Tag Archives: Urban design issues

Covering Over Modernity

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

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

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

This is Montreal back when Canada had but one metropolis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is back when NDG was the suburbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question comes down to cost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maitres chez nous…

The Case for Cabot Square

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Poor John Cabot, we hardly new ye.

Most people don’t know who he is or why there’s a sizeable chunk of prime downtown property in a state of seemingly perpetual disrepair named after him.

In fact, it’s not even actually named after him, strictly speaking, as his actual name (in his native Venetian) was Zuan Chabotto.

In English and French, his name was John or Jean Cabot. In Italian it was Giovanni Caboto. In Portuguese he was known as Juan Caboto.

A man by any other name…

Perhaps it is because he is so unknown and comparatively unimportant to the lives of Montrealers that we have allowed the rather large urban park that bears his name to end up the mess that it is. Recent news is that the city is pledging $6.5 million to renovate and revitalize the park, more on which I’ll talk about later.

Hmmm, come to think of it, strictly speaking it’s not a park but a square. In fact, because it’s technically a square there’s no curfew. As far as I know it’s only parks and playgrounds that have curfews in this city.

Thus, this once proud square has become a repository for the city’s homeless, the kiosk has been boarded up for years and the Métro entrance is repository for the homeless in winter months. Lately, efforts to improve the overall aesthetic of the park has resulted in the installation of a multitude of sculptures. So now it’s a repository for post modern art as well.

Montrealers know there’s not much good going on in Cabot Square – at best it’s a poorly designed bus terminus. At it’s worst it’s a shocking example of endemic social inequity.

This is what I find particularly ironic – Cabot Square is generally associated with the city’s transient Aboriginal homeless population. The lasting negative effects of European colonization of North America can be seen just about every day gathered, inebriated, somewhere in the square dedicated incorrectly to a man who was once viewed as our equivalent to Columbus.

I suppose in some ways he is our Columbus. The American veneration of Columbus is as ridiculous as our former veneration of Cabot. Neither Columbus nor Cabot were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, this was done by the Viking Leif Ericson in the 11th century. And neither of them ‘discovered’ the Americas either – this was accomplished by the ancestors of our Aboriginal peoples some ten thousand years ago.

It’s the official position of the government of Canada and the United Kingdom that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, so you’re right to wonder why on Earth one and a half acres in the Shaughnessy Village is dedicated in his name. He never had anything to do with Montreal.

And if that all isn’t bad enough, from atop his perch Cabot’s copper gaze is fixed forevermore on the architectural abomination that is the Pepsi AMC Cineplex (awaiting new management) Forum. Our city’s great failure to preserve our shrine to the greatest game is all he has to look at now.

So how did we get here?

The land that became Cabot Square was acquired from the Sulpicians in 1870 for the purposes of a public park in what was then the westernmost extent of the city. Initially it was called, simply, Western Park (the Montreal Children’s Hospital was formerly the ‘Western General Hospital’ if I recall correctly) and it served the large Anglo-Irish middle and upper-class that inhabited the area as a much needed common green. Originally, it featured a large fountain in the middle. The statue of John Cabot was a ‘gift’ from the Italian population of Canada to Montreal and was erected in 1935, though the square wouldn’t be officially recognized as Cabot Square until some time later.

For a good long while Cabot Square was as desirable a place to go as any other large urban space and served as a kind of ‘front yard’ for the Forum throughout that building’s storied time as home to the Montreal Canadiens. It was also immediately adjacent to what became the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1956, and down the road from the former Reddy Memorial Hospital. The area was, by some estimates, at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s when Westmount Square and Place Alexis-Nihon were built atop and integrated into the Métro system, an early component of the Underground City. At the time, Atwater station was the western terminus of the Green Line and the integration of mass transit, large, contiguous shopping malls, the city’s main arena and residential and commercial towers was at the cutting edge of modern urban design. The Forum was expanded and modified into its ‘classic look’ in 1968 and throughout the next two decades was not only home to the most exciting franchise in the NHL, but was also served as the city’s main large-capacity performance venue. Even into the mid-late 1980s the general area around the square was developing and improving: commercial office towers were added to Place Alexis-Nihon in 1986, Dawson moved into its current home in 1988 and the CCA was completed the following year just down the road.

