Category Archives: Let’s make this an election issue

Rethinking Viger Square’s Rehabilitation

Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.
Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.

This is a bit late, but there’s a petition circulating I urge you to sign. We need to save Viger Square for demolition, as the city now intends to do.

In point form, here’s why:

1. Viger Square’s reputation isn’t reason enough to demolish it.

2. Demolishing the existing square doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

3. It doesn’t make any sense to spend $28 million to demolish the square and build a new public space when the existing square could be rehabilitated at a lower cost.

4. Rehabilitating the square is an opportunity to fully realize the original artistic vision of three prominent Quebec artists.

5. Doing so would likely eliminate all the factors that make Viger Square so generally undesirable to all but the homeless.

6. Improving sight-lines across the park by eliminating the outer walls of parts of the square, in addition to better general upkeep and better lighting is a subtler way of improving security and making the area more inviting. The original plan also called for permanent park fixtures, such as a café and public market.

7. Once the CHUM superhospital opens there will be a significant increase in the number of people living and working in the area, and the only reason why Viger Square became ‘homeless park’ in the first place was as a result of poor city planning resulting in local depopulation. In terms of serving as an important urban focal point, the new hospital will be as important as Gare Viger was a century ago.

8. To my knowledge, there’s an abandoned former convent up on René-Levesque which could be used as a large homeless shelter (it’s outlined in red in the photo above). Viger Square and Berri Square have the same problem – semi-permanent homeless populations that give both spaces poor reputations. Clearly what’s needed most is additional shelter space and social workers to help get these people off the streets, not an entirely new (but ultimately less interesting) public space.

For more information on what was originally intended, check out this video featuring the voice of UQAM architecture professor Marie-Dina Salvione:

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Viger Square, it’s a bit of a local anomaly.

It’s underused public green space, a park many try to avoid in a city that generally values (and uses) its public spaces.

It’s also a radical re-thinking of landscape design, and the creative effort of three noted Quebec artists. That it has developed a poor reputation as a result of being associated with homelessness and drug use is not reason enough to destroy it: reputations can be rehabilitated.

The Coderre administration’s plan to spend $28 million to demolish Charles Daudelin’s Agora is shortsighted and unnecessary. Worse, it neglects the sad fact that the square was never completed to the original design.

Had it been, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Viger Square is a historic public green space; it’s been used as such since the mid-19th century, with its present boundaries taking shape in 1892. At the turn of the 20th century two major institutions took up positions on either side of the square – the École des hautes études commerciales on the Viger side (today a provincial archives building) and Place Viger (Canadian Pacific’s eastern Montreal passenger station and hotel, today a mixed-used residential, commercial and retail space) on the Saint Antoine side. At the time the area would have been bustling with activity, its immediate surroundings supporting a growing French Canadian middle and upper-middle class community.

Place Viger as it appeared in 1900
Place Viger as it appeared in 1900

The area’s high point occurred during the period 1898 (when the station/hotel opened) to 1935 (when the hotel closed) as Place Viger interacted closely with the park across the street, the hotel inviting guests to stroll ‘it’s vast gardens’. The train station would close in 1951 and the building was then sold to the City of Montreal to be used as office space. What destroyed the neighbourhood, so to speak, was the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the early 1970s. For whatever reason the decision was made to sacrifice the entirety of the park for the highway trench and then to build a new, modern, park atop the exposed trench.

This work was started in the late-1970s and completed in the mid-1980s. Modern Viger Square was designed as a public square in three distinct parts, set atop the highway to reclaim lost space. Have a look at Kate McDonnell’s photos of the site today.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Montreal never got the public space envisioned by Charles Daudelin, Claude Théberge and Peter Gnass.

The idea they came up with was to create an urban oasis, a place of refuge in the heart of the city. The original design included permanent fixtures, like a café and a small public market, as well as a comprehensive lighting scheme, and vegetation chosen to best interact with largely concrete structure.

