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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

What we lost to the Ville-Marie Expressway

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Craig looking east from near St. Urbain, 1953

While Bostonians have engaged in three decades of self-flagellation over the neighbourhoods they lost to inhuman highway and urban renewal schemes, Montrealers are different. Most of us don’t seem to realize just how much of the city was destroyed in the 1960s and 70s for massive renewal projects that, arguably, left Montreal in worse shape than it was before.

One of these projects was the Ville-Marie Expressway, which tore through a swath of downtown from Victoria Square to the Molson Brewery. Its construction in the late 1960s entailed the demolition of hundreds of buildings and many small streets. Viger Square, once among the city’s most elegant, was ripped apart and rebuilt as a concrete maze beloved by no one. The expressway’s path took it through one of the oldest parts of town; almost everything that once stood between St. Antoine and Viger Streets was demolished, if not for the highway itself, then for the parking lots that flank it. It’s hard to imagine just how much of Montreal’s heritage was lost because of this.

We can, however, get an idea of what this section of downtown was like before the Ville-Marie Expressway came and trashed the place. Last week, I posted an old photo of the Craig Terminus, a streetcar hub that stood on Craig Street, a section of St. Antoine. The STM’s archives contain even more images of the area around the terminus, which was a busy, eclectic retail district favoured by Montrealers for its television, radio and camera shops. Its buildings, in height and architecture, resembled those of nearby McGill Street.
Expressway demolition, 1965

Today’s St. Antoine is a sad excuse for a street. Even though a number of its buildings survived the expressway construction and onslaught of parking lots, its one-way traffic flow — designed to push cars as quickly as possible to and from the highway — killed any pedestrian friendliness it once had. Recent efforts to rehabilitate St. Antoine have given it spacious new sidewalks and attractive street furniture, but the recently-expanded Palais des congrès treats it as a back alley, with only a few retail spaces and plenty of blank walls.

If there’s an upside to all of this, it’s that the Ville-Marie Expressway was built in a trench. It can easily be covered and, eventually, it will be. The tightly-woven urban fabric that existed before, a product of centuries of piecemeal development, will probably never be recreated. But we can at least repair the highway’s damage as much as possible.

Craig looking east from near St. Urbain, 1953

Corner of Craig and Bleury, 1956

St. Laurent looking north from Craig, 1952



  1. Should never have been built. Interestingly, seems like Montreal still hasn’t learned the lesson: not just the expressway and the palais, but the Bell Centre, also treats St Antoine as a back alley not to mention, rendering Windsor Station obsolete at a time when we are closer to getting a rail link to the airport than ever before.

  2. The highway is much needed, close it for a few hours and see how all of downtown gets clogged.

    Yes those blocks were nice and all, but we now also have an excellent underground highway downtown. Something others cities would kill for (anyone heard of the big dig in Boston?)

    With the CDP, Palais des Congrès and the future CHUM, the scar will have been filled.

    Nostalgia gets us nowhere anyways.

  3. It is sad, really sad but we are lucky they did a tunnel and simply not an hihgway, it is less worst…

  4. I agree we desperately need the underground highway to keep the traffic under the city center and not in the city center.

    The Highway has been a nasty scare separating downtown from the old port. Although it may have been one of the saving factors for the the number of heritage buildings that still exist in the old port.

    We can only hope that the cities new Quartier de Sante that is set to cover in the highway will once again mend the urban fabric of one of our oldest neighborhoods.

  5. Malek, what we need is fewer cars and more public transport (and ways of using same for transport of goods) in major cities. It isn’t a matter of nostalgia (though historic cities such as Boston and Montréal are a rare and valuable commodity in North America) but of human-centred, not car-centred, development. There were huge mistakes made in town planning during the postwar period due to the fetishisation of the car – and the powerful business interests of auto industry, petroleum industry and (taxpayer-subsidised) speculation and sprawl.

  6. Maria, whishing for less cars and more public transport is living in a utopia. No mather how good is the public transport, people will not leave their cars. People like the commodity of their cars and the numbers will go up before they go down. The highways are necessary evils and it will only get worst.

    But for the subject at hand. The highway will be covers, it’s only a question of when. More building will take their place. They were great building, but things have to go forward sometime.

  7. I live in St-Henri. My neighbours used to live on Selby street. It was much longer it is now. All the rersidents were evicted sh the expressway could go through. They were also very unhappy to learn that after their homes were destroyed the expressway was moved so that the Bell building at Atwater and St-Antoine would not have to be torn down. Selby and some other streets used to bridge the gap between Lower Westmount and St-Henri.

  8. BruB, the popularity of cars is no reason to cater to them, that would do nothing to discourage buying them. Clinging to the car era won’t get us past it.

  9. FYI cars are driven by humans, not the other way around.

    Wanting that us humans (are we considered second class citizens here?) abandon them is just utopia and fantasy wishful thinking.

    People use cars because they are comfortable and can afford them, Maria, the day you’ll have your own, you will understand this. But until then, its just deaf people arguing.

