Union Street – The Queen’s Perspective

Victoria's View - Work of the Author, May 23rd 2011

Nothing more than the view down a not-so-important side-street named Union; if you were sitting where Queen Victoria is perched, in front of the former eponymous College, this is what you’d see. Another excellent example of a long street terminating in a building. This happens frequently, whether due to oddball bends in the street, such as on Sherbrooke or Parc, or simply because René-Lévesque cuts them off, such as here, or McGill College.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This space deserves better.



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

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

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

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

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

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

BIXI responds!

Fuck it! We'll do it live! - thankfully, I had nothing to do with this shill, I mean still

The following is the full text of a message sent to registered BIXI users yesterday, May 19th, in response to recent news about a $108 million ‘bailout’ recently authorized by the City of Montreal. Many thanks to The Frek for bringing this to my attention. I think I was pulled in to the outrage without knowing all the details, and for this I’m regretful. That being said, my personal position vis-a-vis BIXI is that it should continue to operate regardless of the cost, but that it’s relationship to Stationnement de Montréal may cause a conflict of interest. Ultimately, I doubt the project can survive, or even turn a profit, unless ridership is steadily increased moving forward. This will require a few key steps:

1. Building more isolated bike paths
2. Converting more streets to pedestrian/cyclist only (ie – getting more cars out of the city)
3. A massive increase to the number of available bikes and stations – Island-wide service seems to be an ideal objective worth working towards
4. Perhaps a strategic relocation of BIXI into a new umbrella group of city and region transit authorities. I’ve been arguing this point for a while, we need one transit agency for the entire region, operating a myriad of different systems. Better co-operation between BIXI and the STM and AMT may help to ‘legitimize’ BIXI in the eyes of those who still consider it somewhat of a novelty.

In any event – here’s the letter; you can compare it to my earlier article on the ‘bailout’ and the Gazette article linked therein.

Letter to members and BIXI users:

In the past days, much has been said about BIXI that does not correspond to the reality. Therefore it seems essential to restore the facts, particularly now that the plan proposed by the City was finally well-received by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs after more than five months of delay and waiting. The following serves as a clarification regarding some of the allegations which have been circulating in the media.

“BIXI is a financial disaster and is not profitable”: FALSE. BIXI experienced a liquidity problem which was the direct result of a five-month wait for the approval by the Municipal Affairs Minister of its agreement with the City of Montreal. BIXI is a company which experienced rapid growth and realized, after only 2 years, volumes of some $50 million. BIXI also posted results that were 40% greater than the projected budget, thanks in large part to the successful expansion of its system internationally. BIXI does not have a profitability problem nor is BIXI a financial disaster in any way.

“The Montreal operation of BIXI is not profitable”: TRUE. From the beginning, the business plan projected that the Montreal operation of the system would not derive profits in the first years of operation. The plan also indicated that operational costs would be covered once BIXI reached 50,000 members and with the involvement of sponsorship. Proud of the 30,000 members at the end of 2010, we have currently exceeded the level of 40,000 members after only one month of operation in our new 2011 season.

“Montreal is absorbing the BIXI debt”: FALSE. The City gives no money to BIXI. Montreal advanced a loan to BIXI. The initial loan to BIXI in the amount of $37 million is repayable with interest. This loan was accorded to cover conceptualization costs of the system, the patents, the manufacturing and delivery of the components (bikes and stations), the operation losses of the first years as well as the start up costs. This loan is presently owed to Stationnement de Montréal.

“The city is giving $108 million to BIXI”: FALSE. Let us take the time to properly understand the numbers that make up the whole. $37 million : this amount is a loan to BIXI repayable with interest. The remaining $71 million, guaranteed by the City of Montreal, is comprised of a financing package negotiated with the National Bank subsequent to a tender notice.

It consists of a revolving line of credit of $6 million, as is standard for all businesses; a letter of credit facility up to $5 million for deposit guarantees for all public offerings which is a standard practice with the guarantees rescinded after the process.

A factoring facility up to $60 million offered by the Bank to finance accounts receivable which allows for the necessary liquidity to pay our suppliers while waiting for the cities with whom we do business to effect the payment of our invoices. This facility can only be used when a contract is signed by a city in good and due form.

“Montrealers are financing the export of the BIXI system to other markets”: FALSE. It is, in fact, the contrary. Montrealers fully benefit from the export of the BIXI system to other markets. Last year, it is the successes of the sales of BIXI ($8.5 million) on the international scale that covered the operational deficit of Montreal ($7 million). In this way, we were able to achieve a surplus of $1.5 million and offer a quality system to Montrealers.

“We have a luxurious bike costing $7,400 compared to Barcelona with a bike costing $75”: FALSE. BIXI does not cost $7,000, no more than it costs $3,500, heard on television. The Barcelona bike does not cost $75. The Barcelona bike costs more than 600 €, basically the same cost of our bike. How could we sell with such success on three continents if the bike costs so much? The Montreal bike is likely the most solid and best conceived bike in the world. Its reliability is greater than the bikes currently used in other cities.

“BIXI employs 450 people”: FALSE. BIXI employs 50 people and has created more than 400 employees at different suppliers everywhere in the region for the manufacturing of the diverse components of the system. Our business plan is clear. It has been presented publically. We remain in line with the business plan and once again count on respecting these objectives again this year. The plan outlines clearly that the system will cost nothing to Montrealers. This is our commitment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So then what of the Children’s?

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

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

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

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

What do y’all think?

City set to bail-out Bixi (to the tune of $108 million)

Mayor and Supreme Satchmo Tremblay demonstrating helmets are for wimps

So Bixi is in the red, and it looks like the City is prepping to bail out the arms-length public agency, which I believe is actually affiliated with Parking de Montréal.

Yeah I know, weird eh? The rent-a-bike-to-get-cars-off-the-street public transit agency is being run by the people who profit immensely off of people who drive into the city and pay for the privilege to do so. Me no like!

Here’s the link to the Gazette article.

You can probably guess which is my comment…

TL;DR – we need island-wide Bixi service, and it should be transferred over to the STM for future expansion. It should be part of the larger public-transit transfer system and cost per use, cost for a monthly pass and accessibility should be improved so as to allow for the highest possible number of potential clients.

I mean, c’mon!

Dear readers – what should we do with Bixi? Will it become yet another Montreal White Elephant?

My hometown/ Ecological preservation in Montréal

Photo credit: Morgan Arboretum

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

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

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

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

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