None of this was ever implemented. The end result was perceived as cold and uninviting. Daudelin’s Mastodo fountain (in the western square) broke after a few months and never seems to have been repaired. Claude Théberges’ Forces fountain (in the central square) hasn’t been turned on in years. In the late 1980s the redesigned Viger Square began to attract a semi-permanent homeless population, one which exists to this day (the great irony being that the square would indeed serve as a refuge, albeit in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of way for the homeless).

For too many years Viger Square was the public space the city tried its best to forget about, but now that the CHUM superhospital is taking final form and the surrounding land values have increased there’s increased interest to invest in city beautification projects in this specific area. I suppose the city is trying to avoid the embarrassment of an opening-day ceremony taking place next to the city’s premier homeless camp…

Thus, the Coderre administration has come up with a plan to knock down Agora (the collection of raised concrete ‘boxes’) and radically transform the Daudelin and Théberge sections of Viger Square. Conceptual renderings of the proposed new space can be seen here.

This is a terrible idea.

For one the new design is completely uninspired. Whereas Daudelin, Théberge and Gnass came up with an original (though not fully realized) idea for an urban sanctuary, the proposed redesign is flat, banal and too open. Though the city intends to keep the Mastodo sculpture, it looks like it will be moved and decontextualized. As originally conceived, the Mastodo fountain arrangement was supposed to fill a channel with water, collecting in a pond adjacent to a ‘water wall’. In a similar vein, the Forces fountain was to demonstrate water ‘breaking’ through several granite pillars. It’s all quite avant-garde for landscape design, but because the city doesn’t want the homeless bathing in public fountains none of us get a chance to appreciate it as originally conceived.

And this is what brings us back to square one – bulldozing Viger Square and transforming it will make it a less desirable location for local homeless, but it does nothing to solve the homeless problem.

A tasteless, jingoistic, paramilitary embarrassment…

Lord what’s become of the RCMP Musical Ride?

The title of this post is a quote from former CBC journalist Frank Koller; you can read his blog post here.

The paramilitary demonstration in question, according to the RCMP, has been a part of the Musical Ride for roughly a decade (or roughly as long as Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, but that’s just a coincidence… right?).

Koller’s reaction echoed that of many in attendance who were shocked to see this military display at a Canadian institution that’s been described in the past as ‘ballet with horses’.

The RCMP in turn responded by down-playing the demonstration, arguing that it’s only a part of the Ottawa-based sunset ceremony and not the touring Musical Ride. They also mentioned it was just a few minutes in a two-hour presentation, and re-iterated the supposed longevity of the display to make it seem as though it’s a perfectly normal component of the Musical Ride (the Emergency Response Team or ERT has existed since 1977, and the Musical Ride has been going on since the late 19th century, but it’s only in the last decade that these ‘long-standing’ displays have popped up).

Also – mass citizenship oath? When did that become part of the ceremony? One of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy is not being compelled to demonstrate your citizenship in mass recitations. That’s more of a North Korea type of thing…

Some took issue with Koller’s use of the term ‘paramilitary’, as the RCMP was, in a sense, a paramilitary organization. I’d argue this hasn’t been the case for much of the organization’s recent history, as the 19th century need for a paramilitary police force has disappeared. The RCMP are not tasked with defending Canadian territorial sovereignty, this is the job of the military. The ERT is indeed the paramilitary component of the RCMP, intended to be used as an aid to the civil power in extreme circumstances warranting the use of military-grade equipment and tactics.

My question is what precisely they’re trying to demonstrate. I know the ERT exists, I have an idea about what it would be used for, but I just can’t fathom what this has to do with the Musical Ride, or why this component of the RCMP should be demonstrated at any public event in the first place.

Think about it: wouldn’t it be odd for Montreal’s SWAT team to put on public displays during Jazz Fest?

What are they trying to show us? A forceful traffic stop? This isn’t what an RCMP take-down of suspected terrorists would look like at all… it’s unrealistic to the point of being comedic, and if this is in any way comparable to an actual RCMP training operation we should all be very worried.

