Tag Archives: Montréal

City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Mus̩e Рdate and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Actuaries make poor urban planners

Vancouver's Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM
Vancouver’s Skylink is a Bombardier Innovia Metro light-rail system, a likely candidate for the type to be used by the REM

I can’t believe it. I’ve been stymied by light-rail.

And light-rail development in Montreal has been stymied by what appears to be a near-total lack of consultation or coordination by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec with City Hall nor any of the numerous transit agencies operating in Greater Montreal.

This project may be responsible for some grey hairs I noticed recently; not in my lifetime has there been a transit project as audacious, innovative and potentially rewarding as the Caisse’s Réseau Électrique Métropolitain (REM).

Unfortunately, and just like every transit project announced in my lifetime, a lack of organization and consultation has likely doomed what might have been a major boon for local commuters.

This light-rail project gave me serious writer’s block. What’s the point writing about Montreal’s potential when every good idea we seem to have is so riddled with inconsistencies and flaws it’ll never get off the drawing board? The citizens of Montreal are used to being disappointed, and chronicling a city’s endemic disappointment hardly makes for good reading.

I wanted to take a closer look at some aspects of this project I found potentially innovative, but every time I started to write over the past week or so I discovered another news item detailing this project’s many defects. It wasn’t inspiring. I didn’t want to believe the cynics who initially scoffed at the REM for being too ambitious and/or requiring too much in funds from austerity-driven governments. Keep in mind the first criticism – and one of PKP’s last as leader of the PQ – was that the light-rail plan was over-focused on the suburbs at the expense of a long-planned (and now officially dormant) project to extend the Blue Line of the Métro.

Most of the criticism seemed unwarranted to me. Just because most of our recent transit and transport infrastructure endeavours have lagged behind schedule despite overinflated budgets doesn’t mean this is necessarily how things are done. And to a province wary of endemic corruption and collusion between the provincial transport ministry and the construction industry, the Caisse’s plan killed two birds with one stone: it takes initiative, and takes some of the financial burden off the public purse.

Pension funds financing infrastructure development is a smart solution to the problems that come with electing unimaginative austerity-driven governments and expecting them to ‘do more with less’.

Moreover, the Caisse’s expedited timescale to complete the project, in addition to its scale and scope, is reminiscent of Montreal’s single-greatest infrastructure success story, that of the Métro. The very first iteration of the Métro included 26 stations across three lines, and it was opened on time and in the black, entirely financed by the City of Montreal. It also only took four and a half years to build, and that was fifty years ago. The Caisse’s project is supposed to be ready in four years.

While I’d still like to see this project realized, the defects, shortcomings and problems that have come to light in the past two weeks must be addressed. Otherwise, the CDPQ’s REM project may end up causing more problems than it is worth.

Here’s a list of every reported problem with the REM so far:

– The REM is incompatible with the AMT network, and AMT trains will not be able to use the Mount Royal Tunnel. The under-performing Train de l’Est will be cut off from accessing the city centre via Central Station, and the Deux Montagnes Line will be eliminated altogether.

– This is particularly unfortunate because the AMT just sunk $300 million into building a maintenance depot to service those trains. Once the REM comes online the depot will service only a quarter of the trains it was designed to handle. On top of that, it was the AMT that purchased the Mount Royal Tunnel from CN for $92 million specifically so that it could execute renovations to expand the tunnel’s capacity.

– Light-rail systems are typically designed to be compatible with heavy-rail, such as the AMT’s commuter trains, and Montreal has a large railway network that would ideally be accessible to all AMT and future REM trains. If the Mount Royal Tunnel is rendered inaccessible to commuter rail it’s probable ridership on the $744 million Mascouche Line will decrease, and the REM may effectively prohibit its own potential future expansion.

– The system may require expropriations and demolitions, including two buildings of heritage value, the Rodier and the New City Gas. A total of seventy buildings in Montreal and Brossard have been put on notice by the Quebec government, despite the province having not yet set funds aside for the project. Worse, the incompatibility issue prevents the REM from using existing tracks on the CN viaduct. Buildings may be demolished to build a railway next to existing railways.

– Access to the airport seems to be reserved for the branch of the line running between it and Central Station. Passengers boarding on the Sainte-Anne or Deux-Montagnes branches will have to disembark at Bois-Franc and cross to the opposite platform to await an airport-bound train. From the looks of things, passengers airport-bound from the South Shore will have to disembark and transfer at Central Station.

– The locations of the Saint-Anne’s and Rive-Sud termini are suspicious; the latter is in an empty field across from the Dix-30 shopping complex, and the former adjacent to the Anse-a-l’Orme Trail. This has West Island conservationists concerned the city’s going to push through on a 5,000 home residential development next to the station. While encouraging public transit use amongst new homeowners is doubtless a good notion, it’s self-defeating if mass-transit is being oriented towards kickstarting large low-density housing projects.

– Initial discussions between the CDPQ and the city were conducted in secret, but on Monday City Councillor Craig Sauvé tweeted that Mayor Coderre now says his administration wasn’t consulted by the Caisse at all.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, the CDPQ clearly hasn’t yet consulted with the STM about hooking up the Métro to the REM at McGill and Edouard-Montpetit. I cannot stress this enough: this must be done as part of the first phase. Completing tunnel renovations and then re-renovating to build additional stations is so illogical writing that sentence actually gave me a nosebleed.

