Tag Archives: Mount Royal

Money for Nothing

Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 - credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 – credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The Mordecai Richler Gazebo will now cost the taxpayers of Montreal nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

And a series of granite waypoints, apparently taking the form of stylized tree-stumps, are to be installed across Mount Royal at an estimated cost of $3.4 million.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory will get over $62 million in public money over a five year period to make it a better tourist trap, or as Mayor Coderre put it: “a heritage site… for god’s sake, it’s an investment.”

Credit where credit is due: Coderre is a great populist. He’s quirky and has a knack for puns and one-liners.

However, he’s also spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Sometimes I wish he and the city would stop trying to spend money. I understand municipal government can help stimulate the economy by spending public money on make-work projects designed to keep people employed. And I’m generally in favour of doing so in the name of public beautification projects.

But in Montreal – astoundingly – such efforts seem increasingly misguided if not wholly illogical. For every success – like the multimillion dollar multiphase overhaul of Dorchester Square and Place du Canada – there are far too many projects that are so outrageously ill-conceived it begs the question what our city planners are smoking.

What I find particularly astounding – in our age of austerity for education, health, transit and welfare – is our ability to spend astronomical sums of money to accomplish, in some cases, quite literally nothing at all.

Take for instance the recently cancelled police and firefighter games; if the city is successful in recuperating half the sum already allocated to the now-cancelled event, it will still cost us nearly $3 million.

More jaw-droppingly, the city’s plans on installing over two-dozen granite ‘tree-stumps’ all over Mount Royal.

Paul Arcand interviewed Réal Ménard, a member of the city’s executive committee, and asked him whether the city was really going to spend over three million dollars to erect a series of granite structures (that resemble tree stumps) all over the mountain. Ménard did his best to attempt an explanation, but did so by a) indicating the stumps are in fact part of a much larger eight million dollar project designed to ‘link’ the peaks of the mountain, and b) that (after much obfuscating) the cost of the planned park installations is in fact going to be about three million dollars. It didn’t help that he spent much of his time accusing Arcand of positing the city was intending to build granite trees on Mount Royal, an entirely unconvincing tactic Arcand saw right through and rightly ridiculed Ménard for having the gall to suggest.

It was also delightful to hear Arcand chiding Ménard for not reading the Gazette…

Research by the Gazette’s Linda Gyulai indicates the cost of the winning bid for the granite installations is 43% higher than the city’s initial estimate, and that the whole contract is 27% higher than what the city was estimating before the call for tenders.

The list of over-the-top civic beautification projects, all of which are being rushed through with seemingly no concern for appallingly high cost estimates so that they can coincide with the essentially pointless 375th anniversary celebrations, has grown steadily for the past few years, and this on top of a steady supply of infrastructure mega-projects that either never get off the drawing board or wind-up being delivered late and over-budget. Unfortunately, given the decades-long dearth of Stanley Cup victories, this has now become our most consistent accomplishment as a city: we’re spending a lot of public money for nothing.

For his part, Mayor Coderre insists the project will make the mountain more accessible and help beautify the city. The reaction of Arcand, the Gazette and much of the local social media sphere, is one of derision and incredulity. The firm that won the contract to build the granite ‘statues’ (in more official parlance) is Aménagement Coté Jardin, a landscape architecture firm that’s responsible for Domtar’s ‘front yard’ (by Place-des-Arts Métro station’s stand-alone édicule on Bleury) and more recently, the renovation of Cabot Square.

To put it succinctly I’m disappointed it would cost so much to accomplish so little. I doubt you could make Mount Royal any more accessible than it already is, and given that it is valued almost entirely because it is a refuge of wilderness in the very heart of a bustling metropolis, installing granite stumps and concrete slabs is fundamentally flawed. It makes me wonder when exactly was the last time Denis Coderre took a walk on Mount Royal…

If the plan is to spiff up Mount Royal for next year’s ‘spendiversary’, I’m fairly confident three million dollars could buy more than enough trees to replace those felled to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It would likely be enough to also replace or repair the park’s existing benches, water fountains and garbage bins and maybe even pay for a year’s worth of superior park maintenance too. Whatever the final call, the city (more than anyone else) should be acutely aware that Mount Royal is precisely what it is because it was designed to be as such. We have a great park designed by one of the all time greatest park designers, and it is in part because of this that we can claim our status as a UNESCO City of Design (and by the way, we’ve gotten far more than our fair share of milage out of that ten year old distinction). This is not a wheel that needs to be re-invented, and there are far superior, less expensive methods to renew Mount Royal than by turning half of it into a construction site in the very same year we’ll want to have the greatest access to it.

