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By Barbara Black
Like Superman, they can demolish buildings. They can also build new ones and plant vegetable gardens in the midst of desolation. The Advanced Urban Lab gives Pierre Gauthier’s students the power to redesign run-down parts of Montreal in the hope of serving its citizens more effectively.
“I see the students’ work as ‘foresight studies,’ or études prospectives in French,” Gauthier said.
Students in the course URBS 433 analyze a district in minute detail: its history, socio-economic status, sense of belonging and all its physical features, real and potential. Then they devise ways to improve housing, access to transport, community life and commercial vitality.
This year, Gauthier chose St. Henri, which was once an industrial powerhouse and the railway hub of Canada. Now it’s a quiet neighborhood of modest two- and three-storey homes and derelict industrial buildings.
St. Henri lies south of Westmount, below the tracks. It thrived in the 19th century, but by the 1940s, prosperity had shifted elsewhere, as Gabrielle Roy related in her classic novel Bonheur d’occasion.
The CN rail line, which carries freight and VIA passengers, slashes St. Henri right through the middle. While the district is bordered on the south by the recently restored Lachine Canal, residents rarely use the picturesque strip of public land along the waterfront, seemingly intimidated by the increasing gentrification taking place nearby.
In their final presentation on March 27, held before a fascinated panel of guests from St. Henri’s borough administration and community organizations, six teams of students presented their vision of a revitalized St. Henri.
All the students proposed moving the railway south of the canal, which Gauthier hailed as “a bold move.” The land would be used for new residences and parks.
One team proposed moving Highway 20, and building it along the edge of the escarpment that overlooks the unused Turcot rail yards. They would build doctors’ offices underneath the elevated highway to serve the McGill University Hospital Centre, which will be constructed just south of the Vendôme metro station.
In various ways, the student planners tried to invite residents and visitors to enjoy the beauty of the Lachine Canal. Gauthier applauded these ideas, noting that Canadian taxpayers shelled out $100 million to restore the canal.
Their plans included a civic centre for Place St. Henri, the area around the metro station and the statue of legendary strongman Louis Cyr. They would revitalize the district’s main streets and name a new avenue that would replace the CN railway line after Oscar Peterson, one of southwest Montreal’s favourite sons. One group would use the tramway now being under study for neighbouring Lachine, while another group said electric buses would be more cost-effective.
Some of the students’ proposals met with skeptical questions from their guests. Art History professor Jean Belisle, who has a special interest in industrial architecture and has lived in St. Henri for many years, didn’t think his neighbours would take kindly to moving out of their row houses and into high-rises.
Other guests questioned the viability of a market garden on land that has been heavily contaminated over two centuries of industrial use. They remarked that rebuilding a highway close to a hospital might be unhealthy, and doctors wouldn’t like establishing offices under a dirty, noisy concrete overpass.
However, experienced city planners come in for criticism, too. As he looked with his students at the Quebec Ministry of Transportation’s plans to rebuild the aging Turcot exchange, Gauthier says he came to realize the province’s intention to turn it from an elevated interchange to a ground-level road system is severely flawed.
“The proposed eight-lane highway would create an impassable physical barrier that would cut St. Henri off from the neighbouring districts and the MUHC, an eventuality that would severely compromise the prospect of spinoffs from the hospital for the neighbourhood.”
Since the Turcot yards are being rethought, the highway must be rebuilt and the MUHC project is poised to begin, he said Montrealers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the issue of railroad right of way in Montreal’s southwest.