure public transit system is quite literally what distinguishes the very finest cities from your run of the mill cities, and we should demand as citizens united nothing but the very best in this regard – it will only serve to enrich us long-term.

Unite the West Island {Part 1}

Baie d’Urfe, quintessential Old West Island – unknown author

This post has a lot to do with the West Island, as you might suspect from the title, but the West Island is fundamentally an important component of metropolitan Montreal, and thus I feel it has a place here. In my opinion, in order for the West Island to become all it can be and provide for itself long-term, it must unite into a single amalgamated city. It is beginning to mature in such a fashion that a discernible local character and culture has developed here, largely as the result of the development of common goals and aspirations for the people who live there. The people who live here have common needs which have heretofore largely been the responsibility of either the City of Montréal or the Province of Québec; otherwise, the West Island today is merely a collection of small municipalities with little mutually beneficial long-range planning. This must change if we want to increase our standard of living, together. This must change if we truly want solutions to the myriad problems and difficulties that we’ve all become acutely aware of over the last few years. Problems with traffic gridlock, declining population, lack of local investment capital, over-crowded hospitals and lack of public transit access – all of this can be better dealt with by a new, united West Island city.

Ask yourself, what can a city of 235,000 people do for itself? How quickly can it double its population? What opportunities can it provide for its citizens? What resources could it share and benefit from, and what could we guarantee for to promote our unique society and culture? Finally, what can 235,000 people do to increase property and house values and median income across the entire West Island, simultaneously?

There is a lot more to the West Island than residential housing projects and strip malls, though you might not know it to first look at it. In too many ways the West Island is the defective prototypical North American sprawl mega-suburb. But it has a unique character nonetheless and I would dare say the makings of at least its own identifiable sub-culture within the larger subgroups of Montréal culture and the Québecois middle-class. We are distinct as a whole in many ways, but we refuse to see our points of commonality, and thus our community remains an ineffective collection of cities without much common planning. Our bondage is our lack of cooperation. Moreover, we have unique needs with regards to education, healthcare, public works & transit and emergency services, yet we are overly reliant on outside forces to supply these services. As long as this is the case we can’t do much to improve the bare essentials of our shared services, and further have very little hope to collect the investment capital needed to fund our own improvement programs.

So why not unite?

If the eight de-merged municipalities were to combine with the four merged communities along the north-western edge of the island (which would be advantageous for the City of Montréal, but I’ll address that later), we could quickly form a new community of roughly 235,000 people, a community of roughly equal size to other Canadian cities like Kitchener, Burnaby, Regina or Windsor. All of those cities manage to provide their own public transit and emergency services, not to mention universities, museums, performance venues and sports stadiums. Ultimately, this is not about limiting the individual sovereignty of the constituent West Island communities, but rather about recognizing our common needs as citizens in a suburban conurbation with over 300 years of shared history and inter-related development. Throughout much of the 20th century development was more or less haphazard, driven largely the market trends in post-war suburban housing construction common throughout North America. But this in turn has lead to a large number of people with a common appreciation of shared green spaces and the rustic charm which is emblematic of the region, and a general desire amongst said residents to see what remains of Montreal’s last remaining wilderness (a semi contiguous area of Eastern Great Lakes lowland forest in the Northwest sector) preserved and promoted. In other words, there’s a reason why people live there together; they appreciate many of the same services and aesthetics, and they choose this region as an ideal location to raise a family and develop important middle-class wealth. We think similarly and have broadly similar aspirations, so why do we continue to plan like 17th century hamlets?

If we unite, we can plan on a large scale, limit low-density residential construction while promoting higher-density alternatives. We could build a new city centre akin to examples you would find in Toronto’s inner-ring suburban areas, like North York. By increasing density we could provide diverse housing styles for new residents, and establish a civic core for the West Island as a whole. Moreover, we could seek to develop new higher-density retail space and commercial office space as well, to attract necessary local services. New capital and investment could be obtained in a far more efficient manner, and provide on a greater scale, through the lobbying efforts of a single new medium sized city.

But we simply cannot do it alone, as individual communities, this must be an achievement for our own societal evolution. We must ask ourselves what our future holds and whether or not we will grow old here, with our children.. If West Island residents want better schools & hospitals, better opportunities and greater options, then we must provide for each-other en masse. If the older generations want their children to raise families here as well, they must be given reasons to stay. Uniting the West Island into a single community could allow us to accomplish many things for each other, not to mention establish a better working relationship with the other major cities of the Montréal Archipelago. We owe it not only to ourselves to put ourselves in a stronger bargaining position with the City and the Province, and we know both Ottawa and Québec City will look favourably towards this new community. We must lead by example, to unite so as to encourage better thinking in the future, better design and a better standard of living, here inasmuch as anywhere else in Canada.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, I’m guessing this might be a three-parter. More later. But before I go, if you lived in the West Island or live there now, ask yourself what life would be like if a new combined community suddenly had the capital to construct a sophisticated performing arts venue, a bilingual liberal arts university, a surface tram network or an art museum. What dreams could we realize for the greater good?