And this is aside from the fact that we still haven’t produced ‘home grown’ terrorists since the October Crisis, and even then the FLQ was really little more than a loose association of politically-motivated bank robbers. Zehaf-Bibeault was a habitual offender with mental problems who somehow got himself an old winchester dual action. He was only ‘radicalized’ by his own sick mind, not a Canadian based Islamic fundamentalist terrorism network. On a day to day basis the RCMP spends a lot more time and effort responding to domestic disputes and highway code violations than combating domestic terrorism.

So again, what is this idiotic spectacle supposed to demonstrate?

When are RCMP tactical units going to be cruising around the neighbourhood searching for slow-moving pickups with shirtless terrorist drivers?

Furthermore… as a patriot I feel compelled to explain that the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols references the community of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec (pistoles were an old French currency, not a gun), and that the song itself is a kind of interpretive biography of the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson.

So there’s that… on top of this being nearly Monty Python-esque in its asinine absurdity, this demonstration was set to an inappropriate musical choice, one that indicates a superficiality and lack of general awareness again, I would hope is not actually indicative of the RCMP.

A display like this doesn’t make me feel any safer, and knowing that I’d be subjected to this kind of tastelessness gives me every reason to avoid paying money to see the Musical Ride. This spectacle reminds me of the evident Americanization of Canadian police and this in turn is of no benefit to anyone but chiefly American arms dealers. The fact is crime has been falling for decades not as a result of this recent trend, but rather the result of sound public policy enacted by democratically elected responsible governments. Buying armoured trucks and flash bangs for the RCMP is of no particular strategic advantage, and it would be in our strategic security interest not to demonstrate how the ERT actually operates at public functions. If anything, we should treat the ERT much like JTF2, keeping them out of the public eye until absolutely necessary.

This demonstration is a farce we should be embarrassed of.

The Royalmount Project and 24hr Shopping

An artist's rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)
An artist’s rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)

Two big retail related stories from the past week. I’ll discuss in reverse order from the title above.

First, the province of Quebec will now allow retail businesses in Montreal’s downtown core to set their own hours, the idea being that there’s some kind of late night shopping potential retailers have been missing out on.

Second, a colossal shopping/entertainment/office/hotel complex intended for the former Town of Mount Royal industrial sector at the intersection of the Decarie Expressway and Highway 40. From the people who brought the Dix-30 development to Brossard come it’s much larger on-island counterpart. Carbonleo, the firm behind the Royalmount project, explains that Montrealers currently have to go to Brossard or Laval to get the same experience, though for the life of me I can’t think of too many people I know who will drive to Laval to buy some slacks…


On the subject of businesses being able to set their own hours – brilliant. Why wasn’t this already the case?

And why does the city of Montreal need to province’s permission to grant businesses this right?

This aside, the plan essentially allows businesses in the ‘tourism districts’ of the Central Business District to operate on a twenty-four schedule, should they choose to do so. If this means more restaurants and cafés will be open late, great. If there’s potential to increase retail sales, I suppose this is great too, though I doubt this means we’ll be able to shop at Simons or Ogilvy at 3:00 AM anytime soon (and I doubt late night shopping opportunities in Old Montreal or Chinatown will make much of a difference either).

Either way, at it’s core this is a good move if for no other reason than it gives a number of small enterprises a greater degree of operational freedom. Couple it with loosened restrictions on drinking hours and who knows, maybe we’ll create a trend of drunken impulse clothes shopping (note: the measure specifically excludes bars… vive la laicité…)

But let’s not kid ourselves, extended shopping and won’t solve the Central Business District’s late night lifelessness, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what’s missing.

Live entertainment is the key, and it’s what’s principally missing from too much of downtown Montreal. I can’t help but think this might be a consequence of an over-emphasis on branding certain geographic areas as ‘entertainment and tourist zones’ that wind up attracting Sergakis-style sports bars, tacky nightclubs and American-style theme restaurants.