By the mid-1990s the situation had changed considerably. The Canadiens would leave in the Forum in 1996 and the subsequent ‘entertainment complex’ developed in the renovated building never quite took off as intended. The Reddy closed down about the same time as Ste-Catherine Street West began its steep decline into a bit of a ghost town, as storefronts remained vacant for well over a decade. Today there are still too many unoccupied buildings on that stretch of our city’s main commercial artery, another hospital is slated to close, and the Forum seems to be an even greater disappointment as former ‘anchor’ tenants pack up their bags.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

The city’s plan to invest $6.5 million to renovate the square is definitely a step in the right direction – it needs a lot of work. But there are critics, notably City Councillor for the Peter-McGill district, Steve Shanahan. He argues that an aesthetic makeover won’t solve the square’s homeless problem.

He’s right, but then again, it’s not exactly the square’s homeless problem; it’s Montreal that has a general homeless problem. Mr. Shanahan is arguing that half the allocated sum be used to address the homeless issue as it specifically relates to Cabot Square – though he was particularly outraged the city’s plan doesn’t include the destruction of the aforementioned Métro entrance at the northwest corner of the square, immediately adjacent to the unused Vespasienne (which was, to my knowledge, never actually in use as a public pissoir, but used variously as a flower vendor and bistro or snack bar).

For people unfamiliar with the area, the Métro entrance is a rather cumbersome structure that features an oddly large vestibule and other space used variously by the STM. It’s an unnecessary structure (from a public transit perspective) that blocks access to the square and serves as a kind of homeless hangout.

This wasn’t always the case. When the Métro entrance was built it was, in my opinion, ingeniously well-designed. The entrance is oriented towards the centre of the square and this is important given the square’s former use as the Forum’s ‘front yard’ – large crowds could come out of the Forum and into the square instead of spilling out onto Atwater. Having people move into the square in turn facilitated dispersal amongst STM services – Métro on one side, the old bus terminus on Lambert-Closse on the other.

The placement of the bus terminus across from the Métro entrance also guaranteed a constant stream of foot traffic through the square, and generally speaking we tend to take decent enough care of that which we use most often.

But some years ago the decision was made to eliminate the bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, replacing them with several smaller glass shelters at multiple bus stops arranged around the square. Why this decision was made I’d really like to know. Buses still congregate on the eastern side of the square and, again somewhat ironically, the bus shelters have become makeshift pissoirs, used by the local drunks.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

In the history of Cabot Square’s long demise, I think this was the first bad move. It removed people from the centre of the square and re-distributed them along its edge. Worse, the new shelters, along with hedges and decorative gates, made it difficult for see across the square, allowing people a degree of privacy inside the square. It was only a matter of time before it gained a regular homeless population – Berri Square (Place Emilie-Gamelin) suffers from exactly the same problem. When people can’t see clearly across a square, when there are aesthetic elements that block views, people generally stay out and keep to the edge. Policing these areas becomes difficult. In both cases police have resorted to simply parking their cruisers right in the middle of the squares in a show of force to drug dealers. Is it any wonder people stay out of these public spaces?

All this considered, I don’t think Cabot Square is a lost cause, the city just needs to realize it can’t throw money at the problem and hope it disappears. If we want a better functioning, more welcoming Cabot Square we have to consider what’s around the square too, and how the neighbourhood has changed in the last twenty years.

I’d argue the square could do without the current Métro entrance, but I wouldn’t recommend eliminating the entrance and the tunnel as well. Access to the Métro is a plus for any public space, but we could afford a less obtrusive entrance. Something closer to the Art Nouveau entrance at Square Victoria seems more appropriate.

It would be wise to return to one large bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, and remove all the obstructions along the edge of the square so that it can be accessed from all sides. It is a city square after all, it’s supposed to be ‘open concept’. The city’s current plan seeks to enlarge the square by expanding onto Lambert-Closse, eliminating two lanes. I’d prefer to see expansion to the south instead – that stretch of Tupper has always seemed a bit useless to me. Either way, the benefits of a single bus terminus are wide-ranging. Increased safety and security, concentration of activity, the option to build a large heated bus shelter, and that it would encourage transit users to cross through the square.

More broadly, the city needs to have a plan in place for the future of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. What will come of this massive building, arguably a heritage site worth preserving? I would hate to see it converted into condos, though I think this is unlikely. It’s institutional space and we need as much of that as we can get our hands on. Perhaps it will become a public retirement/assisted-living home, or maybe it will be bought up by Dawson College, given they’ve been over-capacity and renting space in the Forum for a while now.

