The decline of the downtown cores, at least in North America, is a process that started long ago. It is generally accepted that this decline started right after the end of World War II and has continued since then.
Fortunately for Canada, our big cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver managed to escape the fate of many American cities. Instead, our cities were able to keep vibrant and safe downtown areas. Moreover, and particularly in Montreal’s case, an important factor in its favour was a constant presence of residents in the immediate neighbourhood of the city core. People for which “going downtown” was always a natural thing. Not only that: residents of other areas in the city always regarded downtown as the place to come, and not just for things that may require their physical presence, but the place where to find the best stores, restaurants, and theatres.
However, this state of things for downtown was always fragile. New suburban real estate developments, deterioration of some local services, excessive traffic disruptions and their subsequent detours and lack of parking space were already making it difficult for downtown businesses to attract customers. All of that, before the pandemic, which, of course, has made things much worse in just a few months.
In response to this situation Mayor Valerie Plante announced last week a rescue plan, together with an emotional plea to Montrealers to visit the area, shop here, support its restaurants. She also allocated 400,000 dollars for a program that would include enlarged spaces for terrasses, and subsidized parking at Complexe Desjardins and the Palais des Congrés. Part of that money will also be used for artistic performances on the streets.
The mayor’s plan, however, didn’t get the applauses she expected. And for a good reason: it is too little, too late. Merchants, as well as residents in the area, have long been asking for their demands and suggestions to be heard. Instead, the city administration has consistently moved in a direction opposite to what people have been demanding. The pandemic, which justifiably made some people afraid of using public transit, forced many to drive. This, in turn, is a development that is at odds with Projet Montreal’s long-standing anti-car agenda. A point that has merits given the automobile’s impact on climate change, however, under the new circumstances created by COVID-19 a more reasonable and tolerant approach was expected. The city, instead, decided to eliminate hundreds of parking spots on Ste. Catherine St. under the excuse that to facilitate social distancing, it needed to enlarge sidewalks by taking two additional lanes with their respective parking spaces.
Strange new designs have also been introduced on some street corners, eliminating more parking spaces. In at least one case, the corner of St. Mathieu and de Maisonneuve, these experiments have created a hazardous spot for motorists. At that corner, St. Mathieu is suddenly reduced to only two lanes: an invitation for an accident to happen when buses turn and move on the now-reduced road.
The idea of spending money providing street entertainment is also a bizarre one. While I sympathize with the artists who might be hired to perform, since they have also suffered the effects of the crisis, this is not the best way to help. Moreover, the city contradicts all health officials’ recommendations discouraging large gatherings. After all, that’s why we didn’t have any of the big festivals this summer. In other words, the mayor’s rescue plan is a new concoction of half-baked ideas that will not save downtown nor its merchants. Perhaps a better approach would have been to give businesses in the area some tax relief or even direct grants. But offering visitors subsidized parking many blocks away from the city core, and paying for a few jugglers and buskers is not going to attract many people downtown. Besides, a wide-ranging policy for the whole area, designed after a meaningful consultation, is also necessary, if we really want to save downtown.