The great irony is that the neighbourhoods that really come to life at night are just that, neighbourhoods. The first ring urban residential areas on the CBD’s periphery have many of the city’s best nightspots, restaurants and venues. If anything we should be trying to figure out better methods of getting tourists out of the CBD and into the ‘real’ Montreal of the Plateau, Mile End, Saint Henri (etc.), but I digress.

One thing to consider: when you look at old photos of Saint Catherine Street in its heyday of the 1940s through to the 1970s, you notice a lot of theatres, cocktail lounges, show-bars (etc.) lining the street. Entertainment ‘anchors’ brought Montrealers to this street, in turn supporting restaurants and bars for generations. Losing the theatres (a process that began in the mid-1970s) and introducing self-contained downtown shopping malls (which began in earnest in the mid-1980s) sucked a lot of the life out of the street. Lack of commercial rental controls and our unnatural, nearly inconceivable interest in American chain stores and restaurants ultimately conspired to produce the situation we’re currently faced with… a retail and entertainment thoroughfare that’s lost the charm and appeal that made it so famous. For tourists, a bit of a let-down… most of our ‘tourist zones’ offer little better than what you’d expect to find in just about any large North American city.

As to the Royalmount project, same problem. It’s inauthentic and doesn’t actually offer anything particularly novel or interesting. Though the current plan is a kind of ‘shoot for the moon’ proposal, including a massive green roof, a performance venue, hotel, office space and about eight times as much rentable retail space as the entirety of the Eaton’s Centre, I have a suspicion the end result (if it does indeed get built) won’t be quite as grandiose. Performance venue will become multiplex cinema, hotel will become luxury old folks home etc etc etc.

If Montreal’s retailers are having a tough time now, it likely won’t get any easier with this behemoth. Add an estimated 20,000 cars per day to the already congested intersection of highways 15 and 40 and the situation gets worse all around.

What I find truly unfortunate is that if this project gets the green light we’ll lose an important industrial zone in exchange for will likely be a retail white elephant. The TMR industrial zone is well situated, not only at the intersection of the aforementioned highways, but also within close proximity of both the Taschereau and Cote Saint Luc rail yards and the airport. The industrial zone further benefits from rail line spurs that in most cases go right up to the loading docks of the large industrial properties. Sure, our industrial economy isn’t doing great right now, but who knows what the future might hold? It’s not like we have an abundance of railway connected, airport adjacent industrial zoning… especially what with all the old industrial zones close to the city proper having been converted into loft condos.

Industrial jobs is where we need growth, not retail jobs.

In any event, the Carbonleo proposal is so big it’s hard to imagine it’s realistic. On top of 2.25 million square feet of retail space, they envision 1.4 million square feet of office space – roughly equivalent to Place Ville Marie. And then there’s a 3,000 seat performance venue…

I have my doubts. What’s also distressing is that the plan will require infrastructure to be re-designed (i.e. highway on and off ramps), not to mention a planned bridge to link De la Savanne Métro station with the mega project over the Decarie Expressway trench. There’s no mention on what Transport Quebec or the STM have to say about this, though I really don’t like the idea of any public money being used on a private venture I honestly don’t think has been thoroughly thought through. It seems to me that just about every shopping mall in the city proper is struggling, and the already existing shopping malls within proximity of the planned Royalmount project are all barely hanging on.

Just another reason why this city needs a more sophisticated master plan and why ‘One Island, One City’ ought to be seriously reconsidered. TMR can likely proceed on this project by itself, perhaps to Montreal’s detriment, and that’s everyone’s concern.

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.

Métro woes…

This is about as real as it gets - conceptual renderings of the proposed Azur Métro train.
This is about as real as it gets Рconceptual renderings of the proposed Azur M̩tro train.

