The Agence métropolitaine de transport to be abolished

AMT Commuter Rail Logo

When you want news to get buried over the weekend, you deliver it on Friday afternoons.

The Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) will be abolished as of Monday. The provincial government agency is currently responsible for all transit planning in Greater Montreal, as well as the the inter-city commuter rail network.

The Couillard government will make the announcement on Monday (okay, so maybe they’re not really trying to bury the story, still, odd time to issue a press release teasing such a major change…)

Apparently the AMT is to be replaced by two new organizations: the Réseau des transports métropolitain (RTM) and the Agence régionale de transport (ART).

The new RTM will be responsible for running the commuter rail system and apparently all public transit agencies except the STM, STL and RTL (the latter two STM equivalents in Laval and Longueuil respectively).

Of note, the other organization (ART) will be the regional transit planning body, and will be run by the ‘elected officials of Montreal and government experts’.

It’s not clear whether that means city proper or agglomeration council, though I believe it’s the latter case.

It’ll be interesting to find out what precisely this all means on Monday, though perhaps we have reason to be optimistic. Local transit needs to be planned locally, though the maintenance of three independent transit agencies (in the form of the STM, STL and RTL) within this new plan is still problematic. The cost to ride the Métro should be standard regardless of where you get on. Similarly, the bus network should have a single common fare at least for Montreal, Laval and Longueuil.

That said, I wonder whether the new regional transit planning authority will continue to push the Blue Line’s eastern extension, or whether it will prioritize developing a tram system.

A lot more to come on this file I imagine. Stay tuned!

Accessibility & Public Transit: RAPLIQ Requests Class Action Suit

Inclines and man-made caves...
Inclines and man-made caves…

Interesting story from last week. The organization that represents Quebec’s mobility-impaired population, RAPLIQ, has filed a request for a class action suit of $100 million against the Montreal transit commission (STM), the provincial Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT – which is responsible for the city’s commuter rail service, in addition to expanding the Métro) in addition to the City of Montreal and the province’s transport ministry.

They’re arguing the lack of access to public transit in Montreal infringes on their basic human rights and the transit agencies haven’t done enough to remedy the problem, nor have the city or province provided sufficient resources to improving accessibility.

If successful this would award about $5,000 to each of 20,000 plaintiffs. It would also be the first such class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

You could argue it would also take $100 million out of government coffers, money which could otherwise be put to use building the infrastructure necessary to make our city’s public transit system more accessible, but therein lies the point. Government would have to pay if the suit were successful, but so far hasn’t earmarked much money (and more importantly hasn’t been terribly enthusiastic) to improve public transit accessibility in our city.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the Métro was not designed from the outset to handle people with limited mobility. Only the three newest stations, those in Laval and completed about a decade ago, were designed with elevators in mind. In total, only eight out of 68 Métro stations have elevators, and only five out of 64 AMT train stations are equipped to handle wheelchairs.

And that’s just for wheelchairs. When you consider accessibility in the broader sense – that is to include everyone whose mobility is any way handicapped – you realize there are other parts of the accessibility puzzle which are missing. I would argue there’s not enough seating generally speaking at either the train or Métro stations, especially in the tunnels connecting to Métro stations, and that I’ve never actually seen anyone use the ‘rest bars’ the STM installed in lieu of more practical benches.

It astounds me the Métro was built without considering the needs of the mobility impaired in the first place (you’d figure elevators would have been installed simply because they’re efficient and immensely useful generally speaking), but it’s even more astounding that both the most recent expansions of the Métro (notably the western Orange Line branch and the entirety of the Blue Line, completed in the 1980s) and the re-development of Montreal’s commuter rail system under the AMT (which occurred in the mid-1990s) omitted the necessary infrastructure to ensure greater accessibility. Of the latest AMT commuter line to be built, the Train de l’Est, completed just last year, only four of thirteen stations are wheelchair accessible.

RAPLIQ says they’re tired of waiting for the various agencies and levels of government to get their act together and take them seriously. I can sympathize with their frustration.

For many years our city’s transit agency boasted it’s commitment to accessibility by instituting one of the earliest para-transit systems in the world. When the STM opted for the new Novabus design in the late 1980s it pointed out these buses would have special ramps that could be operated automatically by the driver, permitting a greater degree of autonomy to people living with disabilities. Well, we all know the story there. The ramps never lived up to expectations, mechanical issues plagued the fleet for years after they were introduced to regular service, and ever since we all too often hear stories of the wheelchair bound left on the curb because either the bus was too full or the ramps weren’t working that particular day.

