Tag Archives: Montréal Parks

Montréal’s best-kept secret park – Place des Nations

Place des Nations - once the focal point of Expo 67 and 50 million experiences of Montréal

It’s funny, back during the Expo/Man and His World years (1967-1975) this place would have been teaming with people. It was a major transit point, being served by the Expo Express and connecting to the various pavilions along the Bickerdyke Pier to the Centre d’Acceuil. Today it’s occasionally used as a parking lot or as a logistical centre for music concerts and other festivals. Kind of a huge let-down if you ask me; my parents and relatives described this place as being exceptionally alive and electric – pulsing with good vibes. Today it can be eerily still.

Place des Nations 1

I’ve enjoyed coming here during a snowstorm. I thought at one point that I was alone on the Island, and out at Place des Nations it is very easy to feel alone amongst the ruins of a futuristic city. It’s calming, but in a numbing way. In the Summer and Fall it takes on a different personality – there’s a lot of wildlife calling this part of Ile Ste-Helene home nowadays. It’s overgrown and falling apart, being gently reclaimed by the swampy ecosystem of the islands. It’s a great place to feel the power of the winds of the Saint Lawrence, and though parts are in dire need of repair, it seems as if the space could be made a functional public space with minimal investment. Parts seem to have been spared, or at least were designed to retain their elegance a little longer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a preferred location for fashion or wedding photo shoots.

I guess the City won’t put any real investment into Place des Nations unless there’s more use, and more use would mean it will lose its charm as a fading testament to what we once believed in. Perhaps we need to be reminded, but until that happens, take the trip – it’s well worth it. Once exiting the Métro head away from the crowds going towards La Ronde and head in the direction of the Calder Mobile sculpture (the big metal thing that kinda looks like a person) and then keep walking West along the forest trail.

Downtown Montreal from Place des Nations

You’ll eventually come up on the Pont de la Concorde, and Place des Nations is on the other side. Be advised, I’ve been here at times when there was literally no one else in sight. There are wild animals here, like herons, porcupines, beaver, ground hogs etc, and parts of the structure around Place des Nations is actually falling to pieces, so keep safe and enjoy.

For an aerial bird’s-eye perspective, click here.

Expo 67

Destroying the Old Port – Historical Perspectives

Knocking down the Old Port - late 1970s, not the work of the author.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend spending some time in the Old Port this Summer, and specifically a walk along Rue de la Commune. Enjoy a nice meal on an outdoor terrace, walk along the Harbourfront Park and take in the wide variety of activities available in Montréal’s Old Port during the peak Summer tourism months.

And remind yourself as you look out over the water towards Ile-Ste-Helene, the Casino, Habitat 67 or the Jacques-Cartier Bridge that once upon a time – not too long ago in fact – you couldn’t see any of it, because the Port of Montréal was still fully operational in the sector currently known as Vieux-Montréal.

As the photos here demonstrate, the Old Port was once the port, and the area currently occupied with restaurants, boutique hotels and galleries was once highly industrial/commercial. All those sweet lofts you now covet were once working-class housing, and the port had a bit of a reputation for being a seedy, run-down part of an old city falling apart at the seams. Consider the size of Grain Elevator No.5, and imagine three elevators of a similar size, not to mention cold-storage warehouses and functioning piers and all associated logistical equipment, ripped out from their moorings and cleared away. Though this was doubtless a smart move for the city (as more modern port facilities were constructed further East and the area once occupied by the port was turned into one of the classiest neighbourhoods in the city), it nonetheless had a deep impact on the psyche of local inhabitants.

Approaching Montreal's port - late-1960s, early 1970s; not the work of the author.

Here’s where dates are key. The renovation of Montreal’s Old Port and the relocation of the commercial seaport took place in the late 1970s. It involved cooperation between three levels of government with the Fed leading, as the Port of Montréal is a crown asset. At the same time – the same year in fact – the much dreaded economic reaction to the election of the PQ in 1976 was beginning to manifest itself. The Péquistes were talking Bill 101 and an eventual Referendum, and some major corporations once headquartered here pulled up their roots and shipped off to Toronto (In 1978 it was the Sun Life Insurance Company, once a major white-collar employer). The near simultaneous destruction of much of the industrial component of the Old Port signified, for many, an irreversible turn of fortune – a Montréal equivalent to Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River Fire.

