Resurrecting Windsor Station

Windsor Station, looking north along Peel, 1926

I regularly take the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line to commute to the city from Pierrefonds, and like many other commuters, I’ve noticed something – a significant lack of space. The Deux-Montagnes line is regularly over-capacity; it’s not so much that there aren’t any seats, it’s that there’s barely anywhere to stand. And this is apparently the same for most of the AMT’s other lines as well. While the agency moves forward, albeit slowly, on the development of new lines to serve new areas, it hasn’t done much to alleviate over-crowding on the existing lines. As such, the commute isn’t terribly pleasant, and the infrastructure within the city designed to handle the commuting masses has left a lot to be desired for quite some time. It’s woefully inadequate and lack of planning today will only lead to a worse situation tomorrow.

Gare Centrale seems to be over-capacity in general. Massive cues to board VIA trains now regularly stretch the length of the station, and during rush hour congestion is even more severe as throngs of office workers huddle around waiting for up to twenty minutes in order to ensure they get a seat on the commuter trains. It’s beginning to seem very clear to me that concentrating all inter-city and commuter traffic in the same space isn’t such a great idea, especially if we recognize the growing trend in the use of passenger and commuter rail options in Montréal.

As it happens, there was once a magnificent train station but a few blocks away from Gare Centrale, a station very well integrated into the urban transit and traffic fabric inasmuch as the urban core it was designed to serve. Today it is little more than commercial office space, an underused public square and a seldom used convention space. The Bell Centre stands between Windsor Station and the open-air platform that is the Lucien L’allier. If only we hadn’t been so myopic in the past, we could have endeavoured to secure investment in rail travel. It is after all a cornerstone of our local economy, as true today as it was when we were the commercial capital of the entire country.

It occurred to me, as I was walking through Place Ville-Marie to make my way to the station, that fifty years ago we accomplished a magnificent feat of engineering and architecture, by building a heart of the Underground City and one of our most vital skyscrapers and office complexes above what had previously been an ugly, exposed railway pit.

If we could do that fifty years ago, surely we could do the exact opposite today. What if we were to resurrect Windsor Station by running the CP tracks which currently terminate at the Bell Centre, under it, and build a new platform under the station and arena in much the same fashion as Gare Centrale?

The first issue would be the Métro tunnel for the Orange Line which runs parallel with the tracks, so such a tunnel would have to start just to the West of Guy in order to avoid having to build under the Métro tunnel. Building a new train tunnel alongside it may be practical, and being able to remove the Guy and Lucien L’allier viaducts would improve the somewhat dour aesthetics of the area, not to mention allow real-estate developers the chance to build new buildings aboveground. Given Cadillac-Fairview corporation’s interest to build new condo towers and office space at the site, you’d figure it’s high time the multiple implicated parties collaborate to ensure Windsor Station can rekindle it’s former use as a major point of integration in the urban traffic scheme. Certainly, new residential and office development would be more attractive if the aim was to, in essence, create another PVM, though from below.

As it happens, this particular area may become the next major focal point for urban re-development in the City of Montréal. Consider not only Cadillac-Fairview’s proposal, but the open lots at Overdale, the parking lot across from the Bell Centre and the decrepit old buildings south of Saint-Antoine. Establishing a massive new train station in the middle, with an appropriate expansion of underground tunnels, passageways and access to other points in the Réso system, would stimulate growth in the area around in a manner similar to the way PVM anchors much of the CBD. It’s a natural extension, and the area could use the stimulus of people power.

Granted, it would be costly, it would take time and we’d have to overcome some significant obstacles, but the long term implications of alleviating over-crowding at Gare Centrale, expanding the Underground City and newly desirable land in the urban core, ripe for redevelopment, is worth the investment given the long-term return.

And the added advantage is that by not doing this, by leaving things as they are, we ensure no new development will take place in this area, or at least it won’t nearly be as impressive, important and fiscally sound. The status quo is inefficient because the status quo doesn’t suit our current nor future needs. By developing a whole new train station and subsequently spreading out commuter and passenger traffic between two inter-connected stations, we can increase the area of economic activity stimulated by the increasing group of people who fall into this category. In addition, we right a historic wrong, secure the use of a landmark and subsequently provide an economic stimulus with significant indirect stimulus spin-off. Transformative is an understatement.

Something to think about. There are about seven large tracts of land around the site which seem to be ideal for redevelopment, as office towers, condominiums, mixed-use developments etc, and all of them could be very easily inter-connected. That’s got to encourage the city inasmuch as the construction and real-estate development sectors in this city. A little bit of ingenuity and the will to invest in a much needed mega project of the kind that was once matter-of-fact in Montréal could help spur an urban development scheme of epic proportions.

I guess the question is how to get all the specific parties into the same room so as to pitch the idea.