Oh wait: it actually get worse. The REM may actually be less efficient and less effective than what’s currently in service, especially in terms of passenger capacity on the Deux Montagnes Line. Anton Dubrau is anticipating crowded trains and platforms from day one.

Remember: this project doesn’t get off the ground without public money, and politicians (ostensibly) listen to their constituents. Having the Caisse fund this project is great, but before any actual work is done (or people forced from their homes and businesses), for the love of god let’s just try – once – to fix clearly identified problems before ‘the shovels pierce the soil.’

Otherwise, the REM may actually make public transit an inconvenient burden for everyone.

Hardly a wise move for the people responsible for our pensions…

Expo 1881

Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)
Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)

Many years ago when I found myself making my way towards the Tam Tams one sunny summer Sunday and wound up in the middle of a strange festival going along the Mount Royal Avenue side of Parc Jeanne-Mance.

I remember thinking this was an odd location for a festival – it’s a baseball diamond – and what was stranger was that everything was in English. All the signs and all the lettering on the side of the trucks was in English. Had I inadvertently walked into the middle of a film shoot?

Fortunately not; Montreal is a stop on the annual North American tour schedule of the travelling Festival of India!

The roadshow is run by Harinam Festivals, Incorporated. That firm aims to spread the word of Krishna Consciousness with an annual festival circuit.

In other words, you can add to our city’s dynamic list of annual festivals one thrown by the Hare Krishnas. They’ll be back, quite likely in Parc Jeanne-Mance, July 9th and 10th, though it makes me wonder why the Krishnas aren’t set up across Parc Avenue immediately adjacent to the Tam Tams. You’d figure that would be very complimentary what with the ‘expanded consciousness’ going on around the base of the Cartier Monument.

The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)
The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)

As it was this past weekend; the Tam Tams in particular and Mount Royal generally speaking tend to bring out large crowds, but Sunday was epic. It’s too bad the city doesn’t try to estimate the crowd size at the Tams, but that might be for the best. As it stands, and as it has always been, the Tams graciously features zero city involvement. It’s unorganized, essentially spontaneous and quintessentially Montreal.

That got me thinking – how long have people been congregating in this particular part of town?

Or, from another perspective, what is it that made this space public? What precluded residential development on the land that would become Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance parks?

There are a few different reasons why, but it’s worth noting that annual festivals played an interesting role.

Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876 and the city’s principle exhibition centre – the Crystal Palace – was moved from the foot of Victoria Street (between Sainte-Catherine and Cathcart) to the ‘exhibition grounds’ in Fletcher’s Field two years later. Fletcher’s Field ran between Saint-Urbain and Parc, from Duluth up to Saint Joseph, and was used for annual exhibitions, sports and even as a military parade ground.

The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade
The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade

The image above was created for the newspaper L’Opinion Publique in 1881 and offers a bird’s eye view of the ‘Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition’ and its buildings. The Crystal Palace is in the background, up on what is now Saint Jospeh, with a Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway train passing behind it. The racetrack in the foreground would have been located between Mount Royal Avenue and Marie-Anne, or just about where the Festival of India sets up shop today.

Curiously, the area’s association with psychoactive plants dates back all the way to 1879, when the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain recognized Fletcher’s Field as a prime source for Hyoscyamus niger, also known as Henbane or Stinking Nightshade.

I doubt many of the spectators attending the annual agricultural and industrial exhibitions back in the city’s Victorian Era would have consuming Stinking Nightshade, though it may have been popular among the various animals brought to the site. The lengths of the exhibition on both the Parc and Esplanade sides was basically two long stables for the many horses brought to the exhibition grounds. Much like today, the area would have had a particularly pungent odour…

Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal - 1881)
Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal – 1881)

Also worth pointing out: the first known photograph of uniformed ice hockey players in Canada was taken in the Crystal Palace in early 1881, the same year of the illustration at top. During the winter months the large interior hall of the Crystal Palace served as one of Montreal’s main skating rinks, the other being Victoria Rink, today a parking garage running between Drummond and Stanley, just up from René Lévesque.

Our Crystal Palace would ultimately be destroyed by fire (in 1896), much like the more famous example built earlier in London, and the land between Mount Royal and Saint Joseph would shortly thereafter be redeveloped into much of the residential housing we find there today.

The land south of Mount Royal would remain public, though it would be many more years before it took its present form, with an emphasis on sport, as Parc Jeanne-Mance.

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

Brickfields Conceptual Rendering
Brickfields Conceptual Rendering

Some late breaking good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it will become a restaurant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.

Tourisme Montréal actively soliciting Ripley’s to build aquarium, believe it or not.

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - photo credit to B+H Architects
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – photo credit to B+H Architects

A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.

As Réjean Bourdeau points out, it’s the second time in fifteen years that the Pattison Group has been approached to build an aquarium here in Montreal. The last attempt was made by the Société du Vieux-Port, which has been conducting surveys and public consultations of late on how to make the Old Port more inviting and interesting.

Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.

What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).

Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966
Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966

That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.

The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.

I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.

Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.

That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.

And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.

I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.

At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.

And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.

We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.

Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.

Snowdon Theatre Fire, The Lowest Point & Social Media

Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire - posted to mtlurb
Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire – posted to mtlurb

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.

Montreal police are now both searching for the teens suspected of starting the fire and have opened an investigation into how the Métro tunnels (and trains) were accessed by the creators of ‘Lowest Point in Montreal’.

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.

Gravenor insinuates that there’s “…a conscious or subconscious will to eradicate this beautiful Art Deco building and what it symbolically represents.”

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?