In sum, it’s a shitty situation, because even though there’s really no good reason for a modern city such as ours to be so inaccessible, there’s zero political will to do anything about it. Retrofitting Métro stations with elevators is costly and the STM is going about it at a painfully slow pace, a pace further retarded by budget cuts and the fact that anything needing to be built outside (and connecting to) any given Métro station falls under the jurisdiction (and budget) of the AMT. This is why Bonaventure station, as an example, has an elevator leading from the mezzanine to the station platform, but nothing to connect the mezzanine with the street above. The AMT has been negotiating with the owners of 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest for years, and is expected to issue a call for tenders later this year.

With regards to Vendome Métro station, situated next to the new MUHC super hospital, there is neither a tunnel linking the station with the hospital, nor an elevator to make the station accessible, and that station just completed a renovation intended to help deal with increased traffic once the super hospital opens. The Université de Montréal super hospital is also located next to a Métro station, one which has both an elevator and direct tunnel access. I’m not sure why it was thought necessary for one and not the other…

It’s too bad it has come to a class action suit. On the one hand, it may lead to promises of concrete action by government if the suit is approved, as those parties named in it would probably prefer not to have to argue the case against accessibility. On the other hand, it would be difficult for RAPLIQ to get much public support as the individual gains would be so modest and it’s understood (probably by RAPLIQ better than anyone else) that the money really would be better spent if earmarked specifically for infrastructure improvements to the system (e.g. it could likely pay for about half of the remaining Métro stations to be retrofitted with elevators).

As I said, it’s a shitty situation. If the class action suit is successful, all the accessibility problems will still exist, but there’ll be $100 million less to spend fixing them.

My hope is that the focus shifts a bit… accessibility, as I see it, goes hand in hand with overall quality of experience, and in my opinion the entirety of our public transit system, impressive on paper though it might be, could stand for a major investment just to make it more comfortable. Yes, we need elevators. Ramps could also be implemented, but there’s room for so much more. Better lighting, wifi access, more seating, public restrooms, more shelters at bus stops and train stations, adding solar-powered space heaters to the latter, and a crash course on manners and customer service best practices for every single STM employee… these are just a few examples of how the overall customer experience could be improved in parallel with making the system more accessible.

To close, making the system more comfortable and more accessible only increases the number of potential customers, in turn increasing yearly revenue, and this isn’t just good for the transit agencies, but for our local environment as well. We in part base our claim to a high quality of life in this city because of the excellent public transit coverage, but this is too much a top-down perspective. We need a more human-centric system, one that focuses on the convenience and comfort of the journey itself, and not just the points connected.

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 20th 2015

Peel & De la Gauchetiere - April 2015

From left to right, Windsor Station, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque (the tower with the prominent spire), St. George’s Anglican Church, Place Laurentienne and the CIBC Tower (which also has a prominent spire).

Photo taken from the ‘skywalk’ over Rue de la Gauchetiere, bridging Place du Canada (public park) with Place du Canada (office/hotel complex).

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 16th 2015

Reflections of Construction - Montreal, April 2015

Taken from Basin Street in Griffintown, from left to right you can see the Cité du Commerce Electronique, construction cranes around both the Roccabella (tower one) and Tour des Canadiens de Montréal, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the CIBC Tower, Place Laurentienne and the Deloitte Tower at far right.

In the foreground land is being prepared for a new condo project, though I can’t recall which one.

Griffintown was arguably Montreal’s first ‘ethnic neighbourhood’, becoming the home to Montreal’s Irish working class beginning in the early 19th century. It would remain as such until about the time of the Second World War, at which point the local Irish community was somewhat replaced by successive waves of immigration – notably Eastern European Jews, Italians and Ukrainians. In its 19th century form the area was populated mainly by general labourers of Irish-Catholic descent who had taken up residence immediately adjacent to where the majority worked – first dredging the Lachine Canal, then building the Victoria Bridge, and then in the multitude of industries that popped up at the intersection of the port, canal, bridge and vast rail yards.

Griffintown was also the first community annexed by the city prior to the introduction of the tram system.

Life in the Griff began a rather drastic change in the late 1950s with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which in turn rendered the Lachine Canal obsolete, allowing Great Lakes shipping to bypass Montreal and the industrial port that had developed along the banks of the Lachine Canal over the preceding century. Perhaps as a result of an acrimonious relationship between Mayor Jean Drapeau and the City Councillor for St. Ann’s Ward, Frank Hanley (who for a while was also simultaneously the area’s MNA), Griffintown was rezoned for entirely industrial purposes, and slum-clearance initiatives popular at the time resulted in widespread expropriations and demolition. The construction of the Bonaventure and Ville Marie Expressways around the same time further isolated the area’s residents from the rest of the city, and by 1970 the parish church, St. Ann’s, was razed. By 1971 the population was just over 800 and it wouldn’t grow by much for the next thirty plus years.

