Category Archives: Let’s make this an election issue

Parc Oxygene: the Small Cause & the Cost of Community

Protest signs facing onto Parc Oxygene

This article was originally published on the Forget the Box news collective a few days back. In fact, it’s one of my first ‘assignments’ as a writer. Neat eh?

Have you ever seen a really small rally or demonstration?
Like the kind where you instinctively ask yourself whether those gathered may require the services of a new communications director?
Or feel compelled to determine exactly which crackpot idea would lead to this small congregation? “What’s so ‘special’ about your special-interest group”, you may ask yourself, for shits and giggles.
In Montréal you’d be hard pressed to go a day without some kind of protest, rally, vigil etc. somewhere in the city – public demonstrations are a key element of civic life, and Montrealer’s are generally proud and active members of their community, and thus inclined to participate. That being said, and with our many infamous riots and other major public gatherings well in mind, we must keep in mind that the day to day demo in our city is typically a small gathering, attended by only a handful of people. You’ve doubtless seen these quaint affairs, and perhaps have even had a laugh at their expense. After all, there are no small civic demonstrations – or at least not as far as the TV cameras will show you. There are only large potential threats to internal security, marauding black-masked anarchists and an endless parade of indolent, self-righteous students in attendance at these events, right?
Last Saturday I had the pleasure of taking in a small demonstration. There were only a couple dozen people in attendance, but this was not a rally in which the force for change would be measured in mere attendance statistics. Few ever are. Change is effected by concerned citizens who work tirelessly, and too often without any recognition, to achieve altruistic goals. On Saturday I got a chance to meet some of these people, and as result of my meeting I’d like to state that I believe in their cause and would further like to see their wish realized.
That wish, incidentally, is to see a small, unusable plot of land that has been turned into a park recognized and protected for what it is.
The saga of Parc Oxygene goes all the way back to the very heady days of the 1960s. Back then Parc Oxygene didn’t even exist, largely because the adjacent La Cité apartment complex was still nothing more than an architect’s proposal. The La Cité development was a testament to inefficient government planning, unscrupulous real-estate developers drunk with power and served, for these reasons, to galvanize public opinion into a cohesive protest force. The Milton-Parc Citizens Committee was formed to stop the development and protect the community, which in turn would lead to the creation of Save Montreal, Heritage Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and our city’s generally more enlightened approach to urban redevelopment and architectural conservation. While the MPCC wasn’t able to stop the project completely, they were able to scale it down to about an eighth of what was originally planned. Subsequently, the MPCC grew into a major community organization, and today they protect the interests of the residents of more than 600 rental units in the area, not to mention many local small businesses. Take a trip to the corner of Milton and Parc and take a seat at any of the three cafés on that intersection (I prefer the Second Cup for its massive terrace and, no joke, the community of regulars) and watch the world go by. Clearly there is a community here, and the streets dance with the movement of people carrying on their day-to-day. It is a fascinating vantage point on the city, one I’d highly recommend to tourist and seasoned boulevardier alike. Consider that all this activity takes places in the shadow of the massive housing, retail and office complex that is the La Cité development. Over the years the community here has demonstrated its resilience to massive urban renewal projects and has managed to get along despite the alterations that occurred over forty years ago. Perhaps time truly does heal all wounds…
Despite the scars, the neighbourhood has managed to stimulate its own renewal, and as you can imagine, land value in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, not to mention the adjacent Quartier Ste-Famille and McGill Ghetto areas has skyrocketed. What is curious is that the present threat is not from mega-projects, as it was back in the 60s and 70s, but by small, discreet condo projects, aiming to jam postage-stamp condos into alleyways, overhangs, courtyards and any other small tracts of land which may be available in a given area. We’ve benefitted as a community from the laws that enforce building height and massing restrictions, inasmuch as we’ve benefitted from an as yet un-satiated condo market that has until now largely focused on recycling old factories. But there are only so many old buildings that can be converted, and it’s for that reason that the MPCC suddenly finds itself once again dealing with La Cité’s legacy. A residual plot of land from the project’s construction, declared unusable by the city (yet somehow there’s a claim to ownership, complicating issues), and since converted into a pleasant little green-space, aptly named Parc Oxygene, perhaps because people so often forget the free resource provided by flora.
The park was an initiative of the residents of this close-knit community, as it had previously been used by taxi drivers revved up on thoughts of F1 glory and quick shortcuts through a dense part of the city. Frankly, before it was taken over by the citizens, it was bare, barren and dangerous. And of course, being an open space connected to the alleyway meant that it was frequently filled with children during the day and the homeless at night. Far from ideal for all parties concerned. When residents asked the City as to what the status of the land was, they were told that it could not be developed, and was thus unusable for this purpose. Too bad for the proprietor, but this proved to be a major boon for the community, as the locals quickly pooled their resources, planted flowers and shrubs, created a little path, and gave something directly back to the community. Feel good altruism at its finest.
Unfortunately, the reason for this rally in particular was to remind the public that this space exists, and that, as almost all green space is these days, it is under threat of redevelopment into – wait for it – condominiums. Eight at four hundred grand is the estimate, wedged onto a plot of land no larger than the floor-space of a typical Victorian row house. And poof goes the park in the process.
Though the City is still adamant that the land is unusable, the owner has a team of lawyers apparently working round the clock to find a solution to this project in Quebec City of all places. This seems doubtful, likely little more than intimidation. At the event on Saturday, the owner’s wife showed up and told people to ‘get off her lawn’.
Think twice about the next small rally you pass, as the cause may be righteous and more practical than you think. Small community involvement never catches the public’s eye, but they are still a vital and important tool and element of our civic lives. And who cares if the issue at hand isn’t good enough to be on the six o’clock news – if it affects you or your community, then it is your responsibility to stay informed. Of all the anxieties expressed at this gathering, the one that struck me was the feeling of hopelessness experienced by those who overhear a popular and preachy discourse pertinent to the merits of preserving the diversity of the urban environment. It’s a great game to talk, but too few walk it. So think too about your day-to-day access to green space in this city, and consider that Montreal is in no way a leader in this respect. Citizen access to public green space is still embarrassingly low in Montreal by international standards. Our access to condos is thoroughly unencumbered, by contrast.

