Repairing the damage of the Ville-Marie Expressway

Picture 1The Ville-Marie Expressway as it appears currently.

Earlier this week the City of Montreal announced the winners of a design competition for the redevelopment of the area around the Champs-de-Mars metro station. The winning proposals as well as the other entries can be found here on the Réalisons Montréal website.

The purpose of this competition was not to solicit a practical plan for implementation, but rather to produce ideas and stimulate discussion. Its general premise was simple: if at future date the city proceeds with covering the Ville-Marie Expressway, what should we put in its place? Submissioners were invited to prospose projects for redeveloping the area around the Champs-de-Mars metro, as well as the new land currently occupied by the expressway’s trench.

This area has long been recognised as a scar on the downtown landscape. The Ville-Marie is an ugly mistake of the modernist era and it serves as a barrier between Old Montreal and Downtown. It is also a drag on the surrounding blocks, sucking activity off the streets. The City is to be commendend that it is seriously considering covering it and reintegrating the surrounding area back into the urban fabric.

That said, looking at the proposals and the winners chosen, I was somewhat dissappointed. Of course it is important to remember that practicality was not one of the parameters of the contest. Contestants were encouraged to innovate and let their creativity run wild. Nevertheless I was left feeling that many of the proposals were high on imagination, but low on understanding of how urban environments are used and lived in.

picture3One of the winning proposals featuring a large green space and undulating monumental buildings. (Bélanger Beauchemin Morency)

All of the winning concepts proposed constructions on a monumental scale, heavy on awkward and poorly defined public spaces. Many proposals involved turning the entirety of the land recovered from the expressway into open areas, with little effort made to reintegrate the sector into the rest of the city. Other entries proposed public spaces full of nooks and crannies that looked to me like magnets for drug use, prostitution, and other such activities that are realities in an urban context. Such concepts would look stunning on a postcard, but I have trouble seeing how they would improve the city for residents.

An urban space is not an installation piece. What makes a place great is not how visually impressive it is, but rather how well it works for the people who live in and use it. My intention is not at all to be anti-design, but creativity without a sense of how people actually live in a built environment is what lead to problematic spaces like Square Viger and other modernist monstrosities.

Picture 3A simpler project prepared by Atelier B.R.I.C.

In my opinion some of the best proposals were the simplest. The project above proposes to rebuild the street grid and put a reasonably sized public square around the metro station. The rest of the recuperated land (and surrounding parking lots) would then be filled in with mixed use buildings and smaller, neighbourhood public spaces. New residents would animate the appropriately scaled public spaces, and new local businesses would draw activity to the streets. It may not win an international design competition, but it would be a sure fire way to rehabilitate the area on a human scale.


  1. The people who want huge green spaces so close to the St-Laurent don’t seem to remember how bitter the winds are in that part of town not only in the wintertime but even at times in the spring and autumn. And we need housing, local businesses and the other stuff of urban life, catering to people of all ages and many backgrounds. Excellent post, Devin.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to breaks in the urban grid such as transversal streets that would create nicks and corners – these add interest, in particular for pedestrians, in this eminently walkable district. However we have to assure that they are in areas that are not enclaved or likely to become dangerous. There is a group on women’s safety in the urban environment – not that a “sense of peril” is necessarily restricted to women, or to older persons, but it is important to provide a sense of safety and ownership of urban space.

    I’m amused at the old comments at the post on what we’ve lost to the Ville-Marie. And assure Malek that I still don’t own a car and am even less likely to ever do so. Just want to bring back the trams – not out of “nostalgia”. On the contrary, modern trams are far more efficient and accessible than their forebears. Had the pleasure of riding some a month ago in Amsterdam.

  2. In terms of practicality, I am under the impression that the highway covering would not support construction. Thats why viger park is a long ribbon, and it also explains many of the parking lots in Ville Marie. In some cases, like the Palais de congres and the CDP capitol building, the architects have managed to anchor larger-scale buildings on either side of the trench, but that wouldnt work for your typical residential development.

  3. I don’t think your opinions here are “anti-design” at all. Design is still about usability. Especially urban design. Urban space can be an “installation piece” but it should also address the core issues that are affecting the space in the first place. None of the winners even came close in that regard, though I was a bit enamored by the idea of a park that curled above various buildings. Good critique!

  4. “The Ville-Marie is an ugly mistake of the modernist era and it serves as a barrier between Old Montreal and Downtown” — This mistake is the only efficient way of getting from one side of the island to the other with minimal disruption. The alternative would have been a level highway, or going through the downtown area using one of the main arteries like Rene-Levesque.

    @Maria Gatti: Also let’s not forget the wonderful smells the Molson brewery provides year round!

  5. It’s the perfect thing for a long-ass bike/pedestrian path.

  6. Hey, it could be worse. At least the V-M is a trench and most of it is a tunnel (under Place Bonaventure, Vic Square). I would like to see the V-M trenched deeper and turned into a fully-fledged tunnel. That way it can be covered and developed properly.

