Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.
However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.
Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.
But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.
At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”
The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.
In an astounding coincidence, on the very same day that photographs, like the one above, emerged online of several teenagers apparently starting a fire on the second floor of the abandoned Snowdon Theatre, this video of several people galavanting through the Métro tunnels was posted to YouTube and widely distributed on local social media networks.
In the latter case, the film crew accessed one tunnel while the Métro was still in operation, and then proceeded to make their way into the rear conductor’s cabin of an operational train, locking the door when accosted by an STM employee. As La Presse notes, there’s a safety issue inasmuch as there’s a security issue. It was just last week that Daesh sympathizers detonated bombs in a Brussels Métro station; the film crew in the ‘Lowest Point’ video had access to Métro controls, the track, and service tunnels and the various equipment kept in those tunnels. My guess is they were probably down in the tunnels for more than hour, and evaded STM security throughout.
Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.
I’m torn, really. I feel creeping adulthood and my gut says “don’t go exploring Métro tunnels”, especially not when the trains are actually in operation. It’s immensely dangerous, not to mention inconvenient for thousands or tens of thousands of people who may be affected by a temporary line closure. I think the code ‘900-02’ announces a suspected infiltration of the tunnels; if either an STM employee or the system’s CCTV system suspects there’s someone in the tunnels, they have to call it in, close it down and investigate.
So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.
That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.
It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.
Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.
I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.
But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).
In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?
According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…
It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.
That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.
Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”
As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.
My guess is it’s likely the former.
Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.
Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.
Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.
So for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.
So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?
The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.
It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?
And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.
What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.
Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).
The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.
What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.
So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?
It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.
So once upon a time there was a large, densely populated working class neighbourhood just east of Old Montreal informally called the ‘Faubourg à m’lasse’.
The estimate is that in the early 1960s roughly 5,000 people lived there occupying 678 residences, and the neighbourhood would have included about two dozen factories and other industrial operations, not to mention a dozen or so restaurants and grocery stores and all the other services one would expect to find in a typical urban neighbourhood.
It’s highly likely some of those residents would have lived and worked much of their lives within the confines of the district, bounded by René-Lévesque, Wolfe, Papineau and Viger. I doubt it would have been very nice living in this area at the time: there were no green spaces to speak of, the housing likely wouldn’t have been terribly modern and, being as it was located immediately adjacent to the largest inland port in all of North America, it would have been noisy and at times smelly too. The apocryphal history of the area’s informal name indicates that there would have been a strong sent of molasses that permeated much of the neighbourhood, though this may have been confused with the sickly-sweet aroma of yeast used at the nearby Molson brewery. Either way, what was originally called the Faubourg Quebec was first home to the city’s French-Canadian bourgeoisie, though this began to change in the latter decades of the 19th century. Much in the same way that that the Anglophone middle class moved northwesterly from the Shaughnessy Village towards NDG and the West End, over the same period of time the Francophone middle class moved northeasterly out of the Faubourg Quebec, with new waves of urban working class occupying their old neighbourhoods.
By the mid-1950s the neighbourhood had been targeted for ‘revitalization’ by the Dozois Report which aimed to eliminate a wide-variety of urban social ills via expropriation and demolition. Large chunks of the city’s urban environment were to be obliterated entirely so as to ‘clean the slate’ and offer new tracts of land on which to build ostensibly more useful structures. It was reasoned evicting the working classes from their urban neighbourhoods was simply a continuance of established patterns in population movement; the new middle class of the 1950s were moving to outlying suburbs of detached single family homes, and so it was assumed their former urban neighbourhoods would receive those displaced by the evictions. Further, the grander scheme was to make land available for new high-density urban housing (partly realized with Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance), government offices (Hydro-Quebec) and an urban public university (UQAM), all of which was justified in the name of progress and sensible land use and leaves us with a tricky legacy. Thousands of poor people were strong-armed out of their neighbourhoods, the city-centre was radically depopulated and entire communities ceased to exist, but in some cases very useful things wound up occupying those spaces (UQAM and Place des Arts come immediately to mind).
