Category Archives: Perspectives on the City

The Montr̩al Tramways Building and Terminal Рor РWhy Trams Work in the 5-1-4

Tramways Building before integration into the Palais-des-Congrés

I hate to say it but I end up having to prove that trams can indeed operate effectively in Montréal. I can’t prove that it works technologically – I don’t need to – I can prove it historically. And historically speaking, the technology used for our tram system back before 1959 pales in comparison to the technology we’ve developed here at home. Don’t forget, Bombardier is a world leader in tram design, yet we don’t even have a local example to demonstrate. Kind of pathetic no?

The building above was once the HQ of the Montreal Tramways Company (MTC), predecessor to today’s STM. It has since been integrated into the Palais-des-Congrés, and by this I mean effectively all that remains is the facade and some choice interior details. It’s lost its function.

Here we can see the Tramways Building and Craig Street Terminus – the Berri-UQAM of its day, it once served 14 tram lines directly into the heart of the financial district. Montreal had a tram for about 100 years up until 1959 when the MTC replaced the entire tram network with GMC buses. read all about the Great American Streetcar Scandal here, our tram met it’s fate for the same reason. But it wasn’t just that new buses were introduced, its that the tram network and infrastructure was destroyed in the process, so it couldn’t be used again. This is the travesty.

Trams were the backbone of the City of Montréal’s public transit network for almost a century. They operated year-round in all conditions. They climbed our steep hills and plowed through the snow. All the natural elements you may think might interrupt service on a tram line were considerably more problematic in the past – even as recently as the late 1950s Montréal’s snow-clearing capabilities were still severely limited. Despite this, the tram functioned flawlessly and effectively. While there are certainly gradients too steep for trams to climb in our city, they are almost by there very definition useless and wouldn’t be involved in a tram-route scheme. Consider that both the Camilien-Houde Parkway and Cote-des-Neiges Road once had tram lines operating on them.

Another concern is unsightly overheard wires – there are intersections in Toronto that seem to have massive cyber-punk esque spider-webs overhead! To my knowledge, there are tram designs which draw power from underground sources, and I would advocate for that type to avoid overhead clutter. Either way, in our day and age there are few even remotely compelling arguments against tramways development.

MTC Tram and Bus route map - 1941

Consider this map and ask yourself how you might design a new tram network for the city and outlying regions. Consider that in 1941, the map above effectively was both city and outlying regions, including first and second ring suburbs. It seems as if the public transit scheme of 1941 was considerably more complete, more wide-reaching, than the model we have today which barely covers the entire island. The STM currently has a fleet of 1,600 buses. Imagine how much farther the STM could reach into the Metropolitan region if it constructed a tramway system to serve the intermediate-urban region between the Métro-served downtown core and the bus-served suburbs.

On a final note, though the STM has been failing at drawing ridership onto the 515, which is supposed to emulate a planned tram route, we can’t ignore the novelty of a new transit system. In other words, people who don’t like the bus or Métro – for whatever reason – may prefer to take the tram. It’ll find a clique of public transit users, and doubtless encourage new riders to commit to public transit. Most importantly, a new tram system, on certain streets, may be more efficient if the tram didn’t have to share the road with regular automobile traffic. In other words, what if we re-designed major urban thoroughfares to be pedestrian/bike/tram only? I can imagine the perennial call to make Ste-Catherine’s a pedestrian mall would gain more traction if high-capacity trams ran down its centre.

What can I say? Shouldn’t this be a major local political issue? I’d like to see an election where at least one party had a sustainable tram-development plan, especially one financed by the city directly, so we’re not sitting around playing with ourselves while we wait for federal or provincial grants. What do you think of the state of our public transit system?

Demolishing Burnside Place to build Boul. de Maisonneuve

Here’s something to think about. The above photo was indicated as taken in 1959 and is pointed East along the street which would eventually become Boul. de Maisonneuve (which was largely carved out of the existing cityscape while the Métro was being constructed in the mid-1960s).