Coda –

In retrospect I find this story slightly disturbing.

Our desire for the free market to remain ‘unencumbered’ by government imposed restrictions is in actuality a desire by private interests (in essence, no different than you or I, except with investment capital & lawyers on retainer) to not be held down by any societal responsibility, to cut themselves off from the collective for a brief moment to give themselves an unfair advantage over the interests of their fellow man. Consider when the owner’s wife shows up to curse us out and call the cops, telling demonstrators and members of the community to get off her land, she was also demonstrating – very clearly mind you – that she did not consider herself to be in any way integrated with other members of her society. She may even tell you as much to your face, for spite.

She didn’t recognize that all citizens are fundamentally united, chiefly via taxation and the specifics of our citizenship, constitution and charter, and that her imposition on others by refusing to realize this is far, far greater than the imposition she feels by recognizing her tacit claim to land ownership may be worthless given a decision made in favour of the interests of the collective.

What kind of sick society would have you believe you belong to a collective, tax you accordingly to provide for the whole, and then turn around and accord special interest arrangements to put some above the great mass, for their myopic, individualistic and ultimately financially-driven motives?

Standing even among a couple dozen like-minded people demonstrating their belief that the interests of the collective always outweigh the interests of the Howard Roark crowd is sufficient enough for me to see what’s right here. While city’s across North America build modern tenements in the form of postage-stamp condos on every square foot of ‘apparently available’ land, the delicate balance that was achieved so well in Montreal becomes threatened. Make no mistake, there’s a reason we have so many great neighbourhoods in this city – it wasn’t an accident, it was planned. Parts of this city were designed and built by some of the finest minds in the business – other parts were influenced after the fact. It’s part of our legacy as the first Metropolis of Canada, and we damn well better fight to keep it. I find it difficult to believe the social-cohesion of this city isn’t at least in part a result of excellent neighbourhood design and cohesive community planning and management. I can’t imagine what this city would look like and how it would feel if we allowed all the Fatal’s of this world to do whatever they felt with every scrap of land illegally transferred into their ‘ownership’.