The Dozois Plan not only recommended slum-clearance, but also land-use rationalization and the development of concentrations of activities (commercial sectors, housing sectors, institutional sectors etc.); part of this plan included the idea of a ‘media sector’ where the city’s major broadcasters would concentrate their operations. Jean Drapeau was particularly keen on the idea and proposed the Cité-des-Ondes, a large purpose-built broadcasting centre that would have combined all of Radio-Canada and the CBC’s Montreal operations, in addition to serving as the new corporate headquarters of the national broadcaster.
Two languages, two networks, under one roof.
As it happened, the SRC/CBC was looking to do the same; they had an internal team of architects and planners working on the project at roughly the same time.
Drapeau favoured a location close to the new central business district rising around Gare Central and Windsor Station, but it was during the brief interregnum of Mayor Sarto Fournier that an alternative location further east was decided upon to become the new home of the national broadcaster in Montreal.
Unfortunately, Fournier’s plan called for the expropriation and demolition of the Faubourg à m’lasse in its entirety. At the time I suppose they thought this was progress, though perhaps today we know a little better. From the detailed photographic archives available, it’s clear that though the area may have been poor, it’s hard to believe it was a slum beyond repair and rehabilitation. The ‘slum clearance’ was completed in 1963, with construction of the Maison Radio-Canada taking a decade to complete.
It is for precisely this reason I believe both the national broadcaster and the current heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, have an ethical responsibility not only to maintain ownership of the Maison Radio-Canada building, but further to develop the vast parking lots into affordable urban housing.
And wouldn’t you believe it? A plan to do just that was developed a decade ago.
Right now the argument is that there’s a surplus of available space and the building is essentially beyond repair or renovation. The SRC is currently exploring their options, which include: selling the building but continuing to lease space in it, selling it and building a new facility on the same site, selling it and building a new facility elsewhere in the city, or doing the latter but leasing space in an existing building. You’ll notice the common thread and that they’re being quite thorough in considering their options. According to Radio-Canada executive vice-president Louis Lalande, ‘the national broadcaster shouldn’t be in the real-estate business.’
Perhaps… but I’m not convinced building something new or leasing space will ultimately be that cost-effective. The national broadcaster has had its budget slashed repeatedly for years; had this not been the case it’s reasonable to suspect there might not be a $170 million renovation deficit nor the surplus of space. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a building that was built to last with broadcasting in mind and further to serve as a major pole of attraction for the city’s media industry (and on that note, job well done).
In any event, the thought had occurred to me that if the Maison Radio-Canada has a surplus of space, why not go back to the original plan and concentrate the whole SRC/CBC operation in Montreal?
In my eyes this would be the most sensible solution, not to mention potentially the most rewarding. For one, we’d end the senseless linguistic segregation of the national broadcaster. Two, Canadian media would subsequently be less Toronto-centric. Three, the CBC could sell its broadcast centre in Toronto and corporate office in Ottawa, which if I had to guess are both sitting on land far more valuable than the Maison Radio-Canada. Montreal’s cost of living is lower than Toronto’s, which would be a boon to the broadcaster’s employees, and Montreal further benefits from some of the nation’s premier journalism, communications and media production programs.
Seriously, what’s not to love?
I reached out to Radio-Canada with a variety of questions and got a reply from the SRC’s PR director, Marc Pichette.
According to him, combining the CBC and SRC under one roof at the Maison Radio-Canada has “never been an option.”
The rest of the email exchange was disappointing and at times seemed contradictory. I asked if the SRC felt it had a responsibility to the public to maintain the site for public use, and the response was that “…in 2009, following an extensive public consultation, CBC/Radio-Canada signed an agreement with the City of Montréal for the development of the site currently occupied by (the Maison Radio-Canada). This agreement, which lays out the City’s expectation for social and community housing, green spaces and public transit (to name but a few), is still in effect today.”
But in response to a question concerning an old plan to develop mixed-use housing on the site, and whether this was still on the books, Pichette replied that “…this option has been considered in the past. However, the property can hardly be developed without approval of a master development plan for the entire site.”
So what’s this then?
It seems as though the SRC did come up with a plan to revitalize the Maison Radio-Canada and the parking lots around it about a decade ago. This plan called for the development of the parking lots into mixed-use housing and selling off the tower (for conversion into condominiums) while retaining the base of the structure with all its recently renovated and culturally significant studios.