At least part of the former hospital could potentially be used as a homeless shelter.

But all this will take some serious leadership from City Hall. A $6.5 million renovation plan is a good start, but the square needs rehabilitation as well. The western edge of the downtown has a lot going for it, but the city will have to develop a master plan that tackles a lot more than just the landscaping problems.

A place as ‘Westmount adjacent’ as Cabot Square should be a far more desirable place to be.

Austerity Measures & Bad Design in Montreal Public Transit

And now for something completely different...
And now for something completely different…

Not exactly the kind of news regular users of Montreal’s public transit system want to hear, but it looks like the city’s public transit agency is facing a budget shortfall of $20 million, and this apparently is going to result in service cuts – the first since the late 1990s despite increased usage. The city recently tabled it’s 2014 budget, which includes $12.5 million for the municipal transit agency, but this apparently isn’t enough to keep up current service rates according to STM President Philippe Schnobb.

Thus, cuts will focus on evening and weekend bus service, promotions and general cleanliness and maintenance.

I find it surprising that there’s money for new uniforms, however. You’d think the STM would use that money to keep buses moving and our Métro stations clean, given that it’s ridership that provides the primary revenue stream. Cutting back on the availability and quality of the principal service provided by the organization while spending money on new uniforms seems like a piss-poor idea to me. This wouldn’t happen in the private sector. Can you imagine the outrage if Air Canada cut back on flights and the general maintenance of their aircraft in a move to save money, all the while repainting the airplanes and buying new uniforms?

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I guess that’s the key difference between the private and public sectors. Taxpayers aren’t shareholders, though we should be considered as such.

Above is a good example of why austerity measures don’t really work. It starts with cuts to cleanliness and maintenance, then security, and before you know it you’ve got the NYC Subway in the 1980s – filthy, unappealing, covered in graffiti and requiring police K9 units to maintain ‘law & order’. We shouldn’t follow their example. Rather we should learn from their mistakes.

Perhaps it’s political. Maybe there’ll be a back and forth and one day in a few weeks Mayor Coderre comes out and says, as a result of his fiscal prowess, the remainder of the STM’s budget shortfall will be covered by the city.

But I won’t be holding my breath. A 3% cut to service is just small enough it won’t result in mass demonstrations. Just frustration from the people most dependent on public transit, an unfortunately politically inconsequential demographic it seems.

I don’t know why they didn’t consider raising the fare. I think most public transit users would pay more to ensure, at the very least, that there are no cuts to upkeep, cleaning and maintenance.

It’s hard enough to keep our Métro stations and buses looking good – they need to be cleaned and maintained regularly or else they fall into disrepair. Haven’t we learned anything from the Champlain Bridge? Never cut back on regular maintenance – the problem not addressed today will be even more problematic tomorrow.

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I included the photo above as an example. Métrovision is actually running ads boasting about the total number of screens installed throughout the system, but as most regular users will tell you, many of the screens seem to be defective. I took the above photo at Vendome a few nights back – each screen was similarly defective, some had those annoying black spots, evidence of someone having hit or thrown something at the LCD screen. At Lionel-Groulx all four projectors weren’t working on the upper deck of the station – they haven’t worked for months. At Guy-Concordia and Bonaventure the situation was much the same as at Vendome – the screens have either been busted by vandals and/or the image doesn’t display properly.

And the STM is going to cut back on maintenance?

I’d be less concerned if it weren’t for the STM’s ‘half-assing it’ approach to improving the public transit system we have. The Métrovision screens are just one example of a good idea so poorly and inefficiently executed it makes me wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose so as to ensure the need for long-term maintenance contracts. Then there’s the Métrovision screens installed behind concrete beams at Snowdon Métro, meaning it can only be seen if you’re standing directly underneath it (see photo at top). Another example, the new bus shelters at Lionel-Groulx. The STM built what I can only describe as the world’s most ineffective bus shelter:

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Now, if Montreal were located 1,000 km south (and the average Montrealer stood ten feet tall) this might not be such a bad design. But such is not the case, and this is apparently, actually the best the STM could come up with.

If this is what austerity gets us, it would be best not to build at all. These shelters are useless, primarily because they don’t provide much shelter. It’s really just that simple.