On the right side of the picture (which was taken from about Stanley Street; we’ll use Burnside as our left/right dividing line) we can see two large buildings. The one in the foreground is the Hermes Building, where Copacabana Night Club is located. Behind it, hugging the right side of the image is what was once the Mount Royal Hotel, today the Cours Mont-Royal. The intersections, as you proceed up the street is, alleyway, Peel, Metcalfe, Mansfield, McGill College, Victoria, University at which point there seems to be row houses either at Union or Aylmer. The whitish building on the right is probably the Eaton’s Dept. Store with the darker building behind it being was is today the Bay.

Just past the Mount Royal Hotel, home of Montréal’s once-famous Kon-Tiki Polynesian restaurant, is another former culinary institution, Ben’s Delicatessen, visible to the right of the street, about half way up the centre of the pic. Everything else in this picture, including everything to the left of Burnside, has been demolished. What was developed in its place was an entirely new financial core known at the time as Place du Centre, a massive development scheme which used Maissoneuve and McGill College as its focal point. Beginning with the demolition of Burnside, the creation of Boul. de Maisonneuve and the development of the Métro in the mid-late 1960s, this sector was then transformed by new commercial real-estate construction which lasted up until the major renovation of McGill College in the late 1980s. Twenty years of sustained development, based off a master plan, and almost all residential housing in this area completely erased.

I’m not sure if this is a cautionary tale – city’s need to build, and the area looks great. Still, it gives one moment to pause. If almost everything in this picture can be erased and replaced within twenty years, how will other parts of the city look twenty years from now?

And by the way, it took me the better part of an hour to figure out exactly where this picture was taken and which way it’s looking. Look at it and ask yourself where else in the city this picture might fit.

This picture shows the demolitions necessary to create Boul. de Maisonneuve to the West of Stanley, where Burnside terminated. Note that this picture, much like the last one, was taken from the roof of the Drummond Court building, in the middle of the street. As you can see here, the building stood up until about ten years ago when it was demolished, along with the old YMCA building, to make way for the Lepine Condo Towers. The city punched a hole through the building’s main floor to allow thru-traffic on Boul. de Maisonneuve.

There’s a lot more in this photo which was saved from destruction, but then again the downtown can only have so many ‘cores’ right? Two buildings stand out here, namely, the Royal George Apartments at top left (now integrated into the Concordia Library Building) and Guy Tower, before its 1990 renovation at top right (both are noticeably white on a grey background). I’d date this picture about the same time as the last one, late-1950s, though likely early 1960s.

Bridges to Babylon: the Jacques-Cartier Bridge

Sunset on the Jacques-Cartier Bridge - work of the author, June 2011

It’s funny, I look at the above picture and wonder how it’s possible that the Sun seems to be setting on the East side of the Bridge, and then I remember that Montreal’s Sun rises in the South. It’s amazing how we’ve survived this long working with a sense of direction based on initial observations by surveyors in the 17th century. It’s a mistake in planning and design that we carry to this day, and influences more minute details about life in Montréal than I think anyone cares to imagine. We’re unique because of a mistake, an accident, perhaps even idiocy – it’s hard to say.

I also look at the photo above and think to myself – why don’t we have this instead:

Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Crossing - not the work of the author

If you’ve ever crossed the Jacques-Cartier Bridge’s pedestrian crossing, you know it’s rather severe limitations. Despite having both a bike path and a pedestrian path and a newly installed suicide prevention barrier (which kinda gives it a Gitmo-esque feeling, albeit without the razor wire), the bridge doesn’t seem to attract much in the way of pedestrian traffic, unless its closed for the fireworks! When this is the case, more than 50,000 people tend to use it, not necessarily crossing it completely, but at the very least walking across a portion of it. Imagine if the Cartier Bridge were returned to its original design, which incorporated tram rails (though they were never used) and equal sections devoted to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It just so happens that the bridge is book-ended by Papineau and Longueuil Metro stations – a tram running along the bridge connecting both stations seems elementary, and could potentially allow for a reduction of vehicular use, which would undoubtedly help to prolong the lifespan of the bridge. Moreover, by re-focusing bridge use so that it is comfortable for pedestrians to cross, you also develop a stronger relationship between communities on either side, and can help foster a conceptual understanding of Longueuil being a walkable extension of Montréal proper.

