The Exciting World of Montréal Urban Planning & Municipal Politics

Fantastic graphic design from the City of Montréal

No, I wasn’t being sarcastic…

Kate McDonnell’s always informative Montreal City Weblog brought these little bits of information to my attention – hats off to you Kate, you do damn good work keeping me and a whole mess of other people well informed about our city and its diverse affairs.

I figured I’d add my two cents while they’re still in circulation.

The first comes from a report in Métro concerning a recent UQAM conference, the URBA 2015 Forum, where organizers advocated that Montréal’s diverse transit services, and indeed everything concerning public transit and transport in our urban area, be folded into a single organization, such as Vancouver’s TransitLink.

TransitLink has a rather broad portfolio, in charge of making key decisions about roadways, bike paths, freight transport, buses, LRTs and commuter rail. It’s comprehensive, including the 20 municipalities comprising Metro Vancouver. Imagine if we could roll the MTQ’s Montreal division, the STM, the AMT, Federal Bridges, the RTL, STL etc all together into a single operating entity?

It would certainly allow for a drastic reduction in operational waste. Administering a single pension fund wouldn’t just be comparatively cheaper, but potentially better performing too. Security operations could be streamlined and there’d be far better options for career advancement within the larger organization. We’d be much better off this way, I think, and we’d likely have the means, under a single organization, to execute some impressive expansion and renovation projects.

Otherwise I fear we’re going to get bogged down in expensive, disconnected and disorganized mass-transit, more of an inconvenience than municipal revenue generator. I don’t know how much more bickering between the AdM and AMT I can stand.

The second concerns a successful measure by a Projet Montréal councillor in St. Henri which has temporarily stalled the conversion of the old Archivex warehouse (right behind Lionel-Groulx Métro station) into a seven-storey commercial building for 2,000 white-collar jobs.

I’m a little puzzled as to what the manner of the objection is.

If it’s due to a lack of centralized civic planning I can only say, well, what do you expect from Montréal under the direction of Union Montréal? There hasn’t been too much in terms of a cohesive city plan, and less still for neighbourhood redevelopment. Their opinion is – if it’s on private land, hands off, let the market dictate development as it sees fit.

This isn’t the best way to plan a city but it’s what we have at the moment. The developer suggests that the new building would be LEED-certified and, given it’s potentially direct-access to the Métro, naturally progressive and ecologically sound in design.

The point about LEED-certification is a bit laughable since it’s an industry standard, and has in the past been dismissed as the ‘Oscars of Green Washing’, but I digress, I don’t know enough about the particulars.

My view is simply this. It’s a private building – a warehouse without any heritage value – and as it stands it’s a waste of space. There are better places for warehouses than a residential zone. Building a commercial office tower would be breaking new ground for St. Henri, an area without any purpose-built large-scale office space. A seven-storey building isn’t overly large, not imposing when set against the large open space around the station (there are apartment buildings and loft buildings of similar height in the area) and the economic potential of 2,000 some-odd office workers could be a major boon for the area’s small businesses, especially those at the Atwater Market, along Notre-Dame and St. Jacques.

The developer’s estimate is a $2.4 million annual cash infusion for the surrounding area, based on the number of potential employees spending roughly $25 a week at local businesses. And that’s not including municipal taxes on the building itself.

If the public hasn’t been adequately consulted, that’s one thing, but otherwise I don’t see what the issue is at all. Build it and make sure the developer is insured and the tenants ready to sign leases. If the market wants an office tower at Lionel-Groulx, I can imagine it will have beneficial consequence for local businesses and residents alike.

If Councillor Sophie Thiébaut reads this blog I’d like to know what I’m missing, as this seems pretty straightforward to me. Better planning, on a per-quartier basis, will be achieved when and if Projet Montréal is elected, but until then let’s not deny the people of St. Henri the potential economic benefit of 2,000 office workers in the meantime. Plus, why concentrate all office buildings in the downtown core. Let’s open up the real estate market to new speculation, growth etc.

Third, and this time from La Presse, concerns Projet Montréal councillor Josée Duplessis’ understandable vexation at the lack of transparency exhibited by the previous administration concerning municipal contracts. In this case, it concerns the never-ending story and complete disaster that is the renovation of the Hélène-de-Champlain restaurant at Parc Jean-Drapeau.

Apparently, it will now cost more than $16 million to complete structural renovations before another estimated $3-5 million is required to actually make the site a functioning restaurant again.

The restaurant was built in 1937, as were many other such pavilions build in public spaces as make-work projects during the Depression. During Expo 67 it was used as a VIP reception space, and post-Expo as a high-end gourmet restaurant of sorts. The last time I remember seeing it open it seemed to be more family-restaurant than gourmet treat, but that was some time ago. Renovations have been costly and this will invariably lead some to question whether the city ought to try and kick-start another restaurant in the same space.

Perhaps we just keep it was a VIP reception space, i think it would be a shame to tear it down, it worse still, turn it into a food court. Consider for yourself.

I think Parc Jean-Drapeau could use both higher traffic and somewhat of a dress code – it would be nice if we had a massive urban park that was also a kind of perennial exposition, the kind of place where you go to re-create Seurat scenes. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but it would be nice to have a full service, ‘business-casual’ restaurant, especially given the large terrace and unkempt rose garden. Perhaps the building could serve other purposes as well – seems to big to be a single restaurant.

In any event – it all seems like more of the same doesn’t it?