Suffice it to say, if free-market capitalism in action seeks to destroy a community green space, then I’ll take socialist city-planning any day of the work-week.

Montreal’s Infrastructure Storm – Public transit to the rescue?

MTQ proposal for the revamped Turcot Interchange - not the work of the author

A Montreal Gazette article from August 25th 2011 detailed what is being described as a perfect storm of simultaneous, overlapping infrastructure projects which may ‘paralyze’ transit on island and in parts of the metropolitan region by 2015, less than four years from now. Among other projects, the controversial Turcot Yards & Interchange renovation project (read a great Walking Turcot Yards post here), the renovation of the Ville-Marie Expressway, the Champlain & Mercier Bridges and the Lafontaine Tunnel renovation are all to overlap by 2015. Experts gathered recently for the Ecocité Conference at the Palais des Congrés issued a statement, saying the City, Province and Federal governments must cooperate not only on major infrastructure repairs, but must also invest in a major re-investment in Montréal’s public-transit systems, so that they can be effectively used to minimize the impact renovations will have on the traffic requirements of a major city. In other words, public transit ought to be the tool used to negate massive gridlock, and provides a fantastic opportunity to get many more Montrealers hooked on the greener way to travel.

While the MTQ and City continue to argue about land-expropriation and the design of the new Turcot Interchange (read this fascinating Spacing Montreal article on the City’s space-efficient circular design), the major spans on the Saint Lawrence crumble, as does the Ville-Marie Expressway, and the traffic disruptions from regular infrastructure repairs and maintenance have already led to varying degrees of small-scale economic damage throughout the region.

In other words, we don’t just need to execute major renovations, but need to renovate with minimizing maintenance clearly in mind. Systems need to be designed with preventative maintenance as opposed to reflexive, piece-meal maintenance, much in the same manner as aircraft are maintained (and its for this reason that some aircraft models have exceptionally long lifespans of over 50 years). Thus, this perfect storm may also be a perfect opportunity to include wide-scale preventative maintenance measures streamlined across the board – after-all, these project are all exclusively within the realm of vehicular traffic, so there’s bound to be a significant amount of capital-cost overlap as well.

What’s significant here is that there are an exceptional number of vehicular commuters here in Montreal, on average spending about 30 minutes commuting to work each day. Two and a half hours on average spent driving to work – what a horrible waste of time! In Montreal, much like Toronto, about a quarter of vehicular commuters spend more than 45 minutes in traffic. The idea is that Montreal commuting times will increase dramatically by 2015 (and I can imagine, incrementally increase until then) as these projects wreak havoc on our local transportation infrastructure, which is heavily focused on individual usage of automobiles. Ergo, a new Transit Alliance proposes that the public transit system be expanded to accommodate people inconvenienced by the traffic disruptions. Unfortunately, according to one StatsCan study, about 82% of commuters who use their cars to get to work have never considered using public transit to get to and from work, whether its available or not. The typical justification given is that it is inconvenient.

I suppose that may be the case for a great many people in a number of cities across the country, but Montreal is well-known for its considerably advanced public-transit system. Over a million rides are taken each day on the Métro, which is a significant ridership level for such a comparatively small system. But despite efforts by the STM and AMT to expand lines, introduce new and improved equipment, and a host of suburban transit systems expanding access to Montreal, it is still exceptionally difficult to convince people to give public transit a try.

What’s particularly maddening is how residents of the West Island have been clamouring for a Métro extension to either the Airport or, in many more cases, Fairview shopping centre, for some time, and yet refuse to recognize this is unlikely to happen as long as the West Island communities maintain their hostile isolation from the rest of the Metropolitan Region. What’s more, it is the residents of the West Island who, for the most part, drive into the city, and are in turn responsible for a good deal of the traffic congestion. It’s a vicious circle of inactivity and futile fist-waving, and I personally find it a bit of a piss-off that West Islanders in general seem to consider using public transit as something diminutive, as though the buses are only designed to serve the hired help and the pre-license teens.