Cold Storage warehouse and other port facilities - 1958; not the work of the author.

FYI – if you want a local blues-rocker’s take on this era in city history, check out Walter Rossi’s “Down by the Waterfront”; off of 1980’s ‘Diamonds for the Kid’ – scroll over to read the lyrics. I can’t say for certain it’s about life on our particular waterfront, but from what I’ve heard and read, life was a bit different back when the Port actually emptied directly onto de la Commune. Consider that Montréal’s role as a major transit point in international smuggling operations has pretty much maintained itself since before the War – it’s just that back before the mid-1980s, most of that smuggling was going on where currently American tourists go to get a taste of Europe on the cheap. Dig?

Moving the port facilities further East was obviously a wise decision, as the expansion allowed the Port of Montréal to develop into North America’s premiere inland port. In fact, I’d even go so far to say it made the Saint Lawrence Seaway somewhat obsolete, as ocean-going vessels can now easily dock in Montréal and transfer their cargo directly onto waiting trains, access the oil terminals and have access to larger spaces and more modern equipment to unload cargo containers. Moreover, by moving the port to a more or less dedicated industrial area, away from the city and next to a major military base, cut off from residential area by better zoning, rail lines and Boul. Notre-Dame Est probably did quite a bit to remove, if not eliminate some the seedier elements associated with major port cities from the picturesque Old Quarter.

Old Port Police HQ - demolished in the early 2000s; pic from late 1970s, not the work of the author.

I think one of the biggest problems we had with regards to our Old Port redevelopment (read this neat 1979 Montreal Gazette article about planning for the new Montréal Harbourfront), was that there was a lull period throughout most of the 1980s as the old was removed, the ground de-contaminated, the area re-designed etc. It seems as if the Drapeau & Doré administrations didn’t adequately communicate the Old Port redesign scheme as a major investment with guaranteed returns, at least not well enough to counter the growing perception that Montréal was becoming a washed-up second city.

Part of the problem may have had to do with the fact that ‘harbourfront/dockside/portlands’ renovations were a kind of weird 80s and 90s urban-planning technique designed to ‘re-invigorate’ failing American rust-belt cities, most of which kind of came up flat. I think Montréal succeeded wildly, though it shows – when you walk around the Old Port ask yourself who works there in the off-season. It still has a viable economy besides tourism, and has been re-integrated into the urban fabric, quite expertly in fact. Consider the types of services, spaces, places and institutions in the Old Port – this is now a place to live, work and play. Few other cities have been able to rehabilitate such a large area on such a grand scale; how much money has been invested into the Old Port and Old Quarter since the mid-1980s? I can bet you it probably dwarfs what was spent on the Olympics.

It’s unfortunate that, as a result of our extremely successful port renovation scheme, we lost this:

Market scene from Place Jacques-Cartier; 50s or 60s? not the work of the author.

And it’s also kind of amazing that we did, given that so many other cities went with conversions of old port-side warehouses and storehouses into international markets – think South Street Seaport in NYC, or Faneuil Hall in Boston. And given how successful other markets have become in Montréal, you’d figure there would be an effort made to rekindle a bustling Old Port market. I’d love to see small motor boats coming in from up and downriver with fresh produce. Actually, I’d get a huge kick out of it. Imagine the people watching you could do! Imagine how much more life it would breathe into the port, and how many more Montrealers may go there – tourists be damned.

