Building a better Montreal for us?
“In a metropolitan area, downtown is the place where a community presents itself to the world, where it displays its values, where it attests to its dynamism, where it gives testimony of its art of living…” These were the words of Mayor Denis Coderre when he presented the document “Strategie Centre-Ville 2030—Soutenir l’élan” (“Strategy Downtown 2030—Sustain the Momentum”). The report, issued just at the beginning of this month, provides an introduction to some basic (strategic) ideas aimed at keeping downtown Montreal as a viable and attractive business centre, not only in relation to other metropolitan areas in Canada such as Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Ottawa, but in a North American context as well. That’s why the document also includes American cities in its comparative tables (even some with declining downtown areas such as Detroit).
“Of all North American metropolises Montreal has a downtown that has the most weight within its metropolitan space” affirms the document explaining that such characteristic has resulted from “historical and geographical constraints” and more recently from the construction of the metro in the 1960s which made localization of businesses in the area more advantageous in comparison to other neighbourhoods. The text provides statistical information that would support this characteristic of our downtown: the proportion of office space concentrated in the central area of the city is the highest of all other large cities in North America: a 64 percent, followed by Calgary (61 percent) and Chicago and New York (51 percent). However, the figures may not be so optimistic if the trend to a decline in the concentration of office space in downtown Montreal continues. Indeed, in 1991 that percentage was 76 percent, since then there has been a steady decline which the document doesn’t explain (it might have to navigate the perilous waters of linguistic policies for instance, which many people associate with the exodus of head offices from the province).
Former opposition leader and now the Mayor’s right-hand man regarding the downtown strategy, Richard Bergeron, came to a public meeting of the Peter McGill Community Council the week before. He extolled the virtues of the document, mainly the concentration of office space and the increase in the use of public transit.
However there were numerous observations on the proposed strategy, the emphasis on office space, for instance, may not consider the fact that to have a lively downtown area you also need residents. Montreal is lucky in that regard: just a walking distance from the downtown core one can find residential buildings, and one should not forget that it is people what makes an area a lively place, instead of the solitary and unsafe downtown areas you may find in some American cities after business hours. While the incentive to attract businesses to the central area is important, it is even more important to attract residents, and not only temporary ones like students attending the nearby universities and colleges but also families. Of course, to do that, the downtown district should be equipped with a primary school, a community centre, and more parks and sports facilities for young people, all things that the area is lacking at this moment and the Strategy document doesn’t address.
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Even the increase in public transit use that Mr. Bergeron mentioned with great enthusiasm is more the result of a calculated weighing of convenience vs. inconvenience that people do, rather than a conscious conviction. Parking is expensive and hard to find, while metro stations abound in the area. However, people use public transportation despite inconveniences such as stations in poor conditions of cleanliness, or buses—except for routes 24, 80 and 165—which leave too much to be desired regarding frequency and reliability due to cancellations.
In any case, the City of Montreal has scheduled a series of public consultations starting this Sunday, September 25 at 11 a.m. with an Ideas and Projects Forum followed at 4 p.m. by an information session to be held at the Salon Urbain of the Place des Arts. Three thematic meetings will take place on Sept. 27 on Transportation and Travel, Oct. 5 on Neighbourhood Life and Urban Development, and on Oct. 6 on The Economy and Innovation. All of these sessions will be held at the Office de Consultation publique de Montréal, OCPM (1550 Metcalfe, suite 1414, metro Peel) at 7 p.m. except for the last one set for 8 a.m. A public hearing will take place at the OCPM on November 3, at 7 p.m. To participate registration is required at 514-872-8510, a brief can also be submitted via ocpm.qc.ca/inscriptions
By Sergio Martinez – mtltimes.ca