I would argue the biggest mistake made was pushing highways through to the centre of the city, but what’s done is done. Griffintown shrank into virtual non-existence, it’s Irish heritage largely lost. I remember walking around the area about a decade ago, on a lovely summer evening no less, completely astounded that an area so close to the city proper could be so devoid of human life.

Fortunately the last decade has been a bit kinder to Griffintown. The elimination of the vast CN stockyards between Saint Jacques and Notre Dame West in the late 1970s resulted in significant housing construction (mostly townhouses) in the 1980s, coinciding with the Orange Line’s western branch extension from Bonaventure, beginning in 1980. The successful rehabilitation of the former stockyards would encourage additional development projects meant to stimulate the rehabilitation of the area (such as the Labatt Stadium proposal) though this project ultimately fell through.

I’d argue it was the conversion of the former O’Keefe brewery into the main campus of the École de technologie supérieur in 1997, as well as the development of the Cité du Multimédia around the same time, that ultimately provided the foundation for Griffintown’s renaissance as an urban neighbourhood. ÉTS brought in students and anchored the Little Burgundy side of the Notre Dame West commercial artery, and the Cité du Multimédia wound up employing about 6,000 people who take in an average of $73,000 annually. This made redeveloping the former industrial spaces and parking lots between Notre Dame and the canal into residential properties a potentially lucrative endeavour.

Today the area’s population stands between 6,500 and 7,000 with more to come. Just about every open lot is to be converted into condos, and new businesses and services have moved into the area.

Whether Griffintown becomes a neighbourhood in the truest sense of the word is conditional on both the city and province investing in socio-cultural infrastructure – public schools, a CLSC, community and cultural centres, perhaps even a public library branch, not to mention adequate parks and playgrounds.

That remains to be seen.

The World’s Largest Holiday Inn

A rendering of the new Holiday Inn, to be located at René Lévesque and Lucien L'Allier on the  Overdale block
A rendering of the new Holiday Inn, to be located at René Lévesque and Lucien L’Allier on the Overdale block

If you’ve been walking down René Lévesque around the Bell Centre of late, you’ve doubtless noticed our city’s in the midst of a building boom.

And it’s not all condos either. The new Deloitte Tower, located between the Bell Centre and ‘surrounded’ by Windsor Station, has topped out and should open later this year, marking the first major office tower built in Montreal since the Cité du Commerce Electronique (CCE herein) was completed just over a decade ago (and about half a block away).

And just on the other side of Lucien l’Allier street from the CCE is a big gaping whole in the ground where our city’s new Holiday Inn will soon stand.

At first glance of the rendering (shown above) you might think this city’s about to be graced by the world’s largest reasonably-priced hotel, but alas the hotel will only occupy the first ten floors (and offer 250 rooms). The other thirty floors are intended for high-end rental apartments (you’ll also notice the rendering doesn’t show the full height of the intended project).

Hard to believe what used to be the site of a dilapidated parking garage/ 24-hour brochette restaurant may, within three years, be a forty floor tower with hundreds of residents on top of a full service hotel.

And here’s something to consider. Just two blocks away stands one of the last major hotel towers built in this city, the Sheraton Centre, completed in 1982 after being left abandoned (and half built) for six years.

It was originally intended to be the world’s largest Holiday Inn.

This was supposed to be the world's largest Holiday Inn
This was supposed to be the world’s largest Holiday Inn

In the 1960s and 1970s several high-rise hotel towers popped up in Montreal, most notably the Chateau Champlain across from Windsor Station (originally built for Canadian Pacific Hotels to rival the Canadian National-owned Queen Elizabeth Hotel, itself adjacent to CN’s Central Station). The Hotel des Gouverneurs at Place Dupuis, the OMNI Montreal on Sherbrooke and the former Delta adjacent to the Tour de la Bourse are just a few other examples of the same basic idea – luxury high-rise hotel towers that looked often too much like the office towers they adjoined).

In addition to the Chateau Champlain, Canadian Pacific also owned the Laurentian Hotel, located at Peel and René Lévesque and offering 1,004 rooms at some of the lowest respectable rates in the city. The Laurentian was prized by business travellers, budget travellers and perhaps most importantly, the city’s convention bureau, simply because it was a genuinely nice and inexpensive hotel in a choice location. The hotel returned about $1.8 million to CP annually in profit during the time they owned and operated it, between 1969 and 1976.

Canadian Pacific demolished the Laurentian two years later.