I’d prefer the STM stops putting up fancy new bus shelters with interactive advertisements and just focus on making what we already have work better. Figure out a way to get rid of the slush accumulating in Guy-Concordia. Try to eliminate the pervasive stench of urine at Bonaventure. Encase all the TV screens in a plexiglas container (why wasn’t this done from the start?). Run more buses, run the Métro later etc. And for Christ’s sake – install some public washrooms!

Now, that aside, a few questions I have re: advertising.

Recently, I was dismayed to find Sherbrooke station, and several others, looking like this:

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Barf.

Again, who the hell at the STM thought this was a good idea?

If only I could nominate this for the worst advertising campaign in the Métro’s proud history.

I feel it demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the general aesthetic and architecture of the stations (let’s not forget, each was designed by its own team of architects, features its own art, layout etc.), not to mention serves as an excellent demonstration of how we treat our public spaces. That is, cheaply.

This is cheap, that’s the only word for it. We may as well cover all the station walls with cork board and hang staplers on the wall. Is it any wonder we also have to contend with vandals going out of their way to destroy what we have? If the people who run the system don’t appear to be terribly interested with keeping things presentable, how can they expect the people to treat it any better?

Isn’t there a slightly better way to generate advertising revenue than by pasting over the walls of our Métro stations with uninspired marketing gimmicks?

It doesn’t make any sense really. The STM is aces when it comes to designing their own branding, instructional and promotional materials, and I’d argue both the vehicles and the systems are all very well designed indeed. But when it comes to infrastructure, the simple stuff in the grand scheme of things, the STM proves to be maddeningly inconsistent. From garbage cans to benches, bus shelters to tunnels, advertising space, PA systems and TV screens, the STM has demonstrated a lack of imagination at best and incompetence at worst.

But as always, there are some interesting solutions to consider if we open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking.

Take for instance, the TESCO virtual supermarket found in the Seoul Subway.

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There’s no question advertising is a key component of the STM’s overall plan to generate revenue, but it doesn’t have to be so much of the same old thing. As technology develops, advertising can move into interesting new territory. Take the above example. Rather than merely advertise a grocery store, TESCO brought the supermarket directly to the consumers as they wait to commute home at the end of the working day. Using your smartphone you simply scan the items you wish to purchase and place your order with online payment. The order is delivered by the end of the day. In time, developments such as a virtual store app linked to a credit or debit account could render the payment process automatic, and data provided by the user, the subway system and the smartphone could facilitate even more efficient delivery methods, timed to coincide with just after the user arrives home. The possibilities here are endless.

The TESCO virtual store model isn’t just impressive for its efficiency and the service it offers its customers, it’s also the best kind of advertising I could possibly imagine because it actually does something – it responds to my needs rather than telling me how a given store will satisfy my needs like no other. In terms of supermarkets and pharmacies the tired old pitch of incredible savings borders on the absurd (think about those idiotic Jean Coutu ads you hear on the radio set to the tune of Eine kleine Nachtmusik; ah, the refined elegance of simply unimaginable savings potential at my local chain-pharmacy! Gimme a break.)

I’d much rather have something like this serve as an advertisement. Something tells me you could easily justify slightly higher advertising rates in doing so. The STM shouldn’t wait for good design in advertising, they should push innovation in design as part of the broader image of the city as a design hub. Innovation of this type improves the overall experience enjoyed by public transit users due to the potential to save people the legitimate hassle of having to schlep to the supermarket. Yes it’s advertising, but it also provides a useful service too. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the South Koreans would be on top of this – generally speaking the mass transit systems of the Far East are prized by the citizenry, immaculately clean, punctual – a sign of modernity and progress to be enjoyed by everyone. Including a virtual supermarket in the South Korean context is simply the next step in providing an even more exceptional customer experience.

The Montreal Métro came into being eight years before the Seoul Metropolitan Subway commenced operations in 1974. Today we have a modest improvement of the original model and Seoul boasts the world’s largest, most comprehensive and most used subway system. Whereas we are complacent in our approval to cut back on station cleanliness and allow the provincial government to dictate how and when our Métro will be expanded, the Seoul system is internationally recognized for its polished look, air-conditioned cars and 4G LTE and WiFi service, in addition to overall ease of use.

We designed one of the world’s best mass transit systems over a decade before the South Koreans, and have pretty much rested on our laurels ever since. Today we’re riding 40 year-old trains and they’re operating a system generations ahead of our own.