Then I look at a picture like this and think, couldn’t we build a box over the roadway, or stack two roadways one-atop-the-other with a five-lane wide pedestrian/cyclist ‘plaza’ extending across the bridge?

Street-level, Jacques Cartier Bridge - not the work of the author

Major repair work is required for both the Champlain Bridge and the Mercier Bridge, which is apparently going to have its entire deck re-surfaced, something which hasn’t been done since the bridge was built in the mid-1930s. The fact that there hasn’t been new South-bound bridge construction since the 1960s is another problem altogether, and unless we begin major new infrastructure projects by ourselves, we’ll have to wait until the provincial and federal governments can get their collective shit together. And remember – talk is so very cheap these days.

This seems to me to be part of a larger problem here in Montréal; we’ve become excessively dependent on sponsorship from two levels of government outside of ourselves and can’t do much in terms of large-scale infrastructure planning over a long period of time. Consider how we plan to develop the Metro, piecemeal segments and politically motivated extensions where three local mayors have to compete for the public’s support. With the bridges in the state that they’re in, a Yellow Line extension deep into the South Shore may be an ideal first move for the STM, but I doubt that construction will be as fast as it was in the mid-1960s, when 26 stations were completed – each with its own architect mind you – in four years.

Without well-stocked local coffers and a large though balanced tax-base to provide new investment funds, both the city and metropolitan region are handicapped by requiring outside sponsorship, and therefore must engage in the kind of backroom politics that have created the extreme amounts of corruption and collusion currently found in the halls of power. Moreover, this atmosphere of corruption and nepotism make it unlikely the voters would support city-administered revenue-generating endeavours, such as citizen’s bonds, municipal shares and various other investment tools the city ought to be using to stimulate funding for infrastructure projects and economic development. In short – the reigns of power aren’t in our hands, and we’re held hostage by this.

Perhaps it’s time to start a ferry service.

Who’s got a canoe?

Scenes from the City II

Construction Cranes and High-Tension Lines - MUHC Superhospital site, Glen Yards Montreal; work of the author - June 2011

They sway and swing gently, as if they were being carried by gusts of wind. As they dance their eerie industrial ballet, a structure rises around them. Will they call it White Elephant?

It reminds me of an anecdote once related to me by Prof. Matthew Barlow at Concordia, who taught me the ‘Irish Experience in Montreal’ back in 2006. Great course, though I wish I had paid more attention at the time. In any event, he told us about bringing his ten-year-old nephew out on a walk through the city a few years prior, and the child was astounded to the cranes then more prevalent within the downtown core. He asked incredulously what kind of buildings they were, what kind of purpose they served. The response, that they in essence assisted in the construction of tall buildings took a while to sink into the youth’s head – he had never seen a construction crane before, despite growing up in the city. This point was, as you can imagine, rather significant for my professor.

Squirrel in Westmount Park - work of the author, June 2011

I spent the better part half an hour trailing this guy and several of his compatriots one beautifully sunny Saturday morning a few weeks back in Westmount Park. It was funny, I had never come across such curious squirrels before – they seemed intrigued by me, and enjoyed mugging for the camera. Maybe they’re vying for a much sought-after Disney contract. I’m sure Rescue Rangers is probably going to be revived sometime soon.

A nice place to wait - work of the author, June 18th 2011


Concordia McConnell Library Atrium - work of the author June 18th 2011

I had the immense pleasure of once again providing note-taking and picture-taking services to a local NGO. Here’s an atypical view oft he Con-U Library Atrium. It’s weird, I don’t think it nearly looked this good whenever I was walking through there as a student. Bizarre how quickly a perspective can change. Admittedly, I tended to spend little time sitting around in the Atrium, and rarer still were the opportunities to do so with the sun coming in as it did that day. It reminded me in fact of the very different building I first encountered in the summer of 2004, as I prepared to begin my academic journey at Con-U. I remember sitting in the Atrium reminiscing on where I had come from and thought about where I was going. I had no idea, but at least the building made me feel confident and at ease at the time.

Conversation between two Westmount Rhodesians (who happened to speaking French) - work of the author, June 2011

Basically I thought it was a prime snapshot of a stereotype I’d heard about, but then I heard them speak.

