Turcot tensions

Par Jessica Murphy le 21 août 2008

Forty years ago, Montreal looked to the future. Now, one of the iconic structures of that era—the Turcot Interchange—will be rebuilt, freeing the Turcot Yards for development. The Yards are now one of the largest empty urban spaces in North America. Whatever is built there will have a huge impact on the city.

But Montreal still has no concrete plans for the area.

André Lavallée, executive committee member responsible for urban planning and public transit, has only recently set up a committee of local mayors to study potential plans for the roughly 100 hectares of land slated for development. They are expected to table an action plan addressing different challenges, priorities and concerns by the end of this year, before consulting with the public.

"We do have ideas," said Darren Becker, spokesman for the City. "But I can't tell you—they're still preliminary. The area has been studied for years, it's like Blue Bonnets, it's still on the drawing board level."

Neither Montreal's current master urban plan nor its 2025 plan offer much in terms of clarification. Both mention improving accessibility to a site that suffers the disadvantage of natural barriers that hinder access. Both plans mention preserving the St. Jacques escarpment, a recognized eco-territory. They also mention job development by attracting "job-creating industrial firms."

The Yards are part of the main east-west hub joining highways 15, 20 and the Ville Marie and are part of a portal between the West Island, the South Shore and Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport. They are in close proximity to the new McGill University Health Centre, the Lachine Canal, and downtown.

There's a minimum of $1.5 billion worth of public money being spent on reworking the Interchange alone. So where is Montreal's vision for the future?

"The city is reacting, that's part         of the problem," said Pierre Gauthier, associate professor with Concordia's department of geography, planning and environment. "(Transport Quebec, the City and the boroughs) don't talk  to one another. One of the problems with Montreal is the planning decisions are taken (in isolation). People are reacting, the city is reacting, there's no global vision. There's no reason for it not to be debated publicly, it's not the result of a private initiative. We're talking about public money and public investments."

Montreal photographer Ken McLaughlin agrees. He's behind the blog Walking Turcot Yards and has been exploring the area since 2004.

"There are a lot of projects going on: the Turcot Interchange, the Turcot Yards, the hospital, the Angrignon Interchange, the Dorval Circle and with all that they want a high speed rail train from the airport. Then you have the Griffintown project. All these things are happening simultaneously," he said. "The City of Montreal has been very quiet on this."

Until 2002 the Turcot Yards—bordered by the St. Jacques escarpment to the north and Highway 20 and Notre Dame Street to the south—were used by Canadian National Railways as a transfer yard were cargo was on- and off- loaded between rail and road vehicles. The deserted Yards are now used as a city snow dump.

Work on the Interchange is to begin in 2009 and last until 2015. A new structure will be built next to the existing highway and the old one will then be torn down. The area that will be freed for development is owned by the provincial government, who is currently negotiating a land transfer agreement with the municipality.

Gauthier believes the area has tremendous potential for Montreal's future development—if it's done right.

"It's the perfect spot if well-developed and well-planned," he said. "There's enough space to create a small neighbourhood that could be fairly autonomous." Creating a neighbourhood of socially mixed housing that would be attractive to the middle-class could help re-populate the inner city and re-develop its tax base.

But the governments are not off to a good start.

"It's mind boggling that this proposal does not include  a component on public transportation," he said. "We should be using Turcotte to launch a new initiative—a city of tomorrow, a post-automobile era."

He warns against repeating the mistakes of 1967 when the Turcot Interchange was completed—when governments failed to see the broader economic and environmental impacts of the project.

"It's easy to pass judgment on the past, but it's shocking we're repeating the same mistakes," he said.

Other groups are attempting to fill the vacuum left by the city.

Heritage Laurentien, an ecological organization, has drawn up plans for a 400 hectare green network that would connect parks, golf courses, and natural habitats across the Island. Former Montreal city councilor Jean Fortier has drawn up plans to transform the Yards into a massive park.

"Everyone involved has implied some sort of park or public use," said McLaughlin. "People want a lot of things. Different groups have similar ideas, but it's difficult to develop a cohesion between the different boroughs and bureaucracies."

The Interchange reconstruction, though slated to begin next year, is still undergoing studies and public consultations. Local opposition to the current plan is growing. And with the plans for the Yards in only preliminary stages, Montrealers may have to wait years to know what will be done with the whole Turcot complex.

Becker said the city was in no hurry. "We still have two years (before construction begins)," he said, and the city will "ideally work in tandem" with Transport Quebec. That type of thinking leaves Gauthier concerned. "It's not integrated. It's not part of a larger scheme for how this city needs to be developed. There's no holistic approach.”

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