My justification for that previous statement is rather straightforward – if West Islanders, or any other community for that matter, wanted better public-transiot access, they’d pony up the bill, which is high and heavy no matter which way you cut it. Yes, the communities who have access to the STM pay for it in part, but the City is clearly footing the lion’s share of the bill.

I agree fully with the Transit Alliance’s proposal in principle, but it is unrealistic that the three levels of government will provide adequate funding for both the major road and bridge work in addition to the costs of new tram and train lines, Métro extensions etc. The City must take a more proactive approach and find methods to finance the extension of these systems without government support. Moreover, it must be clear to the Citizens that after these renovation projects are complete, a better maintenance scheme will be in play and the total number of road/bridge users will decline dramatically. In other words, the City must market the hell out of our new improved public transit system to get ridership into record-breaking numbers.

On a final note, have you ever wondered how Mayor Drapeau financed the initial Métro system?

Many people think that Expo some paid for it. It did, but after the fact. Initial capital came in from City Hall auctioning off the building rights atop the Métro stations. As an example, the Blum Building (currently Concordia’s Guy-Metro building), was one of the first such projects, wherein the developer paid good money to have an office tower with direct access to the station, and the rental retail properties on the commercial sub-levels were an added bonus. Imagine what we could do if we wanted to expand to all corners of the island?

Public transit needs to be sold to the people as an investment for future economic growth and current stimulus in the construction and services sector. It needs to be marketed as the self-perpetuating economic engine, open and available to all at a reasonable price, offering access to everywhere. Streamlining all metropolitan public transit services and instituting a ‘one-system, one-region, one fare’ policy may encourage new riders, but not in the same wide-reaching manner large-scale city-driven development will. A Métro station for every neighbourhood would not be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Consider the social cohesion and sense of community that is provided every day by frequenters of a ‘community station’ and ask yourself, with everything else in mind, whether we can afford not to do this.

Call your councillor.

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.

Let’s make this an election issue no. 2 – Street Vendors

A Toronto hot-dog stand - not the work of the author.

There’s something missing from Montréal city streets, and no I’m not referring to the snow. That can wait.

In fact, if there’s any time of year to go out and see the mysterious street vendor, now’s about as close as we get to having this species in our midst. They can be located in their preferred habitat, our city streets and public spaces.

It’s factually inaccurate to say that Montréal is any way anti-vendor, it’s just that vendors are over regulated and mandated to be seasonal, in some cases by very old laws that have never been, in my mind, seriously considered nor critiqued. It all goes back to Mayor Drapeau, who got rid of the vendors by over-prosecuting them on a variety of oddball laws and regulations. Among many other things (see this great Montreal Mirror article from 2002) it was thought vendors impeded traffic, were generally unhygienic and were competing unfairly with sit-down restaurants. I fail to understand this last point – if you’re in line at a hot dog stand its because a sit-down restaurant is impractical, d’uh.

A few months back the Mayor was apparently considering lifting the general ban and allowing vendors this summer. Didn’t happen.

Vendor kiosk at Phillips' Square, Montréal - not the work of the author.

Now, you can find vendors in specific places. Some have licenses to run restaurants/bistros from a few well-maintained Vespasiennes (such as those at Carré St-Louis and Dorchester Square) or otherwise have small kiosks (like the 24-hr florist at Square Victoria). You can find artisanal vendors hawking their wears on most downtown and Old Port streets in the Summer, in addition to the oddball vendors lined up at the Tam-Tams on Sundays. Selling food is otherwise limited, as are myriad other services once common to our city and present in many other global cities. But on the whole, Montréal is severely handicapped in terms of its curb-side, small-scale and very public micro economy.

