Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 11, 2012.
No one will likely ever accuse the City of Montreal of moving too quickly – least of all me!
After several years of deep-seated hesitation, the municipal administration finally decided to throw caution to the wind and declare much of the ‘Quartier des spectacles’ to be a seasonal pedestrian mall.
Acting on the suggestions of many, including myself (“Montreal should follow footsteps”, Gazette, September 15, 2010), our local authorities have just recently erected signs and barriers restricting the flow of vehicle traffic throughout the eye-catching site. Until September 3, St. Catherine Street from Bleury to St. Laurent will be the exclusive domain of Montreal’s much-maligned and indeed very patient al fresco walkers.
The cumbersome, seemingly almost improvised decision to create this temporary pedestrian zone begs the question: Why was it not done on a permanent basis?
In his recent extensive article about the sudden and dazzling development of the ‘Quartier des spectacles’ (“Designed for one and all”, Gazette, Saturday, June 2, 2012, B-1), writer Jeff Heinrich was quick to point out several flaws in the far-reaching project. One of those failings stems from the very fact that the city will apparently not take the final leap and declare the area a perpetual pedestrian precinct. Why does Montreal seemingly always hesitate while most other cities move quietly forward in that regard?
In his critique, Heinrich correctly points out the dangers presented to visually impaired people by the absence of curbs on the St. Catherine Street stretch from Bleury to St. Laurent that passes through the very heart of the handsome, recently-crafted entertainment district. This particular menace, however, only exists when motorized vehicles are permitted to drive along the same roadbed. By declaring the five-block expanse a enduring car-free sector, this difficulty would be quickly overcome.
The fact of the matter is that if, during its laborious construction, Montreal and its motorists were both able to survive a year and a half with no serious consequences devoid of automobile access to the ‘Quartier des spectacles’, it can be done again – only this time on an all year round basis.
In actuality, when you think about it, much of the vicinity is closed to motor traffic on most any occasion the site is used as a venue for one event or another. For instance, the ‘Montréal en lumière’ website informs us that much of that same surrounding area will be blocked to car circulation for nearly four weeks next winter in order for that frosty and colourful celebration to take place. Add to this the near four months it is currently scheduled to be off limits during this festival season and we are intriguingly close to a half a year when cars are not permitted in the burgeoning entertainment zone. Still, City Hall will not take the plunge and make the now very modern thoroughfare permanently pedestrian friendly.
The chronic hesitation of Montreal in this regard is striking. Having just visited the Italian city of Trieste, I was amazed at the extent to which much, if not most, of the city centre is inaccessible to motorized transport. Nevertheless, the street malls are alive with people and the core of the town itself appears to be quite prosperous and well adjusted. As is the case with many European metropolises, people are actively encouraged to walk, bicycle, or take public transportation to get themselves around.
Meanwhile, while we all wait for Montreal to play catch up with progressive municipalities across the globe, why does the Tremblay Administration not at least take one further, small step in the right direction?
At present, there are two seasonal pedestrian malls along St. Catherine Street, one on St. Catherine Street East (currently in its fifth, and by all accounts, successful summer run) and the other now in the ‘Quartiers des spectacles’. One is separated from the other by a mere seven streets.
What is so essential about those seven city blocks from St. Laurent to Berri that they too cannot be incorporated, preferably this year, into the seasonal mall project.
Or is that moving too quickly for our dawdling city officials?