Saturday, October 03, 2009

Bergeron's boat ride and the issue of cars

   Montreal Projectionary Party Mayoral Candidate Richard Bergeron had a boat ride yesterday with various hand picked members of the media yesterday. I had written about Bergeron previously. Not in a very flattering way. So when I was invited aboard, I felt like it was an invitation from Tony Soprano. I seriously thought about bringing some sort of hidden flotation device in my underpants in case I was tossed overboard. But alas the man who would be mayor was a gracious host and answered all questions. He's a bright and compelling individual. That being said, I'm still not entirely sold on his vision.

For example, I mentioned that we could get a ton more green space and slow down urban sprawl by increasing the density of the city. If some people would swap their obession with having a back yard and front lawn and could be persuaded to live in a downtown high rise, that would mean more room for green, something that Le Corbusier pointed out. Bergeron said Le Corbusier had been eclipsed by Jane Jacobs and others, but I wasn't entirely satisified that my notion had been discredited.
   He stated that we should get Guy Laliberte to do his Cirque du Soleil/Lotto Quebec Project - the same one proposed in the Point and then rejected by the city - in the East end along the waterside. But of course those who know Laliberte will tell you that he's one stubborn mule. To get him to go back to this idea is pretty unlikely.
   So I queried Bergeron about his ideas for attracting private investment to Montreal. This is a semi-code question to see if he's a super lefty or possibly even a separatist. The correct answer, of course, would be to promise to appoint a blue ribbon committee of business volk to find ways to increase investment. They in turn would hopefully state the obvious and suggest that the oppressive Bill 101 be relaxed or repealed, to allow Montreal back into the league of competitive cities. But Bergeron sorta shrugged and said that we should first manage a bunch of other stuff and then worry about that stuff.
   Bergeron, an urban planning prof, is no fool and has a lot of neat ideas, such as resuscitating the old beach in West Verdun and opening up the port in the east end. Plus the boat ride allowed me to snap a few neat pics, such as the panorama shot below.
   He also said that boulevards such as St. Joseph and Park were once prestigious addresses and should be brought back to that status. This stayed with me as I left and drove up St. Lawrence Main Street.
   I was dumbstruck by the number of empty storefronts and places to rent were now available. Even the once white-hot part of the strip from Sherbrooke to Pine had countless For Rent signs. Crazy hat ladies and Trustafarians (see the pic) are not enough to save the Main.
   A Chinese shopkeeper woman told me business has been in freefall ever since the city quadrupled the price of parking from 50 cents to $2 an hour. The city's recent insane decision to double the price of parking tickets from the already-unreasonable $42 to $85 will accelerate the abandonment of main street for the mall.
  Bergeron didn't pass those car rules but he's pushing that same agenda. He stresses that a city should be seen as an organic unit. But part of that organism requires people to get to places. If someone has to bring their kids to hockey practice and then pop in and buy some screws at the hardware store and drop in to buy a framed picture from a picture store, the consumer and merchants benefit. If we make it difficult for such movement, everyone loses. But the city doesn't really care if merchants go bust because they now collect the former business tax from the building owner. So you can expect the city to foreclose on more buildings with commercial units, they'll get their money either way.
   The weakness of the Montreal Projectionarian Party is that they are anti-car and to be anti car is to be anti movement and cities require people to move around.


kyle said...

I took transportation planning at university and spend a large potion of my time casually researching and thinking about transport, mostly urban transport. The funny thing is that there seems to be no standard for the way people act, and we sort of adapt to our surroundings in strange ways. It's not as simple as: Put a person in a car and they will drive places, take away their car and they will walk, bike or take transit. There's more going on for sure. It's nice to think that we've learned from the past and that by reducing the capacity of the Turcot, raising parking rates and improving public transit, that the inner city will automatically become more viable and lively. But I suspect these changes will create other effects that we can't even imagine now and 35 years down the 'road' we'll be at another crossroads and be in store for some serious decision making about transport once again. I really believe most transportation issues stem from land use patterns, and think a higher population density downtown makes pretty good sense, seeing as a good chunk of the transportation network in the centre of town is very developed and could handle many more people outside of rush hours. I vote to expand residential density downtown and around all metro stations, but shy away from the notion that towers is the way to go. Vancouver is a condo tower and single family house city, and the mix just doesn't make for the action-packed streets of Montreal. Dense row-house neighborhoods can support local businesses and transit, and they keep the action on the streets, as opposed to hundreds of people going up and down hidden elevators all day. Anyhow, my rambling may become a rant, so I'll stop now.