    Alternatively, only larger commercial buildings can truly be built atop the current expressway, much like CDP Capital Centre. This can be and should be a mix of condos, rentals, and commercial. If we create sight lines to Mount Royal, (because the view from the Champ-de-Mars towards the mountain is worth preserving) we can allow for some much needed density in this area. Remember: we need more people living in the city centre.

  7. Hello everybody! Thanks for commenting

    @Maria: Thanks for the complements. In my “day job” I work in the downtown area as a counsellor for Tandem Montréal, the urban security program. Doing that job, I’ve developped a keen awareness about the types of urban spaces that attract trouble, and many of the project propoals set off major alarm bells in my head.

    @Alanah: Thanks for bringing up possible technical problems! I remember hearing that it would be complicated building over a covered Ville-Marie, but I didn’t know to what extent. I guess we’ll just have to rip out the whole thing then! But in all seriousness, I still think that the best way to reintegrate the area would be to build on the majority of the recuperated space. We should thus start with the notion that the ideal would be infill with human scale buildings, and then get as close to that goal as technologically (and financially) feasible.

    @Jack: There are plenty of cities that never built expressways in their downtowns and they manage just fine! Vancouver is one example in Canada, but there are plenty of other examples all over the world. London, for instance, has only a ring road on the periphery and no major expressways in the city (there are however one or two partially built, but eventually aborted 1960s projects).

    I would argue that the real alternative is an improved public transit system, particularly commuter trains. And for those who absolutely have to drive a car across the island, there is always the 40.

  8. Thanks for your interpretive comments – I spent quite a while pouring over the different designs before reading your post and struggled to “get” them.

    Alanah is right – the cost of *building* over the expressway, as opposed to simply covering, is prohibitive (although not impossible). Keeping that in mind, I quite liked the winning design. I am anxious to see what will come of the discussion they are generating!

  9. There is no expressway within Paris either (though one could argue that the Haussmanian boulevards are an earlier incarnation of such; they also served a military purpose in terms of putting down potential popular uprisings). La Périph’ is also of course a ring road expressway. It causes problems of its own. But Paris has 14 métro lines, not counting the RER commuter train system, which is also underground within the city, or the conventional SNCF commuter trains.

    Yes, of course we have to know the feasability of building over, but this was a study just exploring ideas and getting feedback, not actual feasability.

    Jack, I’ve worked fairly close to the Molson Brewery at at least three workplaces, and never noticed a beer stink, unlike other factories I’ve lived or worked close to. And no, I’m not a habitual beer drinker (prefer vino, and not while working).

  10. I love the ville marie, it does just what a good highway should do.

    Now, if we can get a mountain bike trail built underneath the elevated section please?

  11. For what it’s worth, I love the Ville-Marie, too — well thought-out and although it’s a scar in places, it would be the envy of most cities in the world with monstrosities running through their downtowns, cutting them in half or off from their rivers or lakes or oceans. Now that it’s here, we might as well make the best of it, hence these plans. Funny enough, when I first moved to Montreal in 1989, there was a very similar design competition, with some similar results. Surprise surprise.

    I also sigh when I hear Vancouverites smugly pointing out how there is no freeway in their city as though it’s a sign of how ecological they are… I mean, Vancouver’s a model for increasing density around its core and indeed for TOD such as Metrotown. And transit ridership is increasing wonderfully and the new Canada Line is a roaring success.

    But… in the end, its urban form really doesn’t help it much: after its dense downtown core and surrounding False Creek, it’s, alas, basically a sprawling suburb. I Google mapped (I know, highly scientific), and Montréal’s outer ring of suburbs tends to end around the just under the 40km mark — Mascouche, Blainville, Deux-Montagnes… Vancouver’s end just slightly further at the around 45 — Langley, Whiterock, Maple Ridge. And yet, Montréal fits 3.8 million people in this space, compared to Vancouver’s 2.25 million. Google Maps puts the drive in from Vancouver’s suburbs all at 44 minutes, whereas the same distance here — say out past Vaudreuil — would take 34 minutes. Driving 44 minutes out of town in Montréal puts you in Saint-Jérome, Saint-Hyacinthe, Hudson, or in the middle of a field out past L’Épiphanée :)

    I’d hardly suggest building a freeway into town now — I think Vancouver works just fine without, proof that freeways aren’t the only or best way of moving people around. But it’s hardly an incredible advantage, either. It doesn’t mean fewer cars — they just use more roads to get in and out of town and onto the freeways that do surround the city. It doesn’t mean better access to the waterfront — although Vancouver has done wonders in improving access around False Creek and Coal Harbour, heading east (where the freeway would probably have run) it’s all port and rails and industrial — hardly accessible at all. It does mean no eyesore to repair like we’re discussing here. But surprisingly, the freeways leading to Vancouver are incredibly pretty, with lots of trees and grass and fantastic views — much prettier than some of the streets within the city limits that lead to them (Kingsway, Hastings, or Clark/Knight for example, barely above Taschereau in terms of charm).

