Will the UN move to Montreal — and how will it affect the waterfront?

Last week, La Presse reported quite breathlessly that the federal government, which owns the Port of Montreal and much of the land along its waterfront, has been lobbying the United Nations to move its headquarters from New York to Montreal. The rationale, apparently, is that the UN’s current headquarters, housed in an iconic complex built in 1949 along the East River, needs nearly $2 billion worth of renovations over the next couple of decades. It would cost a lot less to simply pack up and move to Montreal, where a state-of-the-art new headquarters would be waiting on the site of the Silo No. 5 and on adjacent piers.

You have to admit, as outlandish an idea as this may be, it would be pretty cool to have the United Nations in Montreal. So far, La Presse is the only paper reporting any of this in depth — Montreal’s other media outlets seem to be rolling their eyes in disbelief — but the Gazette’s Henry Aubin came up with a list of reasons why moving the UN to Montreal would be a swell idea. Among the most convincing? The UN would be an enormous boon to the city’s economy, bringing in 20,000 highly-paid workers and creating as many as 60,000 spinoff jobs. The UN’s two working languages are French and English, which would reinforce Montreal’s bilingualism while infusing the city with plenty of new people who speak good French.

Real estate promoters certainly like the idea of moving the world organization: here in Montreal, they’d get a share of multi-billion dollar contracts to design and develop the new headquarters. In New York, they’d get to redevelop the UN’s old headquarters, also worth billions of dollars.

But there’s an elephant in the room that everyone’s ignoring: the impact of the UN on Montreal’s waterfront. The federal government envisions a “Global City” built on the site of the Silo No. 5 as well as on the adjacent Bickerdike Pier. McGill Street would be extended into the area, one of its four main entrances, and a vast, 65-hectare complex of offices and residences would be built around the water. (La Presse even reported that Alexandre Calder’s sculpture, “L’homme,” which now serves as the backdrop for the Piknik électronik on St. Helen’s Island, would be moved to the site.) While architectural renderings show a collection of glassy, ethereal buildings, lots of greenery and a strong relationship with the water, there’s no mention of how public access to the site would be regulated. In this post-9/11 era, where security trumps all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that large sections of this Global City would be strictly off-limits to the general public.

As it stands, there’s already an innovative proposal for the Silo No. 5 that would increase, rather than restrict, public access to the waterfront. The Musée d’art contemporain wants to convert the silo into a new contemporary art museum capped by a public observation deck. A museum of industrial design would be built in another smaller silo nearby. When I spoke to him last July, MAC director Marc Meyer told me that the new museum would include a permanent exhibit on art from Montreal and its relationship with the city that created it. “There isn’t any other place in the world where you can see art with a view of the city that created it,” he said.

Unfortunately, the MAC’s plan seems to have been shelved by the federal agency than owns the waterfront land. It expects to call for new development proposals next year, with priority given to those that propose to buy and develop the land rather than simply leasing it.

Montreal needs to think big, but it also needs to think realistically, and the UN plan should be looked over with a critical eye. For the time being, though, it seems ready to go down as yet another far-fetched idea: despite the enthusiasm of the federal government, the provincial government and Montreal’s own mayor, not to mention La Presse (which has devoted an entire dossier to the issue), the UN hasn’t uttered a single word about this whole thing.


  1. At last! I’m glad this issue finally came up here. Some quick reactions:

    1) Man, this sucks for the MAC. After doing all that work, coordinating their people and plans and actually getting their proposal for Silo No.5 into the top three, the Feds are changing the rules of the game on them and starting over. We’re feeling for you, Marc.

    2) Yes, the matching languages are cute. But Aubin is stretching it when he anticipates the beneficial effect of an “influx of people with high standards of spoken and written French”. Much like at the Olympics, use of French at the UN has become mostly ceremonial. If anything, being in Montreal would probably be a boost to the UN’s “other” official language.

    3) Seriously, though, the UN? I don’t know if Montreal can handle a relationship like that. The cultures are so different: we’re a laid-back and lovable art-slacker, whereas the UN is a cold, high-performing and high-maintenance diplomat. Even if it was interested in us, it would just be a quick fling. I don’t see it happening.

    4) As Aubin points out, at least the various levels of government are intentionally coordinating on a project. And even though it is implausible, at least it’s a more positive idea than putting a monster casino in the middle of a working-class neighbourhood. If the UN doesn’t return their calls, perhaps they can take this energy and build on one of Montreal’s strengths instead: create some kind of Arts Island with the MAC, MMFA and the Cirque. That would be more our style.

  2. “the UN is a cold, high-performing and high-maintenance diplomat” High-performing? The UN? Really??

    That said I’ve heard worse ideas than the UN for Montreal. I agree with Aubin’s premise that a “city that doesn’t think big will never do big things”, since I live in Toronto which talks big but rarely thinks big. There would be the migration of the unpaid parking ticket issue from New York to Montreal. It might put the UN in an awkward spot were there to be a sovereignty referendum outside its front door…

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