Kristian said...

Thx, that wasn't too rambly. But in my own rambling moment I discussed the fact that Montreal has a lot fewer high rise apartment towers than other cities and we could probably get away with building a few more. Even if we put up a whole bunch now we will still be far behind other cities like Vancouver or Toronto.

One thing I dislike about higher buildings is that they require a lot more service space in the ground level, ie: elevators,etc, and that makes it harder to build little mom and pop stores in the front that make it homey and interesting to pedestrians. Without that street level commerce you could end up with a downtown that looks a bit like Ottawa if you allow too many towers.

AJ Kandy said...

I agree with your point that increased urban density is desirable -- half of downtown is parking lots after all -- but it has to be done in a way that actually meets the demands of the population. The reason families flee to the suburbs, aside from lower taxes, is quite simply affordable living room. In recent years, no on-island condo developer has put anything on the mass market larger than 1000 sq feet -- which might be nice for singles and couples but what do you do when you have a couple of kids and/or need a home office?

We're starting to see larger condos hit the market, filling in Rosemont, HoMa and Ahuntsic for instance, but we need more of these closer in to downtown, maybe with a tax holiday from the Accés-Condos program, to attract families back into the city center.

Another possibility is just increasing residential density in existing suburbs, particularly around Metro or rail stations. There's plenty of parts of the West Island that could go from tract home sprawl to smartly designed multifamily, mixed-use streets.

As for cars -- People do need to get around, but the grids of the older parts of the city weren't really designed with cars in mind (as anyone who's tried to live in the Plateau with a car knows). Cars won't disappear magically overnight, but we can come up with smarter ways to help people get around and keep the city livable. Plus, we are, by all scientific consensus, on the declining slope of oil production, so we shouldn't design our future urban transport policy thinking it's going to resemble the rapid growth of the past 40 years.

In the near future, more central-suburb residents are choosing to dispense with car ownership, preferring a service like Communauto for when they need one. Increasing the frequency and reliability of commuter trains and syncing them up better with improved local bus service will help the more distant commuters dispense with their cars as well.

Another strategy which I've seen work very well in American cities is increasing the number of multi-level parking facilities, but keeping them at the edge of the downtown area. This keeps the central area decongested (for people walking along Sainte-Catherine, for instance).

Beyond that, there's just encouraging people to work from home a few days a week. Telecommuting keeps cars off the road - if we can move people from the real highway to the information highway it's a bonus for everyone.

AJ said...

Kristian - re ground level commerce, it's all a matter of design and proportions. Too often it seems like an afterthought (like in Toronto), but pre-war buildings both there and in New York have street-level retail, designed attractively and intelligently -- having wider sidewalks helps, as well as permitting "affordances" like awnings or arcades, proper formal entranceways, etc. When you look at retail spaces in newer glass office or condo towers, they seem like they were stuck on; it's hard to even see where the door is supposed to be.

Kristian said...

Good points. Simple math will tell you that it's easier to get $600 a month for a small apartment than $1,200 a month for an apartment twice that size. Also, the fact that it's hard to swiftly kick a non - paying tenant out encourages the creation and maintenance of small units. Ie: it's better to be out $600 a month than be losing $1,200 a month. I assume that similar logic dictates the creation of smaller condo units as well. Someone should definitely intervene to encourage the creation of larger units. Right now the only real force working in that favour is the CMHC which won't guarnatee money on a building with small units, ergo, the resale value of that building will always stay relatively low.

As for taller buildings having less ability to host mom-n-pop shops on the ground floor, this was explained to me in detail by architect Michael Fish, who is pretty much the ultimate local combination of brains, articulation and insight. He also said that Drapeau had a zoning bylaw which discouraged tall buildings, so Drapeau merits some credit for the fact that we haven't gone total highrise such as in other cities (see the Lorimer book The Developers for the backstory, although it's a bit outdated).

