Creating a New Urban Community in Montréal

Prior to the Place du Centre development, this is what "uptown" Montréal looked like - not the work of the author.

There’s a desert in Downtown Montréal. In this plain there are many students, but no public schools. There are many residents, but almost no identifiable community. There are many businesses, but they all seem to close once the commuters go home. There are plenty of places to go amuse yourself, but no major cultural or creative centres. This desert faces inward from 9-5, and is largely faceless the rest of the time.

Most of this desert is bounded by Boul. de la Montagne to the West, Rue de Bleury in the East and sits between Sherbrooke and Boul. René-Lévesque – largely conterminous with the Place du Centre development of the late-1970s and early 1980s. This is one of the few areas of the City in which there seems to be no sense of community, no community presence or establishments. It seems at times to be the absolute centre of the City, and in many ways it is. And yet, stroll down McGill College Avenue at 2 in the morning on an August Tuesday and you’d think Montréal had been evacuated. Or for that matter Peel at Boul. de Maisonneuve on January 2nd at 8am – I’ve often been struck with just how empty this part of the City can feel.

Peel and Boul. de Maisonneuve, two days after this past New Year's - work of the author.

Part of the problem is that we got so used to this area being filled with parking lots back in the 60s and 70s we forgot their used to be houses, schools, community centres, parks, synagogues etc in this area. Much of that was razed during the construction of the Métro, which as I pointed out in a previous article on the demolition of much of the pre-War construction in this area. Another part of the problem is that many of the new office towers built here in the 70s and 80s were designed with services facing inwards towards the Underground City instead of outwards towards the streets. There are large segments of President Kennedy and De Maisonneuve, not to mention Union, University, Aylmer, Mansfield, Metcalfe etc, in which there are almost no outward facing commerces, no residents and no community/cultural centres; ergo, it’s a bit of a wasteland.

Ste-Catherine's looking West from Union, early 1970s - not the work of the author.

As recently as the 1970s Ste-Catherine’s Street in this sector was the principle entertainment hub of the City, boasting a multitude of theatres and cinemas, lounges and clubs, restaurants bars and discotheques. Moreover, the area also contained what was once the grandest hotel in the City, the Mount Royal Hotel, in addition to many fine apartments, duplexes and triplexes. But what really defines this sector prior to the major urban redevelopment which took place thirty years ago was its human scale; in other words, the way it looked before was more in line with what the rest of Montreal looks like. And it just so happens that this human scale has a community focus – none of this remains today. What remains can be salvaged and worked into a viable community. There are many people who live here, though I imagine very few families as the housing is unsuitable for families and there is a general dearth of family services (which is odd given that there’s a concentration of daycare centres here, though they’re largely for the people who work in the towers). Not all the residents here live in condos, though those who do generally have nearly direct access to the Réso. There are many hotels, almost all of which face away from the centre and have lacklustre entrances. There are very few 24-hour eateries here, despite the fact that its the only legitimately 24-hour part of the City.

Canderel proposal for 1215 Place Phillips - not the work of the author.

What remains is fascinating. For one, there are an inordinate number of empty lots in this central portion of the City, and residential densification here ought to take priority so as to re-establish a community in this sector. Medium-cost high-density condos designed for families, alongside low-density triplexes and medium-density apartments should be mandated to fill these lots, such as the one at the corner of De Maisonneuve and De la Montagne, or on Drummond between Ste-Catherine’s and René-Lévesque. Then there’s the large lot behind the Paramount. Given that the 900 Boul. de Maisonneuve West project is on indefinite hiatus and they’ve already built the Hotel St-Michel, why not fill the rest of the lot with a new school, city gym and subsidized apartment tower? Or consider the massive parking lot behind the Phillips Square Hotel, where the stalled 1215 Place Phillips was supposed to go up – it’s even larger than the Paramount lot!

Then there are the above-ground lots; specifically the Tour Union and the Avis Parking Garage adjacent to the Sun Life Building. Can we please get rid of these eyesores? Can’t parking be placed underground? Imagine what else could be put here? A medium-sized boutique hotel on the site Avis lot could once again offer visitors a view onto Dorchester Square, while a larger capacity hotel on the Tour Union site could bring some much needed nightlife to an otherwise dull part of town.

An earlier view of Ste-Catherine's facing West from Union - not the work of the author.

Speaking of nightlife, it would be nice to see some of that come back to this part of the City. What’s fascinating to me is how this area bridges several creative and cultural zones within the greater downtown, yet seems to lacking in having its own facilities. Keep in mind, to the Northwest is the Quartier des Musées, to the West we have Concordia and Shaughnessy Village and to the East the Quartier-des-Spectacles and Place des Arts. To the North and Northeast, McGill and UQAM. To the South and Southeast, the International Quarter and Old Port respectively. It’s as if our centre faces outwards.

I would like to see this area with the all day hustle and bustle of Midtown NYC and perhaps we need to redefine the area as our Uptown – we can’t leave the branding of this area to the people who the Eaton’s Centre now can we? And let’s face it, Ste-Catherine’s Street hasn’t quite been the same since all the theatres closed down – we were left with a dismal city centre almost entirely devoted to big box retailers and shopping malls. I think it’s time for a change.

Here’s something to consider – the number of potential cultural venues, community centres and other performance & creative spaces in this area (it’s far from an exhaustive list):

The Belgo
The Imperial Theatre
The Loews Theatre (currently the Mansfield Athletic Association gym)
The Palace Theatre (currently used as office space – do we not have enough space in the towers?)
The Eaton’s 9th Floor
St-James United Church
The Gesu
Christ Church Cathedral
Maison Astral
The Victoria Arena (currently a parking garage – sigh…)
The Salvation Army Citadel

When I got to thinking about this article, it occurred to me that this area is in need of a population development scheme more than a facelift, and it seems that if this area were a more cohesive, stable community, that it would have a positive effect in developing a more citizen-friendly urban master plan. We would also be wise to not repeat the densification plan used for the Faubourg des Récollets, which while admirably recycling a lot of old buildings and populating a de-populated urban area, didn’t score as high when it came to establishing an actual bonafide community. Thirty years after we filled this sector with medium height office towers, the time has come to bring the people back and redevelop a sustainable neighbourhood.