It was a move that baffled people. The hotel was large, fireproof, only thirty years old at the time of its demolition. It had been remodelled as recently as 1975-76 and was still popular and respected when it closed its doors for good.

So why demolish it?

It turns out that the competition between Canadian Pacific and Canadian National took an interesting turn once CN completed the Place Ville Marie project in 1962. If CN could remodel a massive section of the urban core, surely CP could do it too.

And so CP planned an absolutely massive project intended to rival and mirror Place Ville Marie. It was to be more than twice as large in surface area and feature a sixty floor office tower as centre-piece, and a major national bank (in this case the Bank of Montreal, rival to the Royal Bank over at PVM Tower I) as main tenant. An additional tower would serve as CP’s headquarters, and other towers were envisioned as well, notably a luxury apartment tower and a luxury hotel tower to round things out.

So why demolish the Laurentian Hotel?

There was considerable public opposition to the plan, yet Canadian Pacific argued nonetheless that in order to fully realize their vision they would have to clear out the space of its existing buildings (including Windsor Station). They said the Laurentian Hotel blocked CP-owned lands further west from access to (what was then known as) Dominion Square (today’s Place du Canada/Dorchester Square), and thus had to be eliminated so that the new project could have a prestigious address, and access to one of the city’s most iconic urban public spaces (for a complete analysis, check out Michael Fish’s essay on the public fight to save the Laurentian Hotel from the wrecking ball).

And so despite considerable and vocal public opposition Canadian Pacific demolished the Laurentian in 1978. A pity too; it was one of three prominent Streamline Moderne styled buildings built in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s designed by Charles Davis Goodman (the other two being the Jewish General Hospital’s main pavilion and Ben’s Delicatessen, also since demolished).

At the same time the Laurentian came down, the hotel CP said would replace it stood abandoned across the street. The railroad had managed to convince Holiday Inn to build the largest hotel in its chain here in Montreal, in time for the 1976 Olympics. It was intended to be a 900-room luxury hotel tower and was to have featured multiple exterior elevators (a design quirk fashionable at the time). The project was estimated to cost $30 million, and Holiday Inn had spent that much by the fall of 1976, with only a partially completed tower to show for it and too late to profit off the tourism boost of the Olympiad. The company realized it was unlikely they’d quickly re-coup their investment, and the political and economic situation in Montreal towards the end of 1976 wasn’t optimistic to say the least.

And so they walked.

It would take another $20 million before Sheraton finally completed the tower and outfitted the hotel six years later, and to this day the building seems boring and otherwise out of place (if it weren’t for the fact that it’s part of a cluster of tall buildings).

Despite this and other major setbacks (the Bank of Montreal pulled out in the mid-1970s, opting instead to put the bank’s operations in the tallest building in Toronto, First Canadian Place), CP pressed on with its plan to build a massive office and residential complex on the 14-acres or so of land it owned west of Peel.

And ultimately nothing came of it. After acquiring 14-acres of land, CP would change course in the 1980s, first selling the site of the former Laurentian Hotel to be developed into the new head office of the Laurentian Bank, and then selling off the rest of their land holdings piecemeal over the subsequent thirty some-odd years.

The lasting effect of CP’s plan was a lot of undeveloped or under-utilized land immediately west of the city’s Central Business District from the late 1970s until quite recently. To put things in perspective, between 1978 and 1987 you could see the entirety of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral (which is on the east side of Place du Canada) from as far west as Guy Street. In other words, for nine years there wasn’t much more than open lots, a few abandoned buildings and several large parking lots stretching half a kilometre along the south side of René Lévesque.

Montreal 1978
Montreal 1978

In a curious way I find all that open space impressive in its desolation. A massive hole in the urban fabric.

In any event, all that said, the current Holiday Inn project couldn’t be more different from what CP had planned in the mid-1970s.

The developer, Canvar, is going for it’s third iteration of an already successful hotel base and apartment tower design they’ve already introduced to the city.

Take note: not condos, luxury apartments.

Canvar also erected the Hilton Garden Inn on Sherbrooke and the V on Bleury & René Lévesque (which features a Marriott Courtyard at its base). Also worth noting, this will mark the return of Holiday Inn to Montreal’s Central Business District, as the former location on Sherbrooke was converted into a private student residence last year. The former Marriott Courtyard was located next door and was converted into a McGill student residence a few years earlier, and Canvar’s Hilton Garden Inn project lies immediately next to those and was completed in 2008.

So here’s an interesting phenomenon: on the one hand the old university-adjacent hotels on Sherbrooke were repurposed and converted into student housing, and on the other hand the former ‘hotel cluster’ has been unpacked and ‘regenerated’ elsewhere in the city.