If the gazebo project is any indication, Montrealers can be forgiven for being so intensely critical of yet another suspiciously expensive civic ‘beautification’ project. And much like the inappropriately rechristened gazebo, the granite stump project is also amazingly ill-conceived in that it will likely do the very opposite of what it ostensibly intends to do. Montrealers have contently stretched out their legs in the tall grass of Mount Royal for just about 375 years… all of a sudden we need concrete curbs and granite stumps, and this has something to do with maintaining our status as an important centre of design?

I don’t buy it. If this was an aspect of the plot of some novel about the intriguing life of an urban planner you’d find it completely absurd. The city’s plan to beautify Mount Royal is an excellent example of missing the forest for the trees.

And like just about everything else in this city, ultimately it’s not actually the city’s decision to make. Because Mount Royal is a heritage site, it’s the province that will decide whether this plan goes ahead. So there’s always the outside chance the province’s incessant meddling in our affairs may actually be worthwhile, if they put the kybosh on this ridiculous project.

Plus que ça change. Forty years ago the city was doing precisely the same thing, albeit with the hope of a greater return on investment than the 375th anniversary.

Expo 1881

Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)
Provincial Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, Montreal (late 19th century)

Many years ago when I found myself making my way towards the Tam Tams one sunny summer Sunday and wound up in the middle of a strange festival going along the Mount Royal Avenue side of Parc Jeanne-Mance.

I remember thinking this was an odd location for a festival – it’s a baseball diamond – and what was stranger was that everything was in English. All the signs and all the lettering on the side of the trucks was in English. Had I inadvertently walked into the middle of a film shoot?

Fortunately not; Montreal is a stop on the annual North American tour schedule of the travelling Festival of India!

The roadshow is run by Harinam Festivals, Incorporated. That firm aims to spread the word of Krishna Consciousness with an annual festival circuit.

In other words, you can add to our city’s dynamic list of annual festivals one thrown by the Hare Krishnas. They’ll be back, quite likely in Parc Jeanne-Mance, July 9th and 10th, though it makes me wonder why the Krishnas aren’t set up across Parc Avenue immediately adjacent to the Tam Tams. You’d figure that would be very complimentary what with the ‘expanded consciousness’ going on around the base of the Cartier Monument.

The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)
The Tam Tams, forty years ago (Montreal Gazette Archives)

As it was this past weekend; the Tam Tams in particular and Mount Royal generally speaking tend to bring out large crowds, but Sunday was epic. It’s too bad the city doesn’t try to estimate the crowd size at the Tams, but that might be for the best. As it stands, and as it has always been, the Tams graciously features zero city involvement. It’s unorganized, essentially spontaneous and quintessentially Montreal.

That got me thinking – how long have people been congregating in this particular part of town?

Or, from another perspective, what is it that made this space public? What precluded residential development on the land that would become Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance parks?

There are a few different reasons why, but it’s worth noting that annual festivals played an interesting role.

Mount Royal Park was inaugurated in 1876 and the city’s principle exhibition centre – the Crystal Palace – was moved from the foot of Victoria Street (between Sainte-Catherine and Cathcart) to the ‘exhibition grounds’ in Fletcher’s Field two years later. Fletcher’s Field ran between Saint-Urbain and Parc, from Duluth up to Saint Joseph, and was used for annual exhibitions, sports and even as a military parade ground.

