Published in the Montreal Gazette on May 21, 2015

The McTavish Reservoir certainly has a colourful history.

For instance, the now defunct Montreal Star reported on August 1, 1907, that one Hyolan Hansen Schwart was actually caught washing his dog in the city’s principal source of drinking water. He was later brought before the Municipal Court and appropriately fined.

Of course, in the Edwardian Period the historic basin was uncovered, and remained so for the longest time. In an earlier phase, it was wholly unfenced as well leaving the supposedly potable water exposed to the vagaries of passers-by. Fish even inhabited its realm!

Fortunately, those days have passed but Montreal’s now – covered reservoir is once again in the news, and that’s because of the controversy surrounding Rutherford Park, the name of the recreational area found above it. Bounded by McTavish Street, Pine and Dr. Penfield Avenues, the sizeable commons is named after the 1908 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Dr. Ernest Rutherford who held the title of Chair of Macdonald Professor of Physics while at McGill University from 1898 -1907.

The well-situated green spot has been very much a part of this city’s landscape for many a decade. Used fervently by both McGill students and by numerous residents of the Boroughs of Ville Marie and Plateau Mont-Royal, the play area is now engulfed in uncertainty with regard to its calling.

After initially proposing, in 2009, to close altogether the popular park to the public (ostensibly due to the threat of a potential terrorist act involving Montreal’s water supply), City Hall retreated due to widespread community opposition to the idea. However, a year or two later, that same municipal authority adopted an equally questionable project that would see Rutherford Park converted into a multi-purpose sports field with an artificial turf. To make matters worse, in the eyes of those who oppose the plan, the completed redesigned facility would then be handed over to McGill University for its exclusive use during weekdays.

In short, it would no longer be a shared facility as it has been down through the years. For all intents and purposes, the playground would be privatized and entrusted to the university for its use, despite the fact that Montreal’s taxpayers will have paid 90% of the costs involved in the alteration work.

It should be noted that McGill University already has four sports fields within a kilometre of one another, three of which have artificial grass.

The scheme is still in its middle stage with efforts at present focusing on the membrane of the reservoir and the scraping work taking place on a neighbouring cliff. This task, however, has already led to the loss of a number of trees.

Underlining the Rutherford Park state of affairs is, of course, the perennial City of Montreal bugaboo – its embedded inability to engage in meaningful consultations with those directly affected by its often-contentious plans. In this regard, Denis Coderre has fallen into the same category of previous mayors in his resounding refusal to sit down with locals to address their concerns on this subject.

Those apprehensions are also environmental. The Friends of Rutherford Park (an amalgamation of citizens anxious about the future of the park) has articulated various ecological preoccupations, particularly the wisdom of placing a synthetic turf over an important water reservoir. They have also asked that a 2011 feasibility study on the controversial scheme be made public. To date, it has not been.

At a Ville Marie Borough meeting held last April 14, Mayor Denis Coderre was respectfully implored by two representatives of the Friends of Rutherford Park Association to reconsider the scheme, or at least engage in an open discussion about it. He refused, while at the same time both obstinately and proudly claiming “the city needs another soccer field.”

That is indeed a very simplistic answer concerning a much-loved green space used by many Montrealers on an informal basis over the years. As such, it is also very disappointing.

Below, Rutherford Park in happier times……..