Urban Backyard; Between these Brick Walls - work of the author, June 2011

I can’t ever imagine living somewhere in the city without a balcony, terrace, porch or rooftop to go hang out on. This summer I’ve got an unprotected nook. Adding that to the list…

Montr̩al M̩tro Extensions РHow to get around an impasse.

2009 AMT proposal for Métro extensions - not the work of the author

There’s been a fair bit of talk about extending the Montréal Métro of late in the English Press. Typical; now removed from the halls of power the English media spends its time twiddling their thumbs and dreaming about what could be, while Angryphones come out of the woodwork to demand Métro access to the West Island. I’ve said it before and I’ll say a million more times – no West Island residents should expect Métro extensions until there’s a West Island city, one with a tax-base as large as the cities of Laval or Longueuil. That or the West Island communities seek voluntary annexation from the City of Montréal. Then, and only then would the citizens out there be in a position to demand Métro access. I personally think a Highway 40 corridor Métro line from De la Savanne station to Fairview (and possibly as far as Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue) would be an excellent way to cut back significantly on vehicular traffic on our major highways. However, such a new line should be mirrored on the eastern side of the island, such as with the recommended Blue Line extension to Anjou. That said, residential development on the eastern side is oriented on a more North-South axis than on the West Island, and thus the proposed Pie-IX line (running from Laval or Montréal-North south to the Centre-Sud/HoMa district) would likely handle more passengers than any West Island extension (but only if it in turn were connected to East-West lines at multiple points).

While an unfortunate number of people have complained the 2009 MTQ proposal (above) is ‘too focused on the East End’, I look at it as focused primarily on where the population density seems to be high and increasing. There are more than 400,000 people living in Laval and another 700,000 people living on the South Shore (spread out over several municipalities, with an estimated 230,000 people living in Longueuil alone). Moreover, there are 85,000 people living in Saint-Laurent borough and another 125,000 people living in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough. In total, the proposed extensions as demonstrated above could potentially serve almost 1 million people directly and indirectly.

So while it is nice to dream about ideal systems that serve the entire metropolitan region, or at least serve the City better, we need to consider what the government is proposing seriously.

What’s unfortunate is that this plan now seems to be in jeopardy, given that the respective mayors of Longueuil, Laval and Montréal had to take out full page advertisements in the local press some months ago announcing why their city should benefit from expansion. I’ve said it before – sicking the mayors against each other isn’t going to achieve much. The entire system needs to be expanded until the whole region is eventually covered. In essence, we need to follow the same planning philosophy used to design the Paris, New York, London or Moscow subway systems, wherein the project is considered incomplete until near-total coverage is achieved. We won’t grow nearly as quickly unless the Métro develops in such a fashion so as to increase transit efficiency within the region. Montréal’s successful urban communities wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are if it weren’t for the fact that they have Métro access. It is crucial for expansion and development.

In sum, we need to start planning as a unified metropolitan region wherein the interests of all citizens are considered simultaneously. Métro line development cannot be a reward for political loyalty. We’ve come a long way from the nepotism of the dark ages under Maurice Duplessis, so when the provincial government finks out and pits the suburbs of Montréal against the City for an individual line extension, the citizens of all communities must demand an end to such ridiculous partisanship. We can’t continue on like this. This is why our city is broken.

And just a reminder – completing the project illustrated above is pegged at 4 billion dollars. Cost of the new Champlain Bridge has been estimated at 5 billion dollars. Is it me or would it not be smarter to use that money to complete the proposed Métro expansion, and then spend a billion dollars renovating and improving the existing Champlain Bridge? A new Champlain Bridge will accommodate about 156,000 vehicle crossings per day. With this expansion, the Métro would be able to accommodate over 1.5 million passengers per day, which in turn will free up space on the highways, bridges, tunnels, buses and commuter trains, possibly even allowing some buses to be re-purposed to new routes, further improving the public transit system here in Montréal. To me it’s a no-brainer. What do you think?