As François Cardinal writes in this impassioned ‘open letter to Mélanie Joly’, the plan developed by architects Daoust Lestage (and pictured above) would have accomplished several goals, namely: integrate the structure into the surrounding residential area, build new housing on the parking lots, keep the SRC in the same spot and do all this while also selling the surplus tower.
The sale of the tower would in turn pay for the construction of a new office space better integrated into its surroundings and in accordance with their now smaller space requirements.
As Cardinal notes in his La Presse report, the Daoust Lestage proposal would have led to the creation of a large new urban neighbourhood and would have become the ‘eastern door’ to Montreal’s central business district.
It should be noted that the Daoust Lestage plan dates from 2006; the entire Faubourg Quebec has seen nothing but growth since then. Consider the new CHUM superhospital, the successful rehabilitation of the Gare Viger or the reclamation of former port lands for new medium density residential housing. The Daoust Lestage plan for the Maison Radio-Canada could add housing for thousands more in a part of town that has suffered from depopulation for far too long (see their presentation here).
And yet, despite this, the SRC is sticking to its guns. Pichette replied to Cardinals’ open letter by indicating that years of budget cuts, the 2008-09 economic collapse and the digitization of media has contributed to the SRC reviewing their space requirements and that the Daoust Lestage plan was far, far larger than what they currently need.
And that’s unfortunately quite myopic. From Pichette’s reply to Cardinal (and myself), it would seem that the Société Radio-Canada is more concerned with the per annum bottom line than any bold plan to make good use of its real-estate assets, or what future space requirements might look like if the Fed were to invest some serious coin and bring the national broadcaster back to the ‘glory days’ of the 1960s and 1970s.
Which is what brings this all back to Mélanie Joly. Her predecessors under the Harper administration were always quick to mention the national broadcaster was an ‘arms-length crown corporation’ and therefore not the responsibility of the ministry. There’s hope the Trudeauites may actually take some responsibility for their ministerial portfolios. As heritage minister, Joly is directly responsible for Canadian heritage, media, arts and culture.
And the Maison Radio-Canada is an indelible part of all those things.
There are other options than simply walking away from a purpose-built broadcasting centre and abandoning it to the free-market, and the SRC has already spent millions of taxpayers dollars coming up with a sensible plan to breathe new life into an ascendant sector of the city. Joly should consider that option at the very least.
Walking away from the Maison Radio-Canada is thoroughly unethical given 5,000 people lost their community in order to see it built, and it doesn’t matter that the obliteration of the Faubourg à m’lasse happened more than fifty years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if land is expropriated for public purposes, then it should remain in the public’s hands.
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.
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.
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.
Another week, another colossal waste of our municipal tax dollars.
Tuesday’s announcement: $12 million to renovate Place Vauquelin, the public square between City Hall and the Old Courthouse. Among the many exciting new features: a redesigned fountain, heated granite paving stones and, as the Gazette reports ‘the return of the massive Christmas tree for the holiday period.’
Apparently the province will kick in $3.5 million, and it’s supposed to be completed by December of next year.
I won’t hold my breath… the Coderre administration so far is as well known for constantly pitching the inevitable return of the Montreal Expos inasmuch as their total inability to execute urban renovation projects on time or on budget. Coderre routinely over-promises and under-delivers, despite his ‘hands-on’ approach to dismantling poured concrete…
Moreover – $12 million to redo Place Vauquelin is excessive as is, and we’re assuming, with cause, that it will ultimately cost even more. How much can we really afford to spend on city beautification?
Don’t get me wrong – I want to live in a beautiful city with many well-maintained, well-conceived public spaces.
But don’t forget as well – we’re living in a time of austerity, or at least we’re supposed to be. All levels of government have indicated time and again since the Crash of 2008-09 that budget cuts are necessary so as to lower the debt, and that this, along with tax breaks for the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, will help revive our lagging economy.
Our economy is still lagging, and spending municipal tax dollars on city beautification projects is not the kind of economic stimulus we need.
Moreover, the underlying problem is – and always has been – that the people have no apparatus to measure government budgetary efficiency. There is no constant public audit of the spending habits of the City of Montreal, and we accept the city’s cost estimates for various projects without the means to judge whether these costs are reasonable or justifiable in the first place.
