Slow Heal

The Montreal metro being built under de Maisonneuve, early 1960s

For a long time, the boulevard de Maisonneuve was one of my least favourite streets in Montreal. It was built in the 1960s by linking and widening four distinct streets: de Montigny, Burnside, St. Luc and Western. The final product was a Frankenstein’s monster of crudely-stitched appendages and half-healed wounds.

In the east end of downtown, near Place des Arts, the street curved through a landscape of parking lots and weedy terrains vagues. Further west, it sliced through blocks of greystones and apartment houses, creating a sad streetscape of crudely amputated buildings. Although the metro runs underneath, de Maisonneuve’s primary objective has always been to funnel cars through the city centre, and it was never very pleasant to walk along its narrow sidewalks. The push for automotive supremacy went so far that the road was tunnelled straight through the lobby of an apartment building whose owner refused to sell to the city.

Then, in the mid 2000s, things began to change. The real estate market awoke from a decade-long slumber and new apartment towers rose along the central stretch of de Maisonneuve. The city widened sidewalks and planted trees. Further east, in the Quartier des Spectacles, the 1960s-era curve was straightened, slowing traffic and creating space for some whimsical new public spaces. The renovation of Norman Bethune Square near Concordia University gave the western stretch of de Maisonneuve a prominent facelift. In 2008, a lane of traffic was taken from cars and given to bikes, which immediately gave the hodgepodge street the kind of singular identity it had always lacked.

De Maisonneuve still doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a street that developed organically over a long period of time, like Ste. Catherine or Mount Royal. But, in less than a decade, many of the scars caused by its mid-century transformation have been healed. It’s a lesson in just how long it can take for cities to adapt to sudden and dramatic changes. Haussmann might have made quick work with his boulevards, but Houston Street in Manhattan is still lined by severed buildings and empty lots nearly 80 years after it was widened.

De Maisonneuve in 2008, after façade renovations, the construction of new sidewalks, a bike path and new residential towers

Among the then-and-now photos of Guillaume St-Jean are some that depict the urban scars caused by the road widening, extensions and realignments of the 1960s. I’ve collected a few here.

1955-2007

René-Lévesque Boulevard, 1955 and 2007
René-Lévesque, fomerly Dorchester, was widened in the 1950s

1979-2011

René-Lévesque Boulevard, 1979 and 2011

Vers 1940-2011

Notre Dame Street, 1940 and 2011
Notre Dame Street was widened to handle traffic from the Ville-Marie Expressway

1979-2011

President Kennedy near Bleury, 1979 and 2011
President Kennedy was built in the 1960s

Around 1920-2010

St. Urbain and St. Antoine, 1920 and 2010
St. Urbain was widened in the 1960s

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday June 05 2011at 12:06 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, History, Public Space, Transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Slow Heal”

  • C. Szabla says:

    Is that tunneled-through apartment building still there?

    It’s true that Houston St. is still a mess, although that’s not for any lack of effort to mend it. The post-Robert Moses push for bottom-up urban renewal in the form of community gardens and other small green spaces resulted in the preservation of many of the patches that give the street its gap-toothed appearance. Paradoxically, community groups now press the preservation of the once-hated (and little used) greenspace surrounding NYU’s towers-in-the-park, some of which fronts the street. A newish midrise condoplex at Houston and Bowery maintained an awkward patch of grass and trees left over from the widening, rather than serve to repair the streetwall, presumably because it could claim their screening out of traffic noise as an amenity for prospective residents.

    It’s become a familiar story in many densely populated American cities: a misdirected obsession with all things “green” fuses with a proprietary sense of community property, resulting in methods Jane Jacobs would applaud being applied to preserve environments she wouldn’t. Maybe it’s just as well. Houston hasn’t “mended”, but it sometimes seems as if that’s because the surrounding neighborhoods refuse to embrace or tolerate its gigantism, their buildings preferring perennially to turn their backs.

  • I think Houston works because the surrounding blocks are so cohesive and intensely-populated. It adds a wrinkle to the urban fabric that is interesting even if it’s not an example of good urbanism.

    Until very recently there were still far too many parking lots around the central portion of de Maisonneuve to sustain the kind of activity you see on other streets, so the unpleasant pedestrian environment turned it into a kind of black hole. Since the renovations and new residential construction began there has been a noticeable increase in pedestrian activity.

    Unfortunately the building with a hole in the lobby was one of the victims of that revitalization. It was bought by a developer, along with an adjacent (and very beautiful) former YMCA building. Both were demolished for a very kistchy apartment tower. It’s pretty ugly but it gives the street a sense of continuity and a retail presence that was lacking before. The Drummond Tower was quirky and I was sad to see it go, but that tunnel was also pretty rank.

  • The new bike lane helps make DeMaisonneuve more pleasant by cutting down the available space for cars and, consequently, their speed + noise. It also creates a buffer between pedestrians and car traffic.

    The area around Concordia and the Quartier des spectacles is still a construction site after all these years. Things don’t move at Hong Kong speed over here… Concordia has definitely improved. The jury is still out on the stretch of Maisonneuve near Place des Arts. It still feels like you’re walking along the back of Place des Arts rather than next to something interesting – and that big yellow-bricked UQAM building across the street is on my list of the top 10 ugliest buildings in the city. The buildings along the street may have patched up holes, but they don’t work together well at all.

    In my opinion, René Lévesque is far less interesting to walk along as far as city streets go.

  • Yes, René Lévesque has a whole other batch of problems. It manages to achieve its desired monumentality right around Place Ville-Marie and Dominion Square, but for the most part it’s pretty bad. Though maybe not quite as banal as University Avenue in Toronto.

    I kind of like that big yellow UQAM boat building. The little campus the university has built there is a pretty nice example of adaptive reuse, too.

  • The big yellow building looks like a massive generic lump that crushes everything around it, a beached ocean liner crossed with brutalism. I don’t particularly like yellow brick or vertically aligned brick. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

    I do agree about the little campus behind it though.