On a final note – there are two elements of port life I would like to see reintegrated into the Old Port, and I can imagine it would allow for an interesting and distinct character. For as nice as it is, the Old Port still seems a little too dependent on tourist dollars to keep going – at certain times of the year, let’s face it, the Old Port can be anything but hospitable, with much of Rue de la Commune boarded up until the Spring. I’d like to see actual sailors, people from all over the world, enjoying the Old Port and utilizing it as anyone may use a city, but there is a lack of affordable hotels in the area, as pretty much everything is geared towards wealthy American and European tourists. If this was altered slightly, and additional services for sailors were located in the Old Port, it would add a degree of authenticity (which can’t hurt) that may translate into additional sources of steady income for the Old Port as a neighbourhood and community.

As it stands right now, the Old Port is a bit of an oddity in Montréal. It’s gorgeous, it’s antique, it’s wealthy and fun. But there are parts which still seem a bit off – is it weird to have a playground in your front yard? The fact that there is no so little actual port activity in the Old Port gives it a Disney World pseudo-realistic feeling. What if a ferry terminal and a dedicated cruise-ship pier were built, and the Old Port reprized its role as a major transit point? I can imagine the Old Port would acquire a degree of cachet heretofore unknown, one it could potentially bank on. Not to mention that there is a potential gold mine in opening up the Old Port, with its remaining facilities, as a new passenger transit hub. Today there are no ferries between Montréal and say, the South Shore, or West Island, or anywhere else accessible by water. There are very few cruise ships, and a lack of investment in new facilities will prevent Montréal from becoming a major cruise ship tourist destination (and if you’ve ever been up or down the Saint Lawrence, you know why that’s kind of ridiculous).

I mean who wouldn’t want to sail into this:

The view from 1994. Pretty much the same as it is today; not the work of the author.

Pretty Fucking Lame – A new Old Port beach for 2012

Andy Riga at Metropolitan News put it succinctly, how lame is an Old Port beach where you can’t swim?, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve brought up the issue of the lack of public beaches on-island before, and the Old Port Corp’s recent proposal to construct a ‘no-swimming beach’ is a penultimate example of lack of ambition.

I think we’ve got a weird creativity problem coming from the semi-corporate, semi-public-interest corporations running our primo public space. They offer a bland foreign substitute when they ought to be pushing to fix significantly larger problems. Once again, a problem – lack of public beaches – which could necessitate a fantastic response – a metropolitan plan to clean our local waterways and rehabilitate the beaches which occur naturally on-island. And once again, a complete lack of vision.

Aerial perspective of new Old Port 'beach'

As you can see above, this new ‘urban beach’ is destined to be situated at the eastern tip of the Quai de l’Horloge. Currently, the area is pretty run down, not having been renovated since, by the looks of things, the early 1990s. Most of the beach would extend down the inner side of the Quai’s marina, offering a pleasant view of the Old Port and many ostentatious yachts. If they construct a new pavilion at the end of the Quai, with appropriate facilities, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t go there. It may quickly become a douche-bag/white-trash repository with juiced-up muscle-heads parading around ceaselessly with popped-collars and rococo-Catholic tattoos, but hey, just because that’s exactly what you’ll find at the;

1. Beach at Parc Jean-Drapeau
2. Oka Beach
3. Eastern look-out on the Mountain
4. La Ronde
5. The Orange Julip
6. For some reason the Oratory?

doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen in the Old Port too, right? That would be pretty fucking lame.

Maybe you run this risk in every place people congregate, but it seems as though a beach without the possibility for swimming is basically a place where you get drunk while sun-bathing. And if you can’t cool-off by taking a dip, then your just going to drink. I’m no teetotaler, but we should think this one through. Off the bat it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be family-friendly, and that’s where the money lies. But perhaps I’m taking liberties; there’s no reason to think that this new development would be treated any differently than the rest of the facilities, restaurants, pavilions etc throughout the rest of the harbour-front. In my opinion, they do generally good work – so here’s hoping it succeeds.

Ultimately, any new development in the Old Port is probably worth it, and this area could use a renovation, and this one is as good a plan as anywhere else. It has worked in Paris, though I feel the Parisian example is significantly better connected to the urban traffic dynamic. This beach is planned for the end of the Quai, in an area which is otherwise used for parking. That being said, it’s not isolated when you consider it in relation to the placement of other facilities along the linear park – in other words, it could be a ‘pole of attraction’ designed to stimulate increased traffic at that end of the Old Port, an area which is currently being redeveloped with high-density residential housing.