And in turn, this handicaps our city and citizens. What if the City established its own ‘crown corporation’ to oversee the establishment of a local micro economy based on small-scale enterprises, such as street-side food and artisanal vendors. The City would establish strict health, labour and pricing regulations and hire agents to ensure the highest standards of quality were met in this regard. This same City-run corporation could then fund additional projects to develop new ‘Vespasiennes’ in various public spaces, and ensure they can be run year-round.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park NYC, not the work of the author.

I mean, imagine if every park in the city had its own ‘Tavern on the Green’ – a restaurant or bistro operating year round, and in some cases, all day. It would guarantee a safe place in every public space, and further add to improving the social traffic of the city by guaranteeing the use of public spaces. You can imagine, just in terms of food services alone, many new enterprises could be created; some will be successful enough to support many part-time workers (which will be ideal for students) while others could be ideal ‘start-ups’ for recent immigrants.

But let’s take this a step further. This city is in dire need of public rest facilities, such as those you might find in Paris. I like the Parisian examples I saw, since they were generally clean and attended. I discovered that in some cases maintaining a public rest facility was a small-scale enterprise in and of itself (of course, the City of Paris built the facility) and could support a family. The attendant kept the place spic and span and usage was tip based. He also provided traveller size grooming accessories, cologne and perfume, gum, smokes etc. In one such facility I saw, you could rent a towel and locker and go have a shower. In another, the attendant was also a seamstress and could do rapid alterations, clean up stains etc. I was amazed at the convenience, and the fact that these businesses thrive on convenience and are thus not a direct threat to established ‘store-front’ businesses. Moreover, the overhead for many of the vendors I saw and spoke with was exceptionally low given that the biggest cost (i.e. – the Kiosk or Vespasienne) was taken care of by the City. They never expected to get rich off these businesses, but then again, they didn’t want to. These are jobs and enterprises that provide.

Think of all the different possibilities. What will the News Stand of the future look like? Fewer newspapers is certain, but magazine sales are up. People will want to download content onto their tablets and smartphones, perhaps as much as they’ll need to recharge their devices. And the News Stand may become new sources for dissemination of small-scale publications that can’t get distributed otherwise.

A Montréal Vespasienne - locally, a Camilienne - not the work of the author.

There’s no two ways about it, the City would have to invest in this, to build the infrastructure and ensure high-quality services can be maintained. There may even be an initial loss, but I’m certain that by providing the initial start-up capital, the City would gain in the long term by establishing an entirely new service economy. More businesses, more business being done – the indirect economic stimulation would likely be larger than the direct benefits. New jobs and new opportunities for our citizens, and that’s not all. In addition to providing myriad services, these same businesses also ensure the safety of the citizens and cleanliness of the city, since it is in the proprietors best interest to do so.

So what can I say? I think this is a winner and ought to be an election issue in 2013. What do you think? What are your thoughts on the vendors we currently have? What would you like to see, and what do you think of street side vendors in other major cities? Have I painted an overly rosy picture? Any old timers actually remember what it was like to have vendors in the city?

Let me know,

Montréal’s best-kept secret park – Place des Nations

Place des Nations - once the focal point of Expo 67 and 50 million experiences of Montréal

It’s funny, back during the Expo/Man and His World years (1967-1975) this place would have been teaming with people. It was a major transit point, being served by the Expo Express and connecting to the various pavilions along the Bickerdyke Pier to the Centre d’Acceuil. Today it’s occasionally used as a parking lot or as a logistical centre for music concerts and other festivals. Kind of a huge let-down if you ask me; my parents and relatives described this place as being exceptionally alive and electric – pulsing with good vibes. Today it can be eerily still.

Place des Nations 1

I’ve enjoyed coming here during a snowstorm. I thought at one point that I was alone on the Island, and out at Place des Nations it is very easy to feel alone amongst the ruins of a futuristic city. It’s calming, but in a numbing way. In the Summer and Fall it takes on a different personality – there’s a lot of wildlife calling this part of Ile Ste-Helene home nowadays. It’s overgrown and falling apart, being gently reclaimed by the swampy ecosystem of the islands. It’s a great place to feel the power of the winds of the Saint Lawrence, and though parts are in dire need of repair, it seems as if the space could be made a functional public space with minimal investment. Parts seem to have been spared, or at least were designed to retain their elegance a little longer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a preferred location for fashion or wedding photo shoots.