I suppose it’s all a matter of priorities…

Cité des Familles

Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal - credit to Mario Faubert, 2012
Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal – credit to Mario Faubert, 2012

Fran̤ois Cardinal asks an important question Рis the city wasting its time trying to prevent the exodus of families to the suburbs?

In the last ten years, during which time the city has ‘officially’ been trying to reverse this trend, annual losses have remained somewhat constant at about 20,000 people leaving the city for elsewhere in Québec, largely outside city limits but within the metropolitan region known as Greater Montreal.

Attracting and retaining families inside the city limits was intended to reverse this trend, but so far the city has come up short. When $300,000 can get you either a detached multi-room suburban home near a train station or, at best, a single room condominium closer to the city, young families in essence have no real choice but to move to the suburbs. Services for families, aside from the daycares increasingly integrated into office towers, are virtually non-existent in the city’s most heavily developed central core.

In response to Mr. Cardinal’s question, I propose a follow-up – has the city really done anything material to secure an influx of new families?

Because if the mandate was nothing more than to advertise the advantages of theoretically living in the city as compared with the suburbs, then I can only wonder what anyone actually expected the city to be able to accomplish. Bringing families back into the city requires a major investment in civic infrastructure and a lot of hyper-precise zoning regulations to make a new urban neighbourhood from scratch, as might be the case in Griffintown or the former parking lot adjacent to the Bell Centre. Branding and marketing is enough of an investment to attract young professionals, but families need a far greater commitment.

There’s been a lot of concern recently that the city’s near-total lack of involvement in Griffintown’s resurrection may have the unintended result of creating a ghetto of single and double occupancy condos and not much else. Similar criticism has been made of the new condo towers destined to occupy nearly every available open plot in the central business district. Montreal’s downtown is not a neighbourhood in and of itself, but seems to have identifiable communities all around it (be it the Plateau, NDG, Mile End etc). Everything inside the core is reduced to a single condo project’s ‘branded lifestyle’ identity of urban chalets and minimalist sophistication; community remains completely elusive.

I would argue the Tremblay and Applebaum administrations have both done the exact same thing – nothing – to actually facilitate family living in the city, or even the actual establishment of the bare services to make the city a place where one lives a more interactive existence. Current city living is capsule living, sanitized and overtly corporate. I would hate to think there are people who may live many years in our great city and believe, based on limited experience, that our downtown is emblematic of the city. It’s anything but.

The question is whether the city can mandate the construction of family-oriented real-estate, and develop schools, clinics and myriad other services without waiting for provincial ministries to green-light the various projects. It’s curious too – provincial authorities have failed to provide adequate public schooling options in both the new suburbs as well as the city centre. Real-estate development can and will occur much faster than the province can react, and the city is all too often excoriated (and rightfully so) for not taking a leadership role in trying to maintain what institutional space we actually have downtown.

So as the city scratches its head on how to encourage people to move into the city, local school boards announce the closure of public schools in urban communities. Library branches shutter. Hospitals are put on the auction block to be re-processed, likely into condominiums, retirement homes or student dormitories. None of this helps re-establish long-term residency in the urban core.

It boggles my mind how no one is seeing the obvious connections, or why the city administration wouldn’t make the argument it’s their responsibility first and foremost to intercede given their stated intentions of downtown densification.

It’s not just the buildings of one variety or another designed with multiple closed rooms, within proximity of the diverse services required by urban families that need to be mandated into being. Schools, community and cultural space, parks, playgrounds, sporting facilities and public pools would all have to be built by the city, putting capital up front to be paid back with the new sources of taxation the city is in the process of creating. If enough new residents can be attracted to a given area based on the services available, the city succeeds in building a new and better kind of revenue generator.

In sum, why can’t the city legislate neighbourhood creation. leaving that up to the private sector and provincial government has so far proven to be ineffective. Quite frankly, it’s well beyond either’s purview.

My argument wouldn’t just be why not, but more – isn’t that what a city administration is supposed to be doing in the first place? Creating and refining the built environment?

And for all the money spent just to study the effects of new private sector densification in the downtown real estate market, and all the rest spent studying how best to expand the public transit system, spent on branding initiatives and marketing campaigns, our elected officials have come no closer to actually implementing anything. What’s spent studying potential future cityscapes could be be answered by any of the urban planners teaching at any of our universities. What’s spent on studies could build the schools or help finance the small businesses real communities desperately need.

