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Struggling to Face Its Piers

Will Montreal Follow Toronto’s Example in Revitalizing Its Beleaguered Waterfront?

You wouldn't think that Montreal is a river city. Instead of spilling toward the water as in so many other towns, its energy flows up and around Mount Royal, away from the water to which this city owes its existence. For hundreds of thousands of Montrealers, the mighty St. Lawrence might as well not be there.

Of course, it hasn't always been this way. Fifty years ago, Montreal was one of the world's greatest inland seaports. Foghorns blared as ships made their way up and down the Lachine Canal, past factories that clanked and clanged with activity; huge grain silos towered over the historic district at the edge of the water, where port workers drowned a long day of work in the taverns on St. Paul Street. This was a city firmly connected to its marine roots.

But those days have passed. While Montreal's port is still one of the busiest in North America, most of the port's activity now takes place far from sight, away from the old heart of the city, its location a mystery to the average Montrealer. The Lachine Canal, which connects the St. Lawrence to Lake St. Louis, bypassing the Lachine rapids, was doomed to irrelevance with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. By 1970, the canal had been completely sealed off, a cesspool of toxic sludge in an eerily quiet, almost rural setting. Waterfront and canalside neighbourhoods, meanwhile, were hit with the deadly blow of deindustrialization, some losing more than half of their population as jobs fled and factories emptied out.

While Montreal's port is still one of the busiest in North America, most of the port's activity now takes place far from sight, away from the old heart of the city, its location a mystery to the average Montrealer.

Today, Montreal's waterways are a patchwork of disparate developments. The canal, now a national historic site, was reopened to pleasure craft in 2002. Many of the factories and industrial brownfields lining its edges have been converted into condos and a pleasant linear park that stretches along the banks of the almost fifteen-kilometre-long canal. Most significantly, in the eighties, the Old Port underwent a massive, federally funded redevelopment. Train tracks were removed, silos demolished and a park was built with skating rinks, ponds, bicycle paths and a promenade. Since the work was completed, in the early nineties, Montrealers and tourists alike have flocked to the area.

Still, most of the waterfront remains underused and inaccessible, hidden behind an impenetrable web of highways and light industry. Virtually no commerce or housing surrounds the basins in the Old Port where the Lachine Canal meets the river. But that might change: last week, a massive private centre de foires (trade fair complex) worth one billion dollars was announced for the Bickerdike Quay, at the canal's mouth in the Old Port. It would contain a six-hundred-thousand-square-foot exposition hall and possibly a hotel, apartments, boutiques and restaurants.

However, as ambitious as that project might sound, it highlights the lack of vision and public debate surrounding Montreal's waterfront. Large residential developments like the Faubourg Québec (built on an old CP rail yard) or L'Héritage du Vieux-Port (a huge refrigeration warehouse that is being converted into condos), both east of the Old Port, are private initiatives with poor physical links to the rest of the waterfront. The Bickerdike Quay project would be no different. "Simply put, I would have doubts that this centre de foires would be beneficial," remarks Pierre Gauthier, a professor of urban planning at Concordia University. "It would exist in isolation because it's pretty cut off from the rest [of the city]."

Gauthier teaches an annual urban-planning workshop in which students study neglected pieces of Montreal and come up with plans to redevelop and reinvigorate the areas. However, he is ambivalent about the city's recent waterside redevelopment. The Lachine Canal is of particular concern: new residential and commercial projects in the area turn their backs on the canal, lining it with fences and walls. "We have to see how [the canal] could be turned into a functional public space," he says-more of a neighbourhood hub than a peripheral park. Traditionally, the old working-class neighbourhoods that line the canal centred around commercial streets a few blocks away from the canal's noise, traffic and noxious odours. Now that the canal has been cleaned and is more conducive to development, the challenge is to fully integrate it into the existing neighbourhoods.