What were they thinking? {No.1}

Site of a former tram-tunnel, now open-air, on the Camillien Houde Parkway

(Part of an unfortunately on-going series)

The Camillien Houde Parkway has got to be one of the stupidest ideas ever conceived of in the history of Montréal, which is unfortunate given that its a beautiful and exciting parkway. Make no mistake – I love this street, I especially love all the great memories I’ve attached to it, such as taking it to go visit my newborn brother when I was three. Unfortunately, it came at too-high a cost, and any individual in this city who is concerned about the future of our most iconic landmark should see the Camillien Houde Parkway as public enemy number 1.

Here’s why:

a) It’s named after former Mayor Camillien Houde, well-remembered for his charisma, anti-conscription related internment during WW2, the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the many Vespasiennes (adoringly called Camilliennes for decades) he had constructed as make-work projects during the Depression. He also vehemently opposed the construction of any street or boulevard bisecting Mount Royal. At the very least could we consider changing the name?

b) As you can see from the map embedded here (use bird’s eye view for best results), the parkway cuts-off access to a small, but significant, portion of Mount-Royal Park. I say significant because the ‘dead-zone’ would allow better access to the undeveloped portions of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and the parkland owned by the Université de Montréal. Thus, any discussion of a Mount Royal pedestrian and cycling ring-road would have to consider whether such a path and the parkway could actually coexist. Chris Erb of Spacing Montréal discusses the proposal for a new park on the Outremont Summit, an idea which was floated around in the Fall of 2009 and, I believe, is still very much up in the air. If anything, Mount Royal’s protected status is more tenuous than ever with the announcement of a new fenced-off condo development at the site of the former Marianopolis College, and the still as-yet unfinished saga concerning the redevelopment of the former Outremont convent. That being said, if there’s an earnest will from the populace to increase the total protected space of the mountain-park, then the parkway will have to be the first to go, since it acts more as a boundary then bisecting scenic drive.

c) As a result of the parkway, there are several large parking lots on the mountain – land that had once been raw natural forest. Given that the mountain has, traditionally, been frequented overwhelmingly by locals, and not tourists, the necessity of so many parking lots near the summits can be called into question. Especially because, once upon a time, a tram ran the length of the parkway. Reclaiming the parking spaces could be done by investing in a new tram, one which would ideally run from the bottom of Guy (placing a terminus at the corner of William in Griffintown) up to Cote-des-Neiges, dropping people off at a mountain terminus near the pavilion at Lac aux Castors (you’ll notice, a loop already exists here). This could effectively allow the rest of the parkway and the parking lost to be reclaimed as parkland.

d) The photo above demonstrates another problem – there used to be a tunnel at that exact spot. The tunnel allowed people to get from the Mount-Royal side to the Outremont side over-top, not to mention offering considerably more room for the variety of animal species native to the mountain park. Even if the parkway remains, at the very least, a new tunnel ought to be built here, to allow for the maximum level of freedom of movement.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Mount Royal Chalet, 1960s - not the work of the author.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the summit, though I think I was up there earlier this Summer. The improvements to the Peel Staircase and the access to the Olmstead Trail are excellent additions, welcoming urbanites with elegant and naturalistic entrances that fit into the idea of the sacred, leafy refuge. I remember the last time I was up there a temporary fence had been put up to divide the belvedere into two parts, though no work was being done at the time.

Still, as the city grows and the last remaining scraps of undeveloped land in the CBD is gobbled up as it will be over the next couple of decades, protecting our green spaces is going to become an even greater priority.

We should remind ourselves that, while Mount-Royal Park is indeed exceptionally large and, in essence, our own little playground, it serves a very large geographic area and further supports an inordinately large population. This is a major issue for any urban citizens of Montréal, as the city and real-estate developers frequently point out our major parks when attempting to justify the destruction of smaller green-spaces. Such as it was with regards to Parc Oxygene, a small green-space developed by community members on a piece of otherwise unusable land. The apparent ‘owner’ of the plot has told residents they can just as easily go to Mount Royal Park, Fletcher’s Field or Parc Jeanne Mance, all of which are about a block away. However, much like theatres, concert halls and bars, parks have a capacity, and overloading our parks will inevitably lead to their ruin.

Don’t believe me? Consider the 1976 St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations, which saw tens of thousands of people descend on Mount-Royal. The damage to the park and pollution from one day’s worth of festivities was more traumatic and required a more extensive clean-up than did the Ice Storm of 1998!