As an example, the PQ has announced it will spend $28 million to study the feasibility of including a light-rail system to run on the new Champlain Bridge, which is supposed to cost anywhere between three and five billion dollars and may be completed by 2021, eight years from now if the project ever actually gets off the ground. That money could fund the creation of a public school as well as pay for its staff, something that would most certainly attract the attention of urban dwellers thinking of splitting for the burbs.

And furthermore, what needs to be studied? It’s common sense that a light-rail system, which may be able to haul 100,000 commuters at rush hour in twenty-minute runs from the South Shore to Downtown is a good idea worth implementing. As to how it’s to be built into the bridge, leave that up to the engineers who design it. As to cost, let it be folded into the total. If the Fed is hell-bent on financing such a ludicrously expensive bridge we may as well design it to incorporate a public transit system that can haul so many people so quickly and efficiently. It will doubtless spur a major population increase in the South Shore suburbs, and better still, will likely also serve to improve public transit access in the first-ring suburbs immediately south of the CBD, namely Griffintown, the Pointe, Technoparc, Cité-du-Havre and Nun’s Island areas. It is precisely here where the city should focus services for families, as there is room for growth favourable to urban families. There’s enough open land and low-use industrial areas we could be better off without, and the proximity to the city is really justification enough alone for the civic administration to push for redevelopment to be concentrated in this sector.

There’s no question it would sell, the question is what the city decides to sell.

Do we want condos or communities?

***

Another thought.

If you were to walk around any of the current, established, urban neighbourhoods and first ring suburbs you’d find some common housing types – notably the limestone triplex and its many derivatives, intermixed with modern apartment towers and turn-of-the-century apartment blocks, with duplexes and triplexes being by far the most common type.

In nearly all cases these buildings are comparatively old – the younger ones are approaching their centennials. Many have been renovated extensively throughout the years, some less so but well maintained nonetheless. Either way, through direct civc action to preserve our architectural heritage, coupled with an enduring public attachment (between the progeny of so many generations of working class urbanite locals) we’ve managed to protect, preserve and promote much of existing, heritage, built-environment.

Condo towers are very new in Montreal, especially in the most urban core. Up until about a two decade ago city condos were limited to buildings such as the Port Royal or Westmount Square, and with time development in that sector generally focused on converting old industrial properties into condominiums. About a decade ago buildings such as the Lepine Towers, Roc-Fleury and Crystal de la Montagne went up, leading to today’s boom.

Point is, all this is recent, and despite all the new construction, we can for the moment relax – we’re not going to look much like Vancouver or Toronto anytime too soon.

But to really guarantee against this we can’t redevelop every unused or underused property in the city into a shiny glass tower or a big brown box. We should save some space for new versions of the city’s iconic limestone triplexes.

I don’t think it’s so nutty an idea. It’s a building design that works – it has for a hundred years. Perfect as a flop house for students inasmuch as a three bedroom home for an urban family. I’ve lived in several such buildings over the years, and have spent time in countless more.

Why not build newer versions of a proven design?

You could live your entire life in Montreal duplexes – from your student days in a rented basement room, to starting out in your first full apartment occupying the upper floor, to swallowing up an entire duplex with your family until you eventually live upstairs in your retirement, renting the bottom floor to supplement your income.

There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Montrealers who have done just this over the past few generations.

It occurred to me, walking down Bleury from Boul. de Maisonneuve the other day, that we should maybe try to focus urban residential development to favour a re-introduction of this building type, though perhaps a four or five-floor model complete with a storefront base (designed for independent businesses owned and operated by residents). Bleury is but one example of an unfortunate phenomenon we have here in the city of urban streets that have lost buildings to parking lots, often leaving the tallest building on a given block still standing (in Bleury’s case a monolithic building stands completely abandoned on a prominent public space, but I digress). Rue Guy is still disfigured by the sea of parking spaces lapping at the base of the Tour Guy. Mansfield has the double problem of being largely defined by an open parking lot and the ass ends and loading docs of so many monolithic buildings. And in all these cases more traditional buildings stood not a half century ago.

Convincing real-estate developers to construct such buildings may not be an easy proposition at first, but legislation could make it a requirement. Buildings like these could not only help re-populate the urban core, but further still, offer truly unique examples of multi-functional building design, one that could accommodate much needed families.