The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade
The foot bridge crossed Mount Royal Avenue between Parc and Esplanade

The image above was created for the newspaper L’Opinion Publique in 1881 and offers a bird’s eye view of the ‘Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition’ and its buildings. The Crystal Palace is in the background, up on what is now Saint Jospeh, with a Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway train passing behind it. The racetrack in the foreground would have been located between Mount Royal Avenue and Marie-Anne, or just about where the Festival of India sets up shop today.

Curiously, the area’s association with psychoactive plants dates back all the way to 1879, when the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain recognized Fletcher’s Field as a prime source for Hyoscyamus niger, also known as Henbane or Stinking Nightshade.

I doubt many of the spectators attending the annual agricultural and industrial exhibitions back in the city’s Victorian Era would have consuming Stinking Nightshade, though it may have been popular among the various animals brought to the site. The lengths of the exhibition on both the Parc and Esplanade sides was basically two long stables for the many horses brought to the exhibition grounds. Much like today, the area would have had a particularly pungent odour…

Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal - 1881)
Hockey Match, Crystal Palace (Montreal – 1881)

Also worth pointing out: the first known photograph of uniformed ice hockey players in Canada was taken in the Crystal Palace in early 1881, the same year of the illustration at top. During the winter months the large interior hall of the Crystal Palace served as one of Montreal’s main skating rinks, the other being Victoria Rink, today a parking garage running between Drummond and Stanley, just up from René Lévesque.

Our Crystal Palace would ultimately be destroyed by fire (in 1896), much like the more famous example built earlier in London, and the land between Mount Royal and Saint Joseph would shortly thereafter be redeveloped into much of the residential housing we find there today.

The land south of Mount Royal would remain public, though it would be many more years before it took its present form, with an emphasis on sport, as Parc Jeanne-Mance.

The Future of Institutional Space in the Mountain Domain

Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal - circa 1895
Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal – circa 1895

An important public forum will take place at the Maison Smith up on Mount Royal Thursday night beginning at 18h00 and dealing with the future of the soon to be vacated hospitals within the ‘Mountain Domain’.

The forum will be presented by Les Amis de la Montagne and will feature three presentations, one on the mountain itself, another on the Plateau Mont Royal’s plan for the Hotel Dieu and another concerning McGill’s plans for the Royal Victoria Hospital. Presenters will include municipal councillor Alex Norris, McGill University external relations VP Olivier Marcil and Marie-Odile Trépanier, urbanism professor from the Université de Montréal.

I’ll write more on the specifics later, but for the time being it seems like the Royal Victoria Hospital will be annexed by McGill University.

Not the worst idea in the world. McGill apparently needs the space and annexing the Vic makes a lot of sense given that the university has grown up all around it, not to mention that the hospital is part of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

In other words – this was expected.

The hospital was a gift from two prominent figures in our city’s history, the cousins Donald Smith and George Stephen (later the Lords Strathcona and Mount Stephen). They were the men principally responsible for the creation of the nation’s first transcontinental rail line, but it is the Royal Victoria which is arguably the greater legacy. For as central and important as rail has been in our city’s economic development, I don’t believe it equals the global significance of the medical innovations that have come from this institution, nor the building’s role as a local ‘lieux de mémoire’ for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Montreal moms.

Though the deed to the land initially stated the land be used in perpetuity in the service of the public as a medical institution, the remaining heirs have relinquished this requirement. Instead, they have simply requested that the soon-to-be former hospital be used to serve the public interest.

Enter McGill University. If the choice is between handing these buildings over to the university or developing the land into luxury condominiums I’d be the first to rig up and hoist the Martlet flag from the turrets of this masterpiece of late-Victorian Scottish Baronial institutional architecture.

That said, I’m concerned McGill will use this space for dormitories and not classrooms.

I’m also concerned the new MUHC Glen Yards campus will not be able to fully replace all the hospital beds it currently operates. The MUHC has acknowledged the new superhospital will indeed provide fewer beds than currently available in the extant hospital system.

So, with this in mind, is it really wise to eliminate all hospital operations from the Vic?

Is it not possible to keep at least one pavilion open for public medical purposes while handing over the rest to the university?