Quai de l'Horloge beach perspective drawing

The big problem with this kind of development is that it’s so simple, so unimaginative. Aside from the fact that it’s an imported idea, it doesn’t consider the bigger local issue, which is that we live on an island that once had numerous natural, largely public beaches and clean water to bathe in. Now we don’t.

We’ve shut ourselves out of an interesting industry – resort tourism – as a result. Consider how many other cities built along rivers have almost immediate access to large public beaches, boardwalks and resort, beach-side communities. New Yorkers have access to this, as do Cariocans; hell, even Londoners can escape to Brighton! But we’ve lost our beaches as a result of our previous industrial development. It also doesn’t help that Lac St-Louis is sort of a collecting pond for industrial waste and pollutants coming down from the Great Lakes, and so instead of planning and creating funds to clean our river and lakes, we announce cheap imitations with great fanfare.

As I said, pretty fucking lame.

What do you think we should do? Does this argument make sense? Hope this was clear – feedback & constructive criticism always appreciated.

Incredibly poor design – what did we win that UNESCO award for anyways?

BIXI parking across Phillips' Square - work of the auhor, May 19th 2011

Many thanks to Isabelle and Nelson for reminding me of this God forsaken travesty of urban design.

So apparently BIXI and the City agree that Phillips’ Square is an ideal location for a high concentration of docks. Last year, I remember seeing docks doubled up along the eastern edge of the Square, and on occasion, a large quantity of bikes kept in reserve for a daily rush. Clearly, the demand from this particular point was fairly high. That being said, this year I discovered the solution to such high demand – the construction of a ‘dock-barrier’ which cuts the Square in two parts, as you can see above.

Aside from dividing the space, this set-up provides an obstacle for anyone wishing to cross through the Square – which is what it’s designed to facilitate. Moreover, there are still parking spaces along the edge of the Square which could be easily converted to spaces for docks. In fact, based on my observations last night, they’d probably be able to fit about twice as many bikes by using those spaces as opposed to running one long dock across the Square.

Another problem – the vendors along St-Catherine’s are further isolated from existing traffic patterns. I spoke with some of them a while ago – they we’re incredulous at how silly this arrangement is, and how anyone in City Hall could have approved of the decision.

This space deserves better.



This space does in fact deserve better – and it got better.

Having recently moved into the neighbourhood I was eager to see whether the city had in fact removed the offending bike racks. Turns out that yes, indeed, they were permanently removed.

Getting the opportunity to pass through the urban square with some regularity, I can say that it seems to be very well used. It is an unlikely meeting place for very small protests and demonstration, such as the ultra-orthodox Chasidim protesting the existence of Israel to the Kurds protesting joint Turko-American suppression of the Kurds. It’s always lively and seems to be a preferred location for bums and retailers alike to take their lunch breaks, and frames the buildings surrounding the square. It is often well photographed by passing tourists who touch the foot of King Edward VII, rubbing it as if for luck. Others just drop their jaw to a publicly-acceptable degree of awe. I doubt too many people know anything about the guy, but fuck if it isn’t a neat statue, read whichever way you like.

What I find curious is how the vendor kiosks are lined up facing Ste-Catherine’s, essentially forming a continuance of sorts to the store fronts along the rest of the street. If they were redistributed across the square, optimally with a kiosk at each of the corners, they might prevent the weird pedestrian bottleneck that happens along the edge of the square on Ste-Catherine’s.

Further – has anyone else noticed that despite all the docks, there are frequently times in which there isn’t a single bike at the entirety of the square? And not even at peak hours either – quite bizarre.