Montreal’s Infrastructure Storm – Public transit to the rescue?

MTQ proposal for the revamped Turcot Interchange - not the work of the author

A Montreal Gazette article from August 25th 2011 detailed what is being described as a perfect storm of simultaneous, overlapping infrastructure projects which may ‘paralyze’ transit on island and in parts of the metropolitan region by 2015, less than four years from now. Among other projects, the controversial Turcot Yards & Interchange renovation project (read a great Walking Turcot Yards post here), the renovation of the Ville-Marie Expressway, the Champlain & Mercier Bridges and the Lafontaine Tunnel renovation are all to overlap by 2015. Experts gathered recently for the Ecocité Conference at the Palais des Congrés issued a statement, saying the City, Province and Federal governments must cooperate not only on major infrastructure repairs, but must also invest in a major re-investment in Montréal’s public-transit systems, so that they can be effectively used to minimize the impact renovations will have on the traffic requirements of a major city. In other words, public transit ought to be the tool used to negate massive gridlock, and provides a fantastic opportunity to get many more Montrealers hooked on the greener way to travel.

While the MTQ and City continue to argue about land-expropriation and the design of the new Turcot Interchange (read this fascinating Spacing Montreal article on the City’s space-efficient circular design), the major spans on the Saint Lawrence crumble, as does the Ville-Marie Expressway, and the traffic disruptions from regular infrastructure repairs and maintenance have already led to varying degrees of small-scale economic damage throughout the region.

In other words, we don’t just need to execute major renovations, but need to renovate with minimizing maintenance clearly in mind. Systems need to be designed with preventative maintenance as opposed to reflexive, piece-meal maintenance, much in the same manner as aircraft are maintained (and its for this reason that some aircraft models have exceptionally long lifespans of over 50 years). Thus, this perfect storm may also be a perfect opportunity to include wide-scale preventative maintenance measures streamlined across the board – after-all, these project are all exclusively within the realm of vehicular traffic, so there’s bound to be a significant amount of capital-cost overlap as well.

What’s significant here is that there are an exceptional number of vehicular commuters here in Montreal, on average spending about 30 minutes commuting to work each day. Two and a half hours on average spent driving to work – what a horrible waste of time! In Montreal, much like Toronto, about a quarter of vehicular commuters spend more than 45 minutes in traffic. The idea is that Montreal commuting times will increase dramatically by 2015 (and I can imagine, incrementally increase until then) as these projects wreak havoc on our local transportation infrastructure, which is heavily focused on individual usage of automobiles. Ergo, a new Transit Alliance proposes that the public transit system be expanded to accommodate people inconvenienced by the traffic disruptions. Unfortunately, according to one StatsCan study, about 82% of commuters who use their cars to get to work have never considered using public transit to get to and from work, whether its available or not. The typical justification given is that it is inconvenient.

I suppose that may be the case for a great many people in a number of cities across the country, but Montreal is well-known for its considerably advanced public-transit system. Over a million rides are taken each day on the Métro, which is a significant ridership level for such a comparatively small system. But despite efforts by the STM and AMT to expand lines, introduce new and improved equipment, and a host of suburban transit systems expanding access to Montreal, it is still exceptionally difficult to convince people to give public transit a try.

What’s particularly maddening is how residents of the West Island have been clamouring for a Métro extension to either the Airport or, in many more cases, Fairview shopping centre, for some time, and yet refuse to recognize this is unlikely to happen as long as the West Island communities maintain their hostile isolation from the rest of the Metropolitan Region. What’s more, it is the residents of the West Island who, for the most part, drive into the city, and are in turn responsible for a good deal of the traffic congestion. It’s a vicious circle of inactivity and futile fist-waving, and I personally find it a bit of a piss-off that West Islanders in general seem to consider using public transit as something diminutive, as though the buses are only designed to serve the hired help and the pre-license teens.

My justification for that previous statement is rather straightforward – if West Islanders, or any other community for that matter, wanted better public-transiot access, they’d pony up the bill, which is high and heavy no matter which way you cut it. Yes, the communities who have access to the STM pay for it in part, but the City is clearly footing the lion’s share of the bill.