The hospital has a particularly strong link with the women of our city, principally owing to the strength of their maternity ward. Why not keep the main pavilion operating as a maternity and women’s hospital? It’ll ensure more beds are available and permit at least part of the building to retain its original function.

As to the Hotel Dieu, I’ve heard murmurings that at least one proposal would seek to have the rather expansive facility converted for the purposes of becoming an old age home.

This isn’t an altogether bad idea either given our aging population and the shrinking retirement assets of the working and middle classes. Private elder care is outrageously expensive and public facilities leave a lot to be desired as is, so converting a hospital into a massive retirement home seems opportune. It’ll certainly cost less than building a new structure and you can make the argument that, as far as institutional buildings are concerned, it’s well suited and well situated for the purpose.

But what of the old Shriner’s hospital, or the Montreal General? What of Hopital Notre Dame facing Parc Lafontaine, or the Thoracic Institute, or the Children’s?

Not all of these facilities are strictly speaking within the ‘Mountain Domain’, but they do represent the entirety of institutional space that will become available for repurposing over the next few years.

Which is why limiting the public conversation to those hospitals closest to Mount Royal Park seems illogical. All these spaces need to be considered in terms of the broad demands for public institutional space in our city.

We need more space to teach and to heal. We could use a lot more space to create and to exhibit our creations. We badly need space for the elderly, but not nearly as bad as we do for the homeless.

In any event, if we had a municipal institutional space oversight and coordinating committee I think our city would be able to strategize more effectively, respond more appropriately to public demand and ensure these prized properties serve the public interest to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, such is not currently the case.

Recycling Institutional Space in the Mountain Domain

This scene is quite literally the stuff my somewhat Kafkan dreams are made of

Lots of talk recently on the future of the Royal Victoria Hospital and Hotel-Dieu given that both facilities are supposed to shut down once the super-hospitals come on line, and the extremely valuable institutional space may become locations for new development.

Considering that the ‘English’ super-hospital is already expected to be too small to fully replace all the hospitals it was intended to, I can imagine there’s still going to be need for the space, really regardless of the shape it’s in. If you’ve been by either of these hospitals lately, you know they would require extensive renovations in order to continue being useful. Whatever happens, there’s likely going to be a bit of a gestation period as the sites are re-purposed, so nothing’s going to happen immediately.

Of course, we can’t afford to let it sit and rot either – we’ve got a bad record when it comes to demolition via neglect in this city.

And as if that wasn’t complicating matters enough, there’s the added issue that the Vic isn’t supposed to be used for any other purpose than to heal or teach, (ideally both) and McGill doesn’t seem interested in converting the hospital for teaching purposes, or making any use of it whatsoever, despite being thoroughly integrated into the site. Elspeth Angus, a descendent of Lord Mount Stephen (who bequeathed the land for the purposes of a hospital) wants the spirit of the gift to be honoured and as such wants the area to maintain its institutional orientation.

And of course, it’s not just these hospitals – other facilities will soon be vacated and happen to find themselves relatively close by. The Shriner’s is moving to the Glen Yards site, while the Chest Hospital will leave it’s St-Urbain street location and the Children’s will depart from Cabot Square to join it. Institutional space frequented by Montreal’s Anglophone community have been consolidated in the West End even though this isn’t particularly convenient to Montreal’s Anglophone community (which is increasingly young, bilingual and living further East than ever before – another example of why the superhospital is an antiquated notion to begin with, but I digress). But a bigger problem, Montreal – in general – is lacking in institutional space.

As institutional space of this variety has been immensely beneficial in preserving the natural splendour of the Mountain Domain, and can continue to exist as such should we choose to recycle it, we must endeavour to use this space proactively.

Ergo, no condo.

What I feel is crucial here is the maintenance of institutional stimulus in this sector, and not simply cast this space off to the crap-shoot of free-market real-estate development. All of these sites could easily support diverse urban living experiments, but the loss of available institutional space would be insupportable for a city already lacking it. Future institutional space requirements will be constrained by the need to expropriate expensive urban real-estate. Furthermore, institutional space is already well-positioned in our city to act as a preservation instrument – there’s a reason so much institutional space was gathered about around the bottom of the mountain, it helps preserve the green aesthetic of the city, pulling civic infrastructure together into a broad realm. The mountain park is free and grand – we want our citizens to continue interacting with these spaces so positively impacted by the urban environment.