And the thing about telecommuting, I totally agree that it should be encouraged. I vaguely recall hearing some study saying that many of the at-home workers would find other excuses to drive around in their cars anyway, so the roads wouldn't be all that much clearer and it would pretty much be Armageddon on any downtown lunch-serving restaurant if everybody was working from home.

I don't particularly like cars or driving but I have a family and it's pretty much impossible to raise kids without doing a fair deal of driving. I would probably otherwise be a bicycle rider still if it weren't for that. I think the gov't should exempt parents of underage kids from some of the more onerous car restrictions that might come down the pike.

Gregster said...

I honestly don't see the allure of shopping on the Main. I lived most of my life on Coloniale/Duluth.. a mere 1 min walk from the Main. Yet we never did any shopping there except for the occasional odd item. There just wasn't any shop worth spending money at and this still applies today. Mind you I do like how all the trendy stores moved it, it somewhat cleaned up the area.

I still take the drive down to the old area( I live in Hudson, moved out from Montreal in 2004) to visit the local bakery but that's about it. Parking is still a joke with the city giving out more parking permits then available spots.

C. T. Maus said...

Monorail. Monorail. Monorail. Monorail. Monorail. Monorail.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it neat that this type of conversation aroung urban philosophy is even happening?

Thanks go to Bergeron for making this campaign interesting.

kyle said...

That was a rambly post! ( Good stuff though, and interesting to consider larger rental places. This Mike Fish cat seems like a sound bloke, and curious to hear that it was Drapeau behind an anti-tall-building he's commonly seen as the guy who was into bulldozing neighbourhoods to build infrastructure to support an expected population of 7 million people by the year 2000. Or the future. Whatever came first. Quite the guy though, and visionary on ton's o' levels. No other city really was into building urban freeways and a metro at the same time. It seems that the homey small shop element is almost universally popular among the layperson, but almost always an afterthought in actual development schemes. Vancouver is awash in flashy new condo towers, but there's a giant lack of walk-up human scale stuff. Another amazing asset Montreal has is a plethora of very dense mixed use neighbourhood strips that scream for more action. Boulevard Monk, Rue Masson, Wellington...these places are badass little cool strips that can thrive further if more of the right elements are in place. (I have no idea what those exact elements are, but) As for parking garages in downtowns, I fully believe that reverse psychology is the order here, and the less parking available downtown (to an extent) will lead to more foot traffic and less car traffic...and a better city. Almost all Vancouver condo towers are filled with stories-deep parkades, and a giant portion of residents wake up, take the elevator downstairs, get in their car, and then commute or to their job in the suburbs. So the population density is there, but it's not entirely helping local stores nor creating public transit riders in step with the number of people per sq km. I know this is all anecdotal analysis, but I firmly believe catering to car drivers almost always leads to less fun and neighbourhoods. (I love to drive, but I hate having to drive.) Of course cars are necessary, and important, but they should have access in a pecking order after walking, biking, and transit. Okay, so this is a full blown rambble-rant now, oh well. In a similar vein, there used to be surface parking lots north of av Mont Royal a couple blocks of Papineau, but now there's residental buildings going up on the land. It looks like 100 or so people will live in the same space that could've held 100 or so cars. Makes sense to me to build nice residental properites and have people living somewhere, rather than using the land to entice people living somewhere else to come spend their money. As for kids and cars, yep, for sure. A wildcard element to the whole car-issue that nobody really seems to take into account!

Kate M. said...

I love the idea of telecommuting but I don't think it's here yet. A lot of jobs can't be phoned in, but even beyond that, my experience has been that when somebody is paying you they pretty much want you under their eye. I've had a few opportunities to go home with work and get it done there (which is blissful in wintertime, at any rate) but mostly it does not seem to be what people want. I could muster sociological arguments that we primates mostly still need to pick bugs off each other at the water cooler, too. (Ick.)

Kristian, I think you're wrong about lunch rushes. Part of the joy of working at home is being able to meander into your own kitchen and assemble your own lunch. Working at home I'm very unlikely to eat out, whereas from the office what else are you going to do besides dash for a nearby nosherie?

Anonymous said...

Frankly, if you want an anglo condo-tower dominated city, you *can* actually just move to Vancouver...

The statement about "being anti-car = anti-movement" is completely unsubstantiated.

Your post was worth it though, if only for the insightful comments by the others...