I agree fully with the Transit Alliance’s proposal in principle, but it is unrealistic that the three levels of government will provide adequate funding for both the major road and bridge work in addition to the costs of new tram and train lines, Métro extensions etc. The City must take a more proactive approach and find methods to finance the extension of these systems without government support. Moreover, it must be clear to the Citizens that after these renovation projects are complete, a better maintenance scheme will be in play and the total number of road/bridge users will decline dramatically. In other words, the City must market the hell out of our new improved public transit system to get ridership into record-breaking numbers.

On a final note, have you ever wondered how Mayor Drapeau financed the initial Métro system?

Many people think that Expo some paid for it. It did, but after the fact. Initial capital came in from City Hall auctioning off the building rights atop the Métro stations. As an example, the Blum Building (currently Concordia’s Guy-Metro building), was one of the first such projects, wherein the developer paid good money to have an office tower with direct access to the station, and the rental retail properties on the commercial sub-levels were an added bonus. Imagine what we could do if we wanted to expand to all corners of the island?

Public transit needs to be sold to the people as an investment for future economic growth and current stimulus in the construction and services sector. It needs to be marketed as the self-perpetuating economic engine, open and available to all at a reasonable price, offering access to everywhere. Streamlining all metropolitan public transit services and instituting a ‘one-system, one-region, one fare’ policy may encourage new riders, but not in the same wide-reaching manner large-scale city-driven development will. A Métro station for every neighbourhood would not be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Consider the social cohesion and sense of community that is provided every day by frequenters of a ‘community station’ and ask yourself, with everything else in mind, whether we can afford not to do this.

Call your councillor.

What to do with the Shell Refinery

Credit to Kristian Gravenor for highlighting the region

A little while back I saw this post on Coolopolis and it got me thinking – what would I do, if I were Mayor, with this rather fortuitous recent development.

As it stands, my understanding is that there is only one fully operating refinery still functioning on the Island, though there are still plenty of oil storage sites. The area highlighted in the aerial perspective is an absolutely massive piece of property, which also happens to include two old quarries, a railyard, an industrial zone and the metropolitan golf course.

So what would I do? It’s largely dependent on what Shell wants to do, but if they have no actual inclination to resume refining operations and would rather sell their land to the City for redevelopment, I would gladly enter into an agreement to assist Shell in decontaminating the site. This would be vital if there is an interest to convert the site for eventual settlement, really of any kind. It has tremendous potential as a new high and medium density urban residential zone, being as large as the Plateau, Mile-End, Villeray, Rosemont and Parc-Ex combined. Moreover, it would certainly justify expanding Métro access along several corridors into the Eastern portion of the island, and is already easily accessible by road. Imagine what another 500,000 people could provide for the City in terms of tax revenue. Part of the problem is that part of this sector actually belongs to Montreal-East, a separate municipality. A voluntary annexation plan would have to be drafted, though I can imagine now that Shell is packing up its operations, there may be a new enthusiasm to be part of the City’s Master Plan.

But in order to get here, we’d have to aggressively decontaminate the soil, and a measure that could be used to do just that could also provide Montréal with a massive new nature park. I would use the opportunity, and our province’s cadre of university-graduate forestry engineers, to design and build a massive new ecological preservation zone on this site. It wouldn’t be forever, as there would be far too high a demand to re-develop the site to generate a steady tax revenue. But for the amount of time that it takes to render the area useable, we may as well try to return the land to its natural, pre-development state. I would go so far as to hire students to plant all varieties of flora for the entirety of a summer to help speed-up the process. It couldn’t hurt. And why stop there – animals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians ought to be re-introduced to help develop the area into a stable, sustainable eco-system. Not only could it potentially help clean the soil quicker, but it will also allow for the creation of a new geography and ecology for the area. In order to properly return the area to its pre-development state, we’d have to include ponds, streams, creeks and brooks, a varied topography, areas of dense forest, marshland and open fields.

I would look at it as an invaluable tool for the study of conservation, preservation and ecological regeneration methods. We’d have a golden opportunity to become world leaders in this field, and could support the project through research grants at the provincial, national and international levels.

But perhaps most importantly – when it does eventually come time to redevelop large sections of the sector for residential purposes, we’ll have already taken care of an important element in community building – having a large green space and having something beautiful to look at, play in etc. I would hope that future urban planning and residential development would be able to better integrate itself into an established large ecological zone, in a manner quite different from the slash and burn methods of previous generations.

Something to think about I guess.