Let’s not lose sight of our past accomplishments.

A few thoughts on what we can do with these five hospitals:

1. Turn the Vic into a Maternity/Women’s Hospital; demolish anything not worth preserving, insert parkland.

2. Convert the Thoracic Institute into a homeless-shelter with a focus on rehabilitation; if I’m not mistaken there’s a detox hospital located just a smidge further down St-Urbain.

3. Redevelop the Children’s into two new facilities. Part educational, part healthcare. Close Tupper Street, extend Cabot Square to reach the Children’s, build a new front door.

4. Hand the Shriner’s Hospital over to Batshaw – they do good work and need good space, but NIMBY types out in the West Island don’t want them around anymore.

5. Like with the Vic, remove the architecturally insignificant buildings and excess parking lots at the Hotel-Dieu site, expand their beautiful and famous gardens, and recycle the hospital into a massive public assisted-living residence for seniors.

The Why:

1. The Vic was built into what we would now call the Mountain Domain largely because proximity to nature was considered immensely beneficial in the recovery process, something I don’t think is too far off the mark in all sincerity. The Vic is also very well respected as a maternity hospital and has developed particularly strong bonds with Montréal’s urban middle-class community as the choice location to have your child.

But the Vic is also an immense and vastly complicated rabbit’s warren of buildings and tunnels, only about half of which are architecturally significant and prominently located. It’s old and is in need of repairs, maintaining it as a fully functioning hospital is likely an overly expensive proposition the provincial health authorities would be disinclined to pursue, especially if they felt they could possibly profit from a real-estate deal.

So cut back – there’s no reason to keep half the space at the site, many of the newer (yet architecturally unappealing and unimportant) buildings could be removed, the space returned to a natural state, extending the reach of the park further south, interacting with the city. Renovate the buildings we want to keep, and turn the facility into a specialized maternity and women’s health hospital, a serene sanctuary atop the mountain, really one of the safest places you could possibly be in the city core.

Oh, and we should get around to opening up the immense tunnel system under the Vic to the public. Make it a tourist attraction, I say. Charge people ten bucks a head to walk around in the steamy underbelly of the city – a modern catacomb.


2. We have a homeless problem and we need a more comprehensive, effective, solution. As health budgets are cut and persistant unemployment and underemployment keep the working classes locked in a state of near poverty, even our otherwise robust social safety net quickly loses most of its ability. If you’ve walked our city’s streets over the past few years you’ve doubtless noticed there are simply many more poor, homeless and often psychologically impaired individuals in our public spaces.

If we want to change things we’re going to have to develop our own solution – how can we expect governments that favour austerity to preserve their material wealth to help us help those who cannot help themselves? It runs counter-intuitive to the poorly-understood ramblings of Ayn Rand that make up nearly the entirety of contemporary conservative political discourse.

And the PQ, of course, is far more concerned with running PR damage control after the world caught wind of the idiotic and punitive language legislation currently being discussed by an apparently serious independence movement.

All of these plans necessarily require that a future city administration take a leading role in managing these projects, but it’s my hope that our next administration has the common good at the forefront of their minds, and acts accordingly. Creating a facility designed to get the homeless off the streets and back into functioning society should be a top priority, because homelessness is a surprisingly massive strain on our social safety net resources. Not addressing it simply makes it worth, and devalues what our tax dollars are spent on.

A facility like the Chest Hospital is ideal for a homeless shelter because it’s within close proximity of the city core, but wouldn’t have an overly negative impact on local land value – the area is principally student housing as is – but also has a degree of seclusion I believe might facilitate rehabilitation efforts. Even if it was just a 24hr soup kitchen/multi-floor shelter it would still be better than what we currently have, which is to say far too little.