In any event, if you have never visited Phillips Square I highly recommend taking a little walk from McGill or Square-Victoria Métro stations and seeing the sites. There’s plenty to do, but if you prefer photography to shopping then I highly recommend bringing your camera. There’s plenty to see and watch throughout the day, and the square provides interesting vantage points on Christ Church Cathedral, the Birks and New Birks buildings, the Bay, the Canada Cement Building and what’s left of the neighbourhood once known as Little Dublin. Enjoy the terraces along the eastern side of the square while they’re up, or if you’re feeling mighty posh and have some coin burning a hole in your pocket, try the Café Birks and let me know what you think.

The Montreal Children’s Hospital – how do we manage institutional space?

Montreal Children's Hospital - not the work of the author

With construction of the new MUHC Superhospital already well underway, and the subsequent realization that the project will likely be over budget and incapable of fully replacing each of the hospitals it was ostensibly designed to replace, we as citizens need to determine (before our politicians do) how we want health-care services to be distributed on island, and what we’re going to do with the hospitals which are to be relocated to the Glen Yard site.

Just to recap, the following hospitals will be relocated:
1. The Montreal Children’s Hospital
2. The Royal Victoria Hospital
3. The Montreal Chest Institute
4. The Shriner’s Hospital
5. The MUHC’s Cancer Centre and their research institute

Thus, those buildings are soon to become vacant, and the citizens of Montreal will have to figure out what to do with so much new empty space. The key here is that this space is institutional in nature; in the case of the Royal Victoria Hospital there’s a stipulation in the deed that the site and buildings must be used either to teach or to heal (or both I guess), but is not to become residential, neither as student housing and certainly not as condos. There’s even a living descendant of Lord Mount Stephen (I think) who has vowed to make sure the stipulation is respected.

The idea of turning these hospitals into residential structures would be in keeping with a developing trend with regards to recycling institutional buildings; churches, convents and schools in Montreal have been so similarly converted. It’s an interesting choice, as most of these old institutional buildings were already designed to house people, or can be easily converted to do so. In other words, it’s a logical and profitable way to respect Montréal’s heritage laws.

But hospitals are very different from schools and churches. The interaction of space and community is far more wide-reaching than a school or a church, and despite being considered public space, convents and monasteries have historically been anything but public. Moreover, unlike schools and churches, hospitals alter traffic systems and city infrastructure systems around them; hospitals are generally built in highly accessible areas and, given that they are 24hr facilities, tend to keep the neighbourhood around them open and accessible throughout the day. In other words, in a moderately depressed urban area, such as the Cabot Square/ Atwater sector, the loss of a hospital may have dire consequences for local small businesses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a vacant hospital quickly became a gigantic squat. This wouldn’t help the city’s neighbourhood renovation scheme.

Sites for future urban renewal, Cabot Square sector - City of Montréal

So then what of the Children’s?

Children's Hospital, formerly Western General Hospital - not the work of the author

I feel as though the loss of the Children’s Hospital from the Atwater/Cabot area may burden the neighbourhood considerably, but after spending some time in Cabot Square reflecting, I think I’ve got a partial solution.

Given the size of the existing structure, the space on the site where new construction could occur (so as to further increase the density of the site) and it’s relation to Cabot Square, I think the Children’s could be converted to educational purposes. Dawson College is far over capacity and is renting out space in the Forum. I can’t imagine any reason for it not to continue growing; ergo, is it time for a new Dawson campus fronting on Cabot Square? Maybe it doesn’t even need to be Dawson, but an entirely new CEGEP, perhaps a fully bilingual one. I think a Dawson satellite campus makes a lot more sense, and it could be further connected directly to the Atwater Metro station tunnel system.

But then there’s the issue of the area’s many homeless, and for that, I feel the solution may exist a little further down René-Lévesque. The former Maison St-Gregoire, located diagonally across from the CCA East of St-Marc, has been abandoned for a considerably long time. Though currently in private hands, the plans to create viable commercial real estate have so far fallen through. It would be an ideal location, as the building is already designed to be used as a residence, and there’s sufficient space for expansion. Plus, it would pull homeless away from Cabot Square and instead provide a steady source of individuals who will doubtless finally put the CCA sculpture garden to good use.

