“A substantial body of public opinion in this city firmly believes that it is urgent to relieve downtown areas of the congestion and confusion of excessively heavy motor traffic…Only radical measures can head off a paralyzing stagnation of city life brought on by an uncontrolled proliferation of cars and trucks,” the Gazette editorialized in July 1970.
But no sooner had the pedestrian mall opened in October 1970, the Gazette declared it to be flawed. They criticized that buses running along Mount Royal and traffic on the cross-streets compromised the ideal of the all-pedestrian shopping experience (although the plan included public transit from the start).
The sidewalks had been widened to 25 feet on either side of the street and a single lane remained open for buses. However, cars were always trying to sneak down the bus lane and when police cracked down by handing out hundreds of tickets, it only added to the public frustration that was beginning to surround the mall.
Merchants had begun to complain that the inconvenience of having to park outside the mall was deterring customers, a complaint that makes sense if you consider that this experiment began in October and continued through the winter. To make matters worse, store-keepers said, the potted trees brought in to spruce up the mall were obscuring their displays from window-shoppers.
The following spring, three UQAM students surveyed hundreds of shoppers found that 80% enjoyed the pedestrian shopping experience but many wanted the reclaimed street to offer even more: fashion shows, musical entertainment, sculptures, and sidewalk cafés were suggested. But the recommendations came too late.
By mid-April 1971, the city caved and re-opened the street to traffic, pending a redesign which never materialized.
Wait a minute. This failure of pedestrian shopping areas in Montreal was established with an experiment run from October until April? Through November rain, through three feet of snow, through minus thirty and the slushy thaws of March. Could anybody overlook fundamental flaw with this model?
I truly wonder, if they had given this experiment just 6 more months, how different our urban landscape might be today.
When the Mount Royal mall was announced, Saint-Hubert street and Monk blvd were meant to follow (although, interestingly, Sainte-Catherine street was declared unlikely). Those plans were quickly nixed when the pilot project flew off course.
Also, it would seem that the Mount Royal Avenue merchants’ association has been permanently burned by this first flirtation with pedestrianization: they firmly opposed a later proposition by the Comité de citoyens Mont-Royal Avenue Verte to pedestrianize the street. In 2002, the citizens’ group gathered 20,000 signatures and the support of a dozen environmental NGOs to close Mount Royal avenue to personal vehicles from Parc all the way to Frontenac, but the city never even followed up on their request for a consultation.
The Plateau’s new Project Montréal-led council have promised to look into pedestrianizing all or part of the artery, but we remain a good deal further back than we were 40 years ago.
If we learn anything from this experiment, it is that Montreal’s climate cannot be overlooked. No matter how beautifully-designed the streetscape, a stroll down main street is not an attractive prospect in the depth of winter. This is the reality we have to adapt to, be it through architecture, like the glass awning on Saint-Hubert street, or adaptability, like the seasonal pedestrianization of Sainte-Catherine street in the Village.
I wasn’t able to find any photographs of the Mount-Royal pedestrian mall, but if any of our readers have them or know where to find them, please let us know!