Here’s the deal:

In 2010 the Quebec government signed an agreement with the Bombardier-Alstom consortium to build 468 new Métro cars at a total cost of $1.2 billion, with expected delivery starting in February 2014 and continuing for four years. The first completed car rolled out in splashy ceremony in November of 2013. The first train was completed in February 2014 and the company maintained that the entire fleet would be delivered by 2018, as per the contract.

It’s now April of 2015 and only one train has been delivered, and it’s been used uniquely for testing – i.e. it is not in operation yet.

It’s assumed Bombardier will have to pay some kind of fee for late delivery, though this is far from set in stone and could easily be forgiven by the government.

If say Bombardier were to come up with reasons to further delay delivery, government might wave the fee, or do something else to prevent such a delay.

So far Bombardier has announced delays in delivery because of two different issues. First there were problems with parts of the tunnel that required a partial redesign so as to actually allow the trains to pass through. Second, announced in October of 2014, was that the automated control software wasn’t ready, so even though a paltry five train sets had been completed, they wouldn’t be put into service. In January Bombardier-Alstom indicated that the software still wasn’t ready and that they’d have to layoff 145 construction workers at a plant in La Pocatière because of the delay in developing a software an Alstom-owned subsidiary in (wait for it) Italy.

At face value these seem like reasonable justifications, but think on it a little bit.

In the first case, the work to be done was on a small section of a tunnel, and basically involved shaving off parts of the ceiling and outer walls, as that portion – for whatever reason – was slightly narrower than the rest of the system. It had nothing to do with the trains themselves, so how did that retard their construction?

In the second case, the software is just that – soft. Why can’t the new trains use the existing automated control software? Is there no way to operate the trains manually? And again, why would that delay construction of the vehicles themselves?

Today’s news is that the Quebec government will ‘loan’ $31.5 million to the STM so that the STM can then pay Bombardier for the delivery of four train sets, each with nine cars. When these train sets will be delivered is anyone’s guess – despite a lot of flowery prose – a delivery date for these trains was omitted from the STM’s press release (author’s note – thanks to Martin from Propos Montréal for pointing out it isn’t actually a loan, but an advance the STM will pay Bombardier before the total bill is due in full once the last trains are completed and delivered in 2018. So we’re paying a portion of what’s already contractually agreed upon as owed to Bombardier-Alstom for trains that are only 95% complete).

CTV reported in January that five trains had been completed, today we were promised four completed trains at a future date. Which is it? Have five been built or are four to be built?

And why is the government loaning money to the STM so the STM can then pay Bombardier-Alstom to keep production going and save 145 jobs in La Pocatière (which is located about halfway between Quebec City and Rivière du Loup, and closer to Edmunston New Brunswick than Montréal). And why didn’t the government pay Bombardier-Alstom directly as opposed to loaning money to the STM?

And what was the $1.2 billion contract signed in 2010 for if not to pay for the production of these Métro cars in the first place?

The STM press release is thick with laughable quotes from various members of the provincial government, and Bombarider-Alstom, declaring how important it is to keep the Quebec economy going and to save these jobs. Coderre weighed in (for some reason) that the people of Montréal are impatient to get the new trains, but no delivery date was specified and there’s no specific details as to what the $31.5 million will be used for.

If it’s just to keep 145 people employed, how does this fix the software problem?

And wasn’t the contract supposed to create 400 jobs, not 245 of which 145 can be ‘saved’ from temporary layoffs thanks to a mere $31.5 million loan? What about the initial contract?

The Journal de Montréal reports that economy minister Jacques Daoust had the gall to state that ‘if Quebec were in a period of austerity, we (the government) could not have made this grand gesture’.

Son of a bitch. It’s shit like this that makes people absolutely despise the Quebec Liberal Party.

Now to recap:

– In 2010 the Quebec gov’t paid the Bombardier-Alstom consortium $1.2 billion to deliver 468 new Métro cars (comprising 52 trains).

– Trains were expected to begin operation in February 2014.