What do y’all think?

My hometown/ Ecological preservation in Montréal

Photo credit: Morgan Arboretum

So I just moved back into the city and am looking forward to a summer living in the downtown. Yes, Pierrefonds is technically speaking part of the City of Montréal, but in too many respects it is a world away from the urban environment I really identify with. I was raised in Pierrefonds, and can honestly say it’s an excellent place to raise a family, but for a young boulevardier it has recently begun to make its comparative isolation apparent. Regardless, the plan was to move out once the degree was complete, after several earlier attempts to make it on my own and three summers in a row living out of a suitcase in Toronto, I’m now finally in a position to get back home, to the city.

That being said, I do have an affinity for my hometown, as most people do. Pierrefonds in the summer is a really lovely place. I could spend hours lying in the sun in my backyard, listening to the symphony of local birds and small rodents going through their version of the daily grind. The soil’s decent enough for the most part, and people diligently tend to their lawns and gardens. It’s a very green part of the city, lush even by typically verdant Montreal standards. There are parks and other green spaces strategically located throughout, and the community has access to the back river, though there unfortunately no beaches, and few riverside parks. The houses are very similar throughout the central portion of Pierrefonds, where I grew up, having been built in the early 1960s. They’re all middle-class, medium-sized bungalows based on about a dozen variations of a similar design, and have been placed on roughly equal half-acre plots. From the size of some of the trees in the neighbourhood, it would seem as if the contractors and developers tried to keep as many of the older ones as possible, ergo – Pierrefonds and part of DDO was not initially the victim of slash-and-burn residential development. By contrast, it’s difficult to tell where the farm boundaries used to be – they’re not completely obvious, though ancient farmhouses and beach-houses can still be seen along Gouin Boulevard.

The Western tip of the Island, including parts of Pierrefonds, Senneville and St-Anne-de-Bellevue is still comparatively undeveloped. I remember a few years back working for a landscaping and construction company, driving along Chemin Ste-Marie we spotted a group of deer drinking from a swamp. A few months back, a grey fox stopped just long enough in front of my house to give me a rather inquisitive look, as though he was startled to see me! Rabbits run amok at night in Pierrefonds, darting out of nowhere to startle the stoned pedestrian. There are cranes, falcons, skunks, porcupines, beaver, raccoons, groundhogs, chipmunks and the occasional wolverine in these parts, and though this may seem to be obvious given the type of climate and ecosystem we find ourselves in, I still find it somewhat incredible that we haven’t already eradicated these species through residential encroachment. If we believe that it’s somewhat important to maintain a wild side to Montreal Island, then I think its about time we get serious about protecting the last remaining wild spaces on the island.

If you compare the western tip with the eastern tip of the island, you’ll notice that there’s considerably more space worth protecting out West (there seem to be a lot of golf courses out East). There’s an organization called Coop du Grand Orme which has been involved in trying to protect West Island green spaces, including the beautiful Angel Woods in Beaconsfield. This here is the latest news I could find on efforts to protect the Anse-a-l’Orme area in Pierrefonds/Kirkland.

Long story short; the West Island used to be pretty rustic, rural and green. I think much more ought to be done to protect these extremely valuable spaces. That being said, as long as the West Island communities remain separate from the City, it may make things more difficult to devise master plans to protect and promote our last remaining large nature areas. The Island of Montreal is ten times larger than the Island of Manhattan, and yet we haven’t even remotely come close to achieving their level of urban density. Food for thought. If these spaces were more thoroughly protected, and the City sought to develop some of these areas for recreational purposes, we may be able to stimulate on-island camping, riverside resorts etc. There’s a lot of money to be made by carefully protecting green spaces. As my brother remarked about a week ago on the 205 heading home to visit my mom, once the land is developed, the process can’t be reversed. He said this as we passed land being clear-cut for new McMansions. Just down the road from my childhood home, a lot which had been open and undeveloped for as long as I can remember now features a featureless building with no tenant. Build it and they will come? Doesn’t look like it.