3. Both Dawson College and Concordia University need new institutional space within proximity of their main campuses, and we’d be wise to retain an additional emergency room in the urban core. The Children’s hospital location is large enough to accomodate a new college pavilion as well as an emergency room/ 24hr clinic. It seems as though every year there are periods in which the ERs are ridiculously over capacity, so why not have one you use specifically on those occasions? The eastern portion of the Children’s is sufficiently large enough it could easily accommodate a spare ER/ round-the-clock city clinic, something else we’re lacking. I can imagine the remaining potion could easily be transformed into classroom space for Dawson, Concordia or any other post-secondary institution short on space.

As an aside, the bit about removing Tupper Street and extending Cabot Square so as to unite a larger block with the eventually converted hospital is as much motivated by my desire to see more students than homeless in Cabot Square as is our need for more green space in general. Why not make a park a touch larger if all that stands in the way is a seldom used side street?


4. Last I heard Batshaw’s plans for expansion in the West Island is facing stiff opposition from the local ‘concerned citizens brigade’, though their general habit of dancing around the issue makes it very difficult to ascertain precisely what problems they’re anticipating. I’m assuming they think troubled teens getting supervised rehabilitative support is going to devalue adjoining property, or perhaps introduce an unwanted criminal element to their suburban utopia, but let’s face it – I think most people just don’t want to be reminded of the various social ills that exist in any society.

I think we can expect this trend to continue. Suburban land is the least developed, and as a city grows so to does its requirement for a wide variety of things suburbanites desperately need but don’t want to live next to. The inexcusable opposition to Batshaw’s expansion is, though morally wrong, shrill enough to occasionally get its way.

The Shriner’s Hospital location on Cedar solves this problem, somewhat, in that there’s not much else that can be done with the building and it’s surrounded on three side by forest. Cedar is sparsely populated on that stretch, and but a stone’s throw from the General Hospital. It’s conversion into a halfway house and rehabilitative centre for troubled and at-risk youth seems logical enough given the proximity to other Batshaw facilities further south off Atwater and could, much like Hotel-Dieu or the Vic, make excellent use of the rehabilitative qualities of a tranquil and bucolic surrounding.

Hotel-Dieu in a simpler time… a time of steamships, Kaisers, widespread apocalyptic Marian Visions, and a curious new brain tonic called Coca Cola…

5. Finally, the building I fear is most likely to be converted into a sprawling and hopeless mess of condominiums, the Hotel-Dieu, a historic and culturally significant public space at the foot of the Mountain, perhaps the most easterly extent of the domain. The Hotel-Dieu is more than just an ancient hospital as the religious order that ran it also kept its residence there, and have over the years developed expansive grounds and apparently magnificent (though seldom seen) gardens inside its massive walls. The Hotel-Dieu will soon move on down and merge with the new CHUM/St. Luc super-duper-hospital, leaving many to wonder what comes next. Unlike the Vic, there doesn’t seem to be the same community and institutional convergence to possibly find a new role for it (though that said, I’d be delighted to find out I’m wrong on this one).

I’d argue in favour of converting this space into a massive public seniors’ assisted living complex.

Let’s face it – our future is going to be filled with lots of old people, and the public will require an elevated state of publicly-funded elder care, as our current system is inadequate. The Hotel-Dieu’s grounds are expansive and the buildings large enough to accomodate a significant number of people, even if we were to tear down what wasn’t worth preserving and deemed excess. The grounds offer an urban sanctuary for the residents and use in this respect would guarantee the manicured parkland is used appropriately and not paved over. Large parking lots on the St-Urbain side could be repurposed, and the influx of people may help clean up that stretch of the street. It would certainly stimulate the development of new services to cater to the geriatric mass.

Not to mention, just down the road at La Cité is a comparatively large shopping mall they can walk around in. They’ll have great fun.

That’s all for now, let me know what you think.

Oh – last point because it still, unfortunately, needs to be said. Though most of these facilities are used principally by the local Anglophone community, they are in fact open to all and serve all. Any future developments of these sites should follow in that tradition. It is the hallmark of our cultural identity, we may as well link it, conceptually, with the identity and heritage of the space we occupy.