– As of January 2015 no trains had been delivered to the STM; Bombardier-Alstom at first blames delays on problems with tunnel clearance, then with automated control software, and indicates it will have to temporarily layoff 145 employees at a factory in La Pocatière though fails to connect the dots as to how this will impede the construction of the trains. CTV reports five trains had been completed but, according to STM and Bombardier-Alstom officials, can’t be used safely.

– On April 2nd 2015 the Government of Quebec announces a $31.5 million loan to the STM so that the STM can pay Bombardier-Alstom for the delivery of four trains at an unspecified date as well as the continued employment of those workers threatened with layoffs.

– On the same day officials from the government, the Mayor of Montreal, representatives of Bombardier, Alstom and the STM congratulate themselves for doing something good for the Quebec economy.

The Quebec government just paid nearly $32 million to get four trains when it already paid $1.2 billion for 52 trains five years ago, and apparently Bombardier-Alstom has justified delays in both construction and delivery on a) physical characteristics of the tunnel they should already have been aware of and b) automated control software they are responsible for. And to top it all off, the new trains will be delivered ‘95% complete’ and without the new software.

People, this is your money.

Bombardier-Alstom convinced the representatives of the people of Quebec into paying more money for a subpar product that’s already a year behind in the delivery schedule, by threatening to layoff unionized workers in a riding that up until recently voted PQ.

Once again the taxpayers of Quebec have been screwed by a profit-driven multinational corporation and complicit government officials who look to score political points by creatively financing corporate failures and spinning it as an some kind of economic and political success story. We have been told by various governments for over a generation that the private sector is more efficient at getting the job done. How can such be said of Bombardier-Alstom with regard to the Azur project?

I don’t get it. We have no money to pay for schools, hospitals nor even a sufficient number of maintenance workers to keep the Métro clean, yet have $31.5 million lying around to reward incompetence at best and blackmail at worst.

Gutting the City

Dix-30 aerial photoAn aerial view of Quartier Dix-30 in Brossard. Not my work. Ceci n’est pas une ville.

We need a Dix-30 styled “innovative multi-use urban project” like we need a gaping hole in the head.

For one, there’s nothing innovative about shopping malls.

For two, TMR’s industrial park is hardly urban.

For three, it’s projects like these that lead to boarded up windows on Saint Catherine or Saint Lawrence.


Let’s back up a bit.

There’s a firm that’s aiming to build a massive brand new shopping, entertainment, hotel and office park at the intersection of highways 15 and 40 in the Town of Mount Royal’s industrial park.

They’re calling it 15/Quarante and so far have refused to go into anything but the absolute vaguest of details. It’s the same company, Carbonleo Realty, who’s responsible for the Quartier Dix-30 shopping mega complex built in Brossard to much undeserved fanfare a few years back.

Now this same company is looking to repeat its success on island, on a significant portion of real estate currently occupied by factories and warehouses.

And who needs that right?

Instead they plan on replacing the means of production with the means of mass consumption and build big box stores.

They’re also indicating office towers and – get this – a concert hall – are all in the works.

I’m telling you right now: there will never be a concert hall located in TMR’s industrial park. That’s bullshit right there. Multiplex movie theatre – sure, why not, that could happen.

But concert hall?

Nope. Not ever.

For one there’s no way public money would serve to build in TMR what has just been built in a more sensible location at Place des Arts.

As to office towers, again, I’m very skeptical. A landing corridor passes right over that highway junction and it’s debatable whether Montreal on the whole needs more office space.

I can imagine there’s plenty of reason to suspect a mega mall in the style of Dix-30 would work (in that it would make money for the Town of Mount Royal and for the developer); there’s already a lot of that in that area anyways and there’s interest in redeveloping the old Blue Bonnets race track into a large residential project. The mall proposed would thus be located close to a large body of people and at a major traffic junction. How could it fail?

This is precisely what the people at Decarie Square, Place Vertu, the Cavendish Mall and that other short-lived mall further south on Decarie (that was abandoned throughout much of the 1990s) were thinking. The rules of retail and real estate are the same – location, location, location. And superficially it makes sense they would choose to locate the mall in the area they’ve chosen.