I guess the City won’t put any real investment into Place des Nations unless there’s more use, and more use would mean it will lose its charm as a fading testament to what we once believed in. Perhaps we need to be reminded, but until that happens, take the trip – it’s well worth it. Once exiting the Métro head away from the crowds going towards La Ronde and head in the direction of the Calder Mobile sculpture (the big metal thing that kinda looks like a person) and then keep walking West along the forest trail.

Downtown Montreal from Place des Nations

You’ll eventually come up on the Pont de la Concorde, and Place des Nations is on the other side. Be advised, I’ve been here at times when there was literally no one else in sight. There are wild animals here, like herons, porcupines, beaver, ground hogs etc, and parts of the structure around Place des Nations is actually falling to pieces, so keep safe and enjoy.

For an aerial bird’s-eye perspective, click here.

Expo 67

Let’s make this an election issue No. 1 – A Strategic Airports Plan

Mirabel's opening-day open house - The Future Was Then

I’ll start with the tl/dr (too long, didn’t read). If I were elected Mayor, I’d propose the following:

A) Rationalize our three airport system by returning Mirabel to its originally intended hub/gateway role by re-routing all international flights to Mirabel away from Trudeau International.

B) Finance the completion of Highways 13, 19 and 50 in addition to the high-speed rail link intended to connect the airport with Central Station. I would further propose a partnership with the provincial & federal governments to extend Highway 50 to Gatineau/Ottawa in the West and through to Berthierville (connecting to Highway 40 and then onto Québec City) in the East, further intersecting with Highway 25.

C) Extend Métro service to both Trudeau and St-Hubert airports (and, by extension, get around the current AMT/ADM squabble re: commuter train access at Trudeau).

D) Re-organize Trudeau into a domestic/regional airport with a stronger emphasis on cargo flights (since Trudeau is better served by existing highways and is adjacent to the city’s principle rail yard) in addition to taking on some of St-Hubert’s general aviation load. St-Hubert would be given a new role as a ‘city-link’ STOLport, similar to Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport.

E) Build the once-proposed Aerospace University (I’d make it a joint venture between an English and French university) at Trudeau.

If the citizens were to authorize the completion of these projects, Montréal would doubtless re-take the position as Canada’s primary gateway, and in time would likely win a considerable amount of business in air travel back to the city and metropolitan region. It would also solidify our position as an aviation leader, both nationally and internationally.

Mirabel's vacant main concourse - not the work of the author.

Here’s a little trivia about Montréal’s relationship with civil aviation;

1. As far as the laws and governance of international civil aviation is concerned, Montr̩al is the world capital, featuring not only the International Air Transport Association (IATA, headquartered at the Tour de la Bourse) but the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO Рa UN body) as well. These two organizations form the utmost authority regarding civil aviation in the entire world, and as you can imagine, their consolidated political power is exceptional to say the very least.

2. Montréal boasts a total of three airports, two of which are ‘international airports’ – meaning they are designed to accommodate the largest (and longest-range) aircraft and the largest passenger or cargo loads. The third, St-Hubert Airport, is the busiest general-aviation airport in all of Canada. It is also partially a military base and the home of the Canadian Space Agency.

3. Montréal’s Mirabel International Airport was once Canada’s international hub (for the latter part of the 1970s until the late 1980s), meaning the the vast majority of international flights were departing and arriving at Mirabel (and thus, Mirabel was Canada’s gateway to the world and most immigrants/refugees during that era passed through there). When the land was originally purchased, it was several times larger than the entire area of Manhattan Island. It is still amongst the world’s largest airports in terms of total surface area, as the airport was supposed to be expanded over twenty years into a massive facility handling 50 million people per year. Even though it is no longer used, Mirabel is still exceptionally modern, still fully functional, and still capable of massive expansion.

