Two of Montreal’s newspapers turned their attention to the city’s main streets today. The Gazette bemoans the state of “the black hole on Ste. Catherine” with a feature by Andy Riga on the block just east of the old Forum, between Lambert-Closse and Chomedey. After Bombay Palace closed and moved west to Bishop Street this week, the north side of the block is now completely vacant. Some blame the street’s decline on the closure of the Forum in 1996, but the most likely culprit is the decrepit ruins of the Seville Theatre, which closed in 1985:
The Seville opened in 1929, its interior designed in the “atmospheric style” meant to simulate a fantasy outdoor setting, the walls and ceiling painted to look like a nighttime scene in a forest in Spain. The Forum had opened five years earlier. A streetcar served the street. Business flourished along Ste. Catherine, with side streets lined with houses.
But the scene has changed drastically over the years.
Nightlife moved eastward, toward Guy and later Bishop and Crescent Sts. In the 1960s, the bus terminus at nearby Cabot Square was largely replaced by the Atwater métro station, sending commuters underground; and the Alexis Nihon Plaza shopping mall opened two blocks west of the Seville, sucking away more shoppers.
Foot traffic from the Forum and the Seville was the area’s commercial lifeblood, said Pierre Gauthier, a Concordia University urban-planning professor. With it gone, the Seville block was doomed, despite the fact it’s in one of the city’s most densely populated areas.
Over the years, a number of projects that would have redeveloped the Seville block have come and gone: in 2002, Claridge, a company owned by Stephen Bronfman bought the block with the intent on converting it into a mixed-use, eco-friendly building containing a major retailer, a grocery store, a restaurant, café and brewpub, an art gallery and art studio, apartments, condos and offices. Most of the block’s remaining businesses were told to move out a few years ago. But the plans were never brought to life.
Hopes were raised again last year by a rumour that the Seville block would be turned into a Concordia student residence. But that project never happened, with Concordia opting to house students at the nearby former Grey Nuns motherhouse, which the university owns.
According to Ville-Marie councillor Karim Boulos, Riga adds, a privately-run student residence could very well be built on the site, but most nearby residents and business owners are sceptical.
One thing that seems clear from the Gazette story is that the Seville block’s ownership is as much a problem as it is a solution. For years, ownership of the block has been centralized under Claridge, which has done nothing to avoid it becoming a blight. As a result, the businesses directly across the street have suffered and that side of the block is nearly abandoned as well.
But consider the blocks immediately
west east of the Seville: they’re booming. Over the past five years, dozens of new businesses have opened there, including a large Jean Coutu and many small shops, groceries and restaurants. Immediately across Chomedey Street from the Seville is a new Korean supermarket, a new clothing boutique and a Korean noodle house that recently extended its opening hours until 3am. Clearly this is a desirable stretch of Ste. Catherine; the problem is with the Seville block, not the entire street.
A good companion piece to Riga’s feature in the Gazette is another article by François Desjardins in this weekend’s edition of Le Devoir. It looks at the key ingredients in the recent revitalization of Masson Street in Rosemont, along with the challenges faced by other neighbourhood main streets like Monk Boulevard in Ville-Émard and Fleury Street in Ahuntsic. Here, a property manager for the company that owns many of the buildings along Masson explains that the right retail mix is crucial to a street’s success:
«On commence par tout ce qui est alimentaire, des fruiteries, des boulangeries. Même la restauration, puisque ça entraîne une certaine animation», dit-il. Suivent les besoins secondaires: les services, les banques, les pharmacies. Vers la fin, lorsqu’il y a de l’achalandage, arrivent les boutiques vestimentaires, les souliers… Et là, en 30 secondes, on a compris non seulement la rue Masson mais aussi l’avenue du Mont-Royal.
Le facteur démographique pèse lourd dans la réussite d’une revitalisation. Il ne suffit pas d’avoir un regroupement de commerçants déterminés et une subvention pour transformer une rue. Certaines artères éprouvent malgré tout des difficultés à changer de visage ou à limiter les dégâts. «On peut penser à la rue Sainte-Catherine dans l’est, à la rue Centre dans Verdun», dit M. Malo.
La composition des ménages est elle aussi partie intégrante de l’équation. «Prenez Hochelaga-Maisonneuve», dit Paul Lewis, professeur d’urbanisme à l’Université de Montréal et spécialiste de la revitalisation des centres-villes. «Dans ce quartier, on n’a plus des familles de six ou huit mais de une ou deux personnes! De plus, le chômage est plus élevé qu’à une certaine époque. Bref, les conditions sont réunies pour que ça soit plus difficile pour les artères… »
Over the next four years, a new municipal program will spent nearly $12 million to support Montreal’s commercial streets. But government money will only go so far: there’s no easy way to revive a struggling main street or to maintain a successful one.