The first problem I see is that adding a mega mall will only exacerbate congestion. Without a considerable public investment in redeveloping the surrounding roadways the proposed mega mall runs the risk of being inconvenient to get to despite its proximity to major traffic systems and residential areas.

The second and bigger problem is that projects of this size wind up destroying independent businesses and obliterating established commercial thoroughfares. If we want more successful small businesses on The Main, on Saint Catherine, on Saint Denis, Queen Mary and Notre Dame West, we can’t allow for more big box stores and shopping malls. It’s really just that simple. I think the single greatest economic challenge to Montreal in the last forty years is the threat posed by large multi-national retailers who sell high-volumes of attractive garbage at unbeatable prices. We should have legislation on the books to keep such companies out of our city simply to maintain competitiveness and entrepreneurialism.

Simply put.

If you are a capitalist you should be against projects like this and just about every ‘big box’ retailer operating in our city.

They are literally undermining the economic foundations of our city.

Yes, it’s true the Economist ranked Montreal as the world’s second best city to live in (absurdly taking a back seat to Toronto, the city fun forgot).


As much as I love Montreal, we need to face reality and acknowledge we got the high rank simply because it’s cheap to live here and broadly speaking we enjoy a high standard of life. It was not because of any local economic or political dynamism, that’s for sure.

A Brookings Institute study that came out roughly around the same time as the Economist report put Montreal in 285th place out of 300 major world cities in terms of economic productivity.

And more locally the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses put Montreal dead last in terms of best cities for doing business in Canada.

Given the state the world’s in right now, sure, Montreal’s a great place to live to ride out the storm.

We know we have an enduring economic problem in this city, and have been particularly vocal of late, bemoaning job losses, folding restaurants and boarded-up windows.

And yet, we do nothing to fight that which is driving these failures. The answer to some of our economic problems lie in protectionist legislation at the municipal level.

Every time a new McDonald’s, a new Starbucks, a WalMart, Home Depot, Tim Horton’s or Target opens up, small businesses fall by the dozens, and with it goes a crucial component of our city’s economic foundation. The city needs to stand up for competitiveness, choice and entrepreneurialism by promoting small business over volume retailers and corporate chains.

It’s the highly localized investment capital generated by small businesses that form the real backbone for long term economic growth, as family run businesses are passed down from generation to generation and local legacies are established. In the long run the city benefits from the regular returns of these businesses far more than could possibly be expected from high volume retailers and franchises that are notorious for short shelf lives.

In sum, malls die and are emblematic of unsustainable economic policies. The downtown core has already demonstrated the adverse effects of ‘chain and franchise’ dominance, and as a result feels increasingly alien. Sainte Catherine is more a poor man’s Times Square than something iconically Montreal; the neon used to advertise theatres, cabarets and restaurants. Today it advertises the exact same stores I find in the shopping malls of suburbia or the Underground City.

And it’s for that reason that I rarely find myself on Sainte Catherine or shopping downtown. Too little choice.

The last time I can recall spending an afternoon ‘out shopping’ was last summer on Bernard in the Mile End. I went across town from where I was living at the time and walked along the street, stopping in several stores (all independently owned) and making a variety of purchases, some planned, others more spontaneous. Then I got a bite to eat at a local bistro, had an espresso and then met up with a friend to have a drink on a terrace.

Yes, conceivably I’ll be able to do all this, and possibly more, at the proposed TMR Mega Mall.

But I wouldn’t on principle no matter what kind of branded lifestyle or savings it promises.

I don’t think I’m alone either.

In any event, I don’t know how to close this, so here’s Glenn Castanheira of the Saint Lawrence Merchant’s Association discussing why he thinks it’s a bad idea on CTV Montreal… and Castanheira again in debate with the Mayor of the Town of Mount Royal, Philippe Roy.