Canvar boasts the V building was 85% occupied within six months. If that’s accurate then this tower will likely be completed on time and, barring any unforeseen quick downturns in the local real-estate market, may very well expect similar results. When the project was announced in November of last year, Canvar estimated the hotel would be completed within two years (in time for the anticipated 2017 tourism spike) and the whole project finished within three. Given their recent successes I don’t doubt they’ll do it again – the idea works.

The concept of pairing a hotel base with a residential tower is advantageous for multiple reasons. First, it’s unlikely a medium-sized Holiday Inn will fail with such a choice address. Second, the tower can be scaled down (or eliminated) if there’s a major shift in the market. Third, the pairing of high-end apartments and a hotel in the high-density business core of the city is efficient and immensely practical for the range of business tourism needs in Montreal.

The new Holiday Inn will be built next to the YUL project, which includes two 38-floor towers featuring 800 condo units (excavations for which have begun) as well as 17 townhouses and the renovation of the Lafontaine Mansion into a single-family home (!!!). Within five years there’s a pretty good chance the entirety of the Overdale block will be redeveloped, with thousands of new residents living in a space that had been vacant or underused for the better part of twenty five years.

Opinion isn’t unanimous as to whether Montreal can support the number of condo projects currently under construction, and there are some who are warning of a potentially disastrous shift in the market, particularly in smaller markets with less than stellar economies, that may be very difficult to absorb. However, these warnings have been repeated ad infinitum for several years (a decade ago people were worried about too many condos, some things never change). The developers are bullish, I think at least in part because the new generation of homeowners simply won’t have too many other options: on-island house values are very high, and sprawl has pushed ‘affordable suburbs’ to the very edge of what most are willing to endure in terms of a daily commute. Congestion on our roadways, coupled with major construction projects and the high costs associated with car ownership all make urban condos that much more attractive and infinitely more practical to young professionals.

And then there’s the fact city living is infinitely more rewarding simply in terms of accessibility to all the fun stuff the city has to offer. If all these new residential projects come to fruition, the city will be able to offer thousands of people quality housing with a strong re-sale value and all within walking distance of every conceivable service, major cultural institutions and entertainment, retail and leisure districts, not to mention the majority of the city’s major employers.

An attractive offer, and with plenty of variety to suit diverse tastes and lifestyles. Even if branded lifestyle condo-dwelling isn’t your bag, it may serve the needs of tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of which would become property owners and tax payers to the City of Montreal.

Montreal Photo of the Day – April 15th 2015

Place du Canada staircase

Thought I’d try something new; I’ve got a ton of photos of the city, so I’ll add a new one every day from here on in.

Took this photo on Sunday April 12th, arguably the first really nice day of the year.

This staircase links Rue de la Gauchetiere with the Place du Canada complex.

It’s not obvious as the staircase is actually partially masked by the large slab of granite that hosts the Place du Canada Chateau Champlain sign at street level. In any event, it’s located between Place du Canada’s Gauchetiere street entrance and the entrance to the hotel.

The staircase leads up to a large open space that surrounds the Chateau Champlain’s tower that serves as a kind of overhead public plaza, in turn leading to the park across the street, which was once upon a time called Dominion Square but has been known as Place du Canada since 1967. So there’s a public park, a plaza and an office tower/hotel complex all referred to by the same name. At least they’re all in the same place…

The ‘sky bridge’ that links the Place du Canada complex south of de la Gauchetiere with Place du Canada to the north is unique in Montreal (or at least I can’t think of another viaduct that connects two public spaces over a city street), not only due to its inherent novelty, but also because it allows access to the office tower at the same elevation as Boul. René Lévesque despite the maybe 30-40 foot drop in elevation between the edge of the park and Saint Antoine further south.

Odd too that it was built during the reign of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who apparently wasn’t keen on the idea of elevated pedestrian walkways.

In any event, the plaza this staircase leads to is never terribly busy, and is blocked off from Place du Canada (the public park) as the latter is undergoing major renovations at the moment. I don’t seem to recall an entrance to the hotel from plaza level, though there are several exits from the building out onto the plaza. It’s a pity too; there’s a wrap-around walkway that leads to a terrace on the Peel Street side, and the space would make for a great setting for a restaurant in my opinion. From what I recall there’s a plaza level addition to the hotel, possibly the gym, that somewhat clumsily cuts the main plaza off from the generally sunnier terrace on the Peel Street side.

That said, highly recommended location for shots of the city’s Dorchester Square area, good vantage point for a lot of the taller towers and a refreshingly peaceful location if you just want a nice quiet place to think or read a book in the very heart of a bustling metropolis.