    Just a few thoughts. Oh, and one more: according to The Economist, Canada has 560 cars per 1,000 residents and is 5th in the world and well ahead of the U.S. which has 470 and is 16th.

  12. The comments I read here are incredible!! And its only here that this stuff can be found?

    Ville Marie being a barrier?? Never heard of that except here, the barrier is only in your heads people. How can it be a barrier when nothing is stopping you reaching the other side? All important streets are connected on both sides, plus that “urban break” is welcome to clearly define what is old montreal and what is downtown. The way ville-marie is done, you can barely hear it and see it… you would never know hundred of thousands of cars pass there every day…

    Boston our main city-competitor has just completed its “big dig” highway right under its downtown, we have had it for over 40 years!!! We make the envy of lots of cities worldwide with our Ville-Marie (minus those broken tiles…).

    You people don’t realize how the Ville Marie is an “evacuator” of traffic in downtown Montreal, it can easily be seen when 1+ lane(s) are closed or completely closed at night (you know when it’s not even remotely a typical traffic time)… congestion is instantaneous on Rene-Levesque and as high to Sherbrooke.

    Only in the mind of an anti-car zealot, Projet Montreal political party member like this Darvin, that an amazing achievement for our city is considered damageful… Aren’t you people tired of this annoying black and white attitude against the car? If everyone is so adamantly against the car in Montréal, why is there over a million registered car on the island?…

    P.S. since when has Spacing Montreal become so politically polarized as to allow posters being political party members?

  13. @Claude: Although Spacing Montreal is not affiliated with any political party (we are interested in critiquing or support policies, not parties), our commentors are, and have always been, welcome to express affiliation with any group or political party as long as the content respets our comment policy.

  14. @Claude: The entire purpose of this design competition, as defined by the Tremblay administration was to “to correct the scar in the city’s urban fabric caused by the Ville-Marie expressway trench” as well as the “restoration of the street grid” (p.6 of the document linked to above).

    So to answer the question you raised in your first line, the opinion that the Ville Marie trench highway acts as a barrier (even if it IS a mental barrier) is not exclusive to this blog.

  15. @Maria – you’re way off on this one sorry. There are of course firstly the “voies express” running down either side of the Seine for the majority of its length intramuros, and additionally there is a massive underground complex of roads built underneath Les Halles, stretching from the Louvre to the Pompidou Centre. These were built under the direction Jacques Chirac during his time as Mayor of Paris, in the 1970s.

    (Of course, these roads are somewhat different in that there are fewer lanes and the speed limit is lower, but they are similar in that they required the destruction of a number of historic buildings).

  16. At the very least, the uncovered parts of the Ville Marie constitute a barrier, both physical and especially mental. Kevin Lynch’s ‘Image of the City’ is worthwhile reading on this topic.

    I am not sure if the Ville Marie is an ‘evacuator’ as Claude calls it. Highways quantitatively encourage more people to use cars. Moreover, streets near highways are often transformed into less friendly pedestrian environments.

    Looking back at the contest’s entries, some focused on North-South connections across the highway (though many didn’t even do that). But none of the entries that I saw linked seemed to deal with Viger and St-Antoine, which near Champ-de-Mars, are more or less feeders to the highway. I have both walked and driven on these streets and can tell you that walking there is unpleasant and inconvenient (especially in the winter). Driving in those areas, I find myself sucked into the highway mentality of “fast, fast, faster”. Urban speeds are rare and there is a lot of merging into the so-called ‘evacuator’.

    But Claude is right that we should celebrate the fact that the Ville-Marie Expressway is underground. That was an act of foresight in the 1960s that few other North American cities had. While the highway damaged some neighbourhoods, it could have destroyed our whole downtown. I suppose we should (gasp) thank Drapeau?!

  17. Hmm… car-hating and political affiliations aside, I really don’t see the Ville-Marie even as a mental barrier, except quite far east around Molson’s where it makes its way above ground… it ain’t pretty, but it’s hardly a disaster.

    For me, a mental barrier isn’t just a particularly ugly space. It would have to be a pretty BIG space or something that would make me stop walking and look for a different route because I’d be unsure of whether it would lead me to anywhere — I’m thinking the Van Horne viaduct or the Bonaventure expressway/train track mess or the entrance to the Ville-Marie just west of the Home Dépôt in Saint-Henri.

    But as mentioned, the Ville-Marie has kept the street grid mainly intact (and to be honest much better than many freeways — ever been to Seattle?). And it’s not particularly wide and it’s in a trench in a depression so you can easily see your path to the other side. So I’m guessing that very few people find it so horrific a gash in the urban fabric that they are forced to turn away in shock or more likely faint and never manage to cross such a mental barrier… :)

  18. Working in Old Montreal, I cross the highway every day and every time I picture what could be in its stead. They covered part of it with the quartier international, and did a grand job. Covering it with what is appropriate for that section of the city. However things get more and more residential the more east you go. There should also be a plan to restore Viger square to its original splendor which would agrement the monumental buildings that surround it (alliance francaise, hotel viger, archives nationales…)

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