Take the Mordecai Richler Gazebo example: the Cadillac of modern gazebos, locally sourced, clocks in at a cost of about $25,000. Such was offered to the city, as well as the cost of construction, pro bono by a local entrepreneur a couple of months back. The mayor declined the offer, stating (weakly I might add) that the Richler Gazebo is a heritage structure and as such the current cost estimate of $592,000 is appropriate. It is already well-known Mordecai Richler never wrote of (or in) the gazebo that will bear his name, and by my estimate about half the total sum is linked to the city commissioning ultimately incomplete studies relating to the history and heritage of the structure. Information that was already publicly available, that any university student could easily have prepared in a report, could have saved this city at least a quarter-million dollars in costs associated with this project, and would have made a compelling argument in favour of simply demolishing it.
Another example: the $70 million renovation of part of Parc Jean-Drapeau to facilitate large open-air concerts is not only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, it will likely wind up exclusively benefitting concert promoters. The project is intended both to create a permanent outdoor amphitheatre as well as a new promenade to link Calder’s Man with the Métro station. Additional support facilities, like public toilets and vendor kiosks, would likely be integrated into the plan. But the project won’t be completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017 (in fact it’s due to open in 2019) and the economic benefits to the city are dubious at best. Parc Jean-Drapeau may be part of the city’s ‘tourism sector’, but the nature of these massive outdoor concerts tends to concentrate most of their economic activity to the immediate environs of the concert. Put another way, you’re probably not going to have dinner in the Old Port if you’ve spent your day at Osheaga or Heavy MTL, and this is quite the contrary of the city’s other, more urban music festivals (like the Jazz Fest or Francofolies, which provide direct economic stimulus to the restaurant and hotel industries across a far larger area of the city). What’s particularly onerous about this proposal is that a) there aren’t that many massive touring outdoor concert festivals to begin with, b) the existing space is already adequate given the limited need and c) Parc Jean-Drapeau already has a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and it’s a derelict heritage structure to boot.
But wait, there’s more!
In January of 2014 the management corporations of both Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Quartier international de Montréal put together a project that sought to spend $55 million on a comprehensive renovation of Parc Jean-Drapeau in time for the 375th anniversary. At the time, the plan called for $12.5 million to be spent renovating and rehabilitating Place des Nations, $22.5 million to be spent building a three-kilometre long riverside promenade around both Ile Sainte Helene and Ile Notre Dame, $15 million on a new central promenade connecting the Métro station to Calder’s Man, and only $5 million to improve the open-air concert venue.
So in the span of just under two years the Parc Jean-Drapeau renovation project has increased in cost by more than $15 million and has been downgraded in terms of its scope (Coderre’s recent announcement seems to only include the Calder promenade and the infrastructure for a larger capacity and more permanent outdoor concert venue; there was no mention of Place des Nations or a riverside promenade). In addition, a larger and less expensive project that would have completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary is now only estimated to be completed two years later.
This is not an efficient use of municipal tax dollars, nor is it demonstrative of efficient urban planning.
Place Vauquelin, Viger Square, Place du Canada, Place des Nations and that wretched gazebo all fell into disuse and disrepair because they were not adequately maintained, as administrations from decades ago sought to cut costs for reasons that would be familiar to us today. Montreal has gone through several cycles of concentrated spurts of investment into massive urban beautification projects, most recently to celebrate oddball anniversaries (375th two years from now, 350th back in 1992, but the cycle goes back to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics as well), followed by prolonged periods where maintenance budgets are cut back to the bone. This is an advantageous situation for politicians and private contractors alike – every other mayor can triumphantly proclaim major investments of public funds to demonstrate that, unlike their penny-pinching predecessors, they are truly working to push the city forward, wisely investing public funds in large-format public works programs.
It all has the allure of being good for the economy but it’s all just an illusion.
Coderre announced Thursday, from the trade mission he’s on in China (?), that there will be consequences for those responsible for driving the cost of the gazebo renovation project up to $592,000, and also provided the nebulous quotation: “…but trust me, I’m not going to spend too much money on that one.”
Your guess is as good as mine as to what precisely that means.