4. Montréal is Canada’s aviation industry capital. Bombardier, arguably the world’s third largest civil aircraft manufacturer, is based here and has developed extensive manufacturing and maintenance facilities. Pratt & Whitney Canada, one of the world’s largest engine manufacturers is also located in the Montréal region, as is Bell Helicopter. Add to the list CAE, the world’s premier designer and manufacturer of flight simulators, and the myriad other enterprises and industries building aircraft components, electronics, landing gear etc.

There’s a reason why ICAO and IATA are based here.

What was planned and what was completed - the full project was designed to handle 50 million people per year.

But as we all know, our failures with regards to aviation are still quite significant, and there’s a considerable amount of room for improvement. And one of the principle causes of our failures with regards to local air travel is our over-dependence on federal and provincial assistance for large-scale infrastructure projects. There must be centralized planning emanating from City Hall. Furthermore, the City needs to consider financing the missing pieces of our only partially completed strategic airports plan.

To begin with, the City must begin planning for a return to Mirabel Airport. It is unthinkable that we should allow Mirabel to be destroyed or otherwise converted away from being an international airport of the highest calibre. Let us say that it has been held in storage; we require Mirabel because the other two airports in our system are presently over-capacity while Mirabel sits an empty shell of its former self. Rationalizing the airports and instituting a more efficient division of labour goes hand-in-hand with ensuring the airports are far better connected to our public-transit system in addition to the regional highway infrastructure.

Trudeau is currently at capacity and has no hope of being expanded beyond its current capacity of 20 million passengers per year (ironically, what Mirabel was initially designed to handle). However, it can’t reach that volume without a major improvement to the local highway, train and subway systems – all the more reason to shift some of that bulk back to Mirabel and expand highways and trains into the undeveloped portions of the metropolitan area, as opposed to trying to build through the already high-density of the Island. Limiting Trudeau to domestic/regional flights will be far more in-line with the ADM’s desire that Trudeau be a “9-5” airport, while the scarcely populated region around Mirabel could operate twenty-four hours per day. Furthermore, it is ultimately negligent for a city to route high-capacity jumbo-jets over densely populated urban areas.

Pretty self-explanatory - why not finish the project?

In a similar vein, the over-capacity St-Hubert airport should transfer some of its general-aviation operations to Trudeau, which may be under-capacity after international flights are re-routed. STOL (short take-off & landing) aircraft could make excellent use of St-Hubert for ‘city-link’ business flights, like those offered by Porter Airlines. Extending the Métro as far as St-Hubert would allow those passengers a direct link right into the heart of the City, an invaluable asset (and far more efficient than waiting for the ferry as is the case in Toronto.

My last note is this. After reading this article, consider its proposals and ask yourself “can we afford not to do this, can we afford the status quo?”

I certainly don’t believe we can pass up the opportunity to re-invigorate our airports system and associated aerospace industry. A massive investment in air transport for this city, in addition to the secondary improvements to local traffic and transit infrastructure which would also be required would propel Montréal into a new position as a new national gateway. We’d be able to compete with Toronto directly, and could potentially solidify our position by reducing airport fees and increasing the ease by which Montréalers can travel. By extending highways from Mirabel to Montréal, Ottawa and Québec City, Mirabel could potentially offer its services to more than 6 million people living in the region.

Mirabel's deserted entrance - not the work of the author.

And we’d finally reverse a great injustice. Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney deeded land secured by the Trudeau Administration for the construction of Mirabel back to the original owners as they felt threatened by Mirabel’s potential power. Under the guise of correcting what was in their minds a historical injustice, these two leaders have sought to shift the focus away from Montréal. If we don’t act quickly, we may lose Mirabel in its entirety. The proposals for what to do with it have included everything from outright demolition to conversion into some kind of water themed bio-diversity amusement park.

In my eyes, that would be the greatest injustice to this once proud city.