    Today (boxing day), we left the car and took the metro for some downtown shopping because I know I wouldn’t have found parking. Its a matter of common sense. But any other day, you can bet your paycheck that I will drive downtown because it will always have an edge on mass transit.

    Its funny to see how the 15 northbound was jammed today at the Carrefour exit with all the Montrealers, someone forgot to tell them that we also have a metro ;)

  10. First of all, great post, Chris.

    Malek – there are different ways of doing things. The way it was done was just WRONG. Nostalgia has nothing to do with it. The damage is irreparable, the city fabric is destroyed. It was possible to achieve very similar results without so much collateral damage. If I were in charge of this project 40+ years ago, I’d say we should model it on Manhattan’s short tunnels (e.g. First Avenue around the UN or Park Ave next to Grand Central). The tunnels are there to help traffic. But no neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for them.

    The problem is, in NYC there was Jane Jacobs to fight Robert Moses. In Montreal, seemingly nobody fought back and the projects got underway in almost the worst possible shape.

  11. Good posts, but I for one actually love the tunnel, even though I live downtown and am generally pretty anti-car.

    Yes, some beautiful buildings were destroyed and it still is a scar in places. But it wasn’t done wrong — it was done right, and I wish we could see it for the success it is. The alternative was a version of the Gardiner Expressway, which would have been even more a disaster than it is in Toronto, cutting us off from the river and effectively destroying Old Montreal which was already in decline at the time the tunnel was built. Luckily, someone somewhere had the vision to bury the whole thing — and build it Extra Specially Strong so that buildings could be built right over it. That’s forward thinking at a time that the car was king. Sure, we can look back at how beautiful Craig Street was, but take a look now and you’ll see that damage isn’t irreparable — now the new Quartier International is in place, we can see how good a buried freeway can be.

    I don’t think a series of strategic, short tunnels would have achieved the same goal — we would have instead just another boul. René-Lévesque, just busier and further south. You just have to see Viger and René-Levesque when the tunnel’s closed to see the incredible amount of traffic the Ville Marie handles and realize that it fulfills its purpose admirably well while looking pretty 60s futuristic cool in the process. It allows people to bypass the downtown streets if they’re just passing through, and lets people get in and out of downton quickly and easily with surprisingly little impact on the surrounding neighbourhoods — the exits and entrances are well placed and easy to get to, with just a few residential streets suffering, such as Hôtel-de-ville between René-Levesque and Viger. Just imagine what beautiful Old Montreal would be like at rush hour had the exits and entrances been there…

    I grew up in Vancouver, which has no freeway within the city limits unless you count the bizarre 10-block Georgia Viaduct that leads nowhere. And is it a better city because of it? Not so sure. All those cars coming in from the suburbs need to go somewhere, so they just end up blocking more city streets, generally for longer. At rush hour, for example, Kingsway, which starts well outside the downtown core, seems as busy as Georgia Street, Vancouver’s equivalent of René-Levesque…

    I’d support funelling money into public transit over new freeways any day, but given that cars are here to stay, I’m glad to see how well this choice works compared to a waterfront freeway (Toronto) or none at all (Vancouver).

  12. I am 53 years old and have never owned a car (and yes, I am gainfully employed). Thus I am HIGHLY unlikely ever to own one, and less likely still to abandon the urban environmentalist struggle.

  13. Sad. yes indeed this was all done during the Drapeau years of urban progress. Let’s not forgot Heritage Montreal did not exist. Neither did protecting historic buildings. we have improved and have come a long way.As for the craig terminus it also was home to a bus garage called the Cote division. I built a replica of the Craig terminus in 1\87 Ho scale. One day I will display it.

  14. Do you know when the name changed from Victoria Square to Square Victoria. Thanks

  15. The Ville-marie expressway wasn’t done right just because it was done better than the Gardiner expressway in Toronto. No one can deny that it creates a disconnection to the old port. Take a walk from downtown to the old port and tell me if it’s fun walking across the highway. There are much better examples in other cities. Take Philadelphia for example where the overpasses are designed specifically for pedestrians. There are ways to make the area better, although, as someone mentioned, the damage is done. There is no use in having the tunnel open to bring natural light to drivers if it means that pedestrians have to look at it when they walk across it.

    Palais des Congres and the future CHUM are certainly not going to heal the scar. They’re simply creating a bigger wall and adding to the problem. It’s easy to look at the city and say that there’s nothing wrong with it and close our eyes to the problems, but all you have to do is travel to other cities and see that there are better ways of doing things. Not to say that Montreal hasn’t done some things better than other cities,, but this isn’t one of them.

  16. Does anyone have any idea what happend on Coursol Street? I am trying to determine where 43 Coursol once was. Would this home have been a victim of the Ville Marie Expressway or have the homes on Coursol Street simply been renumbered. Would anyone even know how I would find out this information. Planning a visit back to Montreal this September, 2010 and would love to have that sorted out before I go. All comments or hints appreciated.

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