That can't be done without a broad vision and strong political leadership. Unfortunately, Montreal's waterfront projects lack both. The redevelopment of the canal by the federal government does not take into consideration the full impact on surrounding neighbourhoods. While several "nodes" of access have been developed, like the one around the Atwater Market, these do not connect well with the rest of the city: no new transportation links the canal to other parts of Montreal, for instance, and the closest metro stations are several blocks away. "What you want to avoid is throwing away a huge amount of public money to serve the economic interests of a very small group of people," cautions Gauthier.

This might all sound familiar to people in Toronto. For years, the city's waterfront was shamefully neglected, cut off from the rest of the city by highways, vacant lots and rail yards. Finally, after years of empty promises and government haggling, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation was created in 2001. Its goal: to take forty-six kilometres of prime lakeside real estate and transform the area into a vibrant, mixed-use part of Toronto. The first area to be redeveloped would be an eighty-acre swath of land between the Don River and Parliament Street. Transformed into twenty-three acres of parkland, 1,200 units of affordable housing and 4,600 market-rate residences, it would be well integrated into Toronto's public-transit network.

It sounds great, but the development corporation has been stranded in the midst of an intergovernmental turf war. The municipal, provincial and federal governments each own parts of the waterfront land, and each control some portion of the corporation's funding. "It's a question of hurry up and wait," says Christopher Hume, the architecture critic for the Toronto Star. "There's nothing going on, so basically our waterfront's going nowhere." It's a bitter situation, because of the risk of reverting back to the kind of lacklustre, patchwork development that has characterized the various projects thus far. "A lot of bad stuff was built," says Hume of the construction of the past twenty years. "I think that we need to get past that piecemeal approach."

A successful waterfront, he says, must include a mix of residential, cultural and commercial development, finely woven into a city's urban fabric: "Develop in a way that ensures accessibility to the waterfront. Make it accessible to the public realm." Solid transportation links are a must. And while the waterfront is an ideal place for monumental structures like museums or convention centres, "you don't want everything to be spectacular. If you think of the Sydney Opera House, the water is a wonderful place for that. But you need the background buildings. You can't have a choir full of soloists."

"You don't want everything to be spectacular. If you think of the Sydney Opera House, the water is a wonderful place for that. But you need the background buildings. You can't have a choir full of soloists."

This kind of comprehensive transformation is hard to achieve without a plan, though, and, until recently, Montreal was in dire need of just that. Last year, the Société du Havre, a non-profit organization whose goal is to create a master plan for the waterfront, released a report outlining its vision. The document stressed the importance of accessibility, recommending that an elevated highway be turned into a surface boulevard and proposing that a network of tramways link together different sections of the waterfront. It also set out guidelines for sustainable, mixed-use and high-density development in areas adjacent to the water. Above all, the report proclaims, the principal goal is to "reunite the city with its river."

The Société du Havre's recommendations are a good start, but it might be tempting for different levels of government to simply push them aside. "I'm slightly puzzled that [this] initiative is coming from a parapublic organization rather than a public one like the City of Montreal," says Gauthier. Part of the problem, he adds, is that the federal government controls Montreal's port, and thus most of its waterfront, and "there's a history of the federal government being extremely reluctant to listen to what the city has to say. You have a federal body like the Port looking down at a city like Montreal and making decisions that could affect it [deeply]. I don't want to put the blame all on one body, but there's very little tradition of the federal government being co-operative [on matters such as these]."

Montrealers need to take a good look at their waterfront. The centre de foires might look promising, but, without a sense of where it fits into the waterfront as a whole, it runs the risk of becoming yet another barrier to the water, a white elephant mired in a swamp of vacant lots and chain-link fences. Along with all other new development on the waterfront, the centre de foires should be built according to strict guidelines that emphasize public access and good architecture. It should also be used to encourage complementary residential and commercial development, as well as the creation of strong public transportation links that ensure the waterfront is knit back into the fabric of the city.

If Montreal wants the federal and provincial governments to co-operate, it needs to take charge and create a strong and firm outline of how the waterfront should develop. Without a clear vision, we'll all be left adrift.

Take a visual and literary tour through the history of Montreal's storied and often hapless waterfront: check out "Montreal's (Forgotten) Waterfront," a recent photo essay by Christopher DeWolf.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.