A win for developers,
more loss for residents
A commentary on the AGIL report on redeveloping Westmount’s South East
By Patricia Dumais
Dear Westmount citizen,
The City of Westmount finally released the Société AGIL obnl (AGIL) report on October 2, 2018. The purpose of the long awaited report, commissioned by the city in March of 2017, is to advise the city on how the South East area of Westmount could be redeveloped.
While most Westmounters may think this does not concern them, the AGIL report’s proposed reconfiguration of Dorchester Boulevard will have major impacts on the South East area and beyond. Furthermore, this part of the project will be very expensive, inconvenient and above all, unnecessary.
It was disturbing to read Mayor Christina Smith’s online introduction to the report where she states, “We – as clients – the Administration, Councillors and Mayor of Westmount, have the opportunity to read, process and reflect upon the contents of this expansive document.” No mention of the residents of the South East, the ultimate clients, as we will have to live with the consequences at close hand and forever after.
While most Westmounters may think this does not concern them, the AGIL report’s proposed reconfiguration of Dorchester Boulevard will have major impacts on the South East area and beyond.
Mayor Smith also states, “We also have the privilege of focusing on some conclusions while discounting others. In short, we are under no obligation to adopt the recommendations made herein.” That may be so but with the recent appointment of Clément Demers of AGIL to the Planning Advisory Committee (PAC), part of Westmount Urban Planning, residents can only be further concerned by the possible outcome. And until Mayor Smith and the council comment on the record of the report, residents will only continue to fear the worse.
Whether you live in the South East or not, you owe it to yourself to read this report. It’s your city, your quality of life and your money, after all.
Since 2010 the city of Westmount has commissioned six reports, including three public consultations and one online survey, exploring potential redevelopment in the South East. These may be accessed on the City’s web site.
In 2016, the city decided to invite some citizen input by way of a public consultation held in January of that year. Then Councillor Theodora Samiotis spearheaded what would be called the South East Project. Forty or so residents attended and were encouraged to voice their opinions on how the area could be redeveloped.
Many interesting ideas were put forth, including converting the Tupper parking lots into public green spaces, creating protected bike paths along Dorchester, and possibly building housing that would mirror the character and the height of the properties on the South side of Dorchester.
Residents were then invited to join a workshop that would examine the ideas and help put together final recommendations to be presented in a meeting in June 2016.
Imagine the disappointment of residents when they learned that next to none of their ideas were taken into consideration! Instead, the South East Project report presented surprising recommendations, including the radical narrowing of Dorchester by eliminating the green median, transforming the Dorchester curve into a 90º angle, and large-scale development in the Tupper parking lots with buildings of up to 7 storeys.
As a result, a group of concerned citizens took it upon themselves to inform other residents of the sector by way of a door-to-door petition signed by over 240 that would be delivered to Council in December 2016. The petition was worded as such:
Wishes of the Westmount Residents regarding the narrowing of Dorchester (South East Project)
We do not agree with the vision of the South East Project and believe that:
- Dorchester Boulevard should be left as it is and eventually adding a bicycle path to accommodate cyclists.
- The median should be left as it is.
- The elimination of the curve to a right angle between Clarke Ave. and Greene Ave. is unnecessary.
- If there is to be development on the north side it should remain within the parameters of the existing zoning bylaw R6-24-08, with buildings having a maximum height of 3 storeys (35 feet), with 35% of the surface area allocated to green space. Regarding building type, they should be in keeping with the architectural integrity of the south side.
The AGIL report
In March of 2017, the City commissioned the firm AGIL to come up with a new report to replace all previous reports. At the end of May of 2017, the group of concerned citizens was invited to City Hall to meet with AGIL director Clément Demers, then Councillor Theodora Samiotis and Tom Flies of the city’s urban planning department. There the group again voiced its opposition to the ideas in the previous South East Project report.
Only one day after the meeting, the group was surprised to learn from the local newspaper, The Westmount Independent, that a first draft of the AGIL report had already been rejected by Councillor Samiotis. The group would eventually ask to see the preliminary AGIL report but were denied the opportunity despite an access-to-information request. Later in August 2017 at another meeting with Mayor Christina Smith the group was subsequently told that because of upcoming elections and a possible change of guard, the report would be put on hold for the time being.
Following the elections in October 2017, the group asked the new Council about the release of the AGIL report and were told it would be released ‘soon’.
In July of 2018, Mayor Christina Smith requested a meeting with the group. There she announced that the “city would be starting fresh” with the South East redevelopment.
Now with the release of the report, it is necessary to comment on a document that, similar to all the previous reports, ignores the needs and wishes of local residents and the greater Westmount community, while favouring developers.
A look at the final AGIL report
Same old, same old
The first striking thing was the similarity between the AGIL report and the city’s previous South East Project reports. There’s nothing much new here except perhaps the turning of the Dorchester/Clarke curve into a square by having Bruce Avenue extend to St. Catherine, creating two new intersections on Dorchester before Greene. Citizens had some high hopes, taking into consideration AGIL’s experience with public spaces and Clément Demers having met with some residents for their input, and had expected to see some innovation in the new report but were quickly disillusioned by the same old, same old.
En français seulement
When released in October the report, commissioned by the City of Westmount, an officially bilingual city, was available only in French, with a short one-page Executive Summary in English. This is a technical document and, as most Westmounters claim English as their mother tongue (51% according to Statistics Canada 2016), the reading of this document can pose a challenge. Out of respect for all residents, the city should have requested that AGIL provide a complete English translation of documents delivered.
After heading requests from citizens, the City finally agreed to have the documents translated and as of early February 2019, the document is now available in English on the city’s web site.
NB – The writing of this article is based on the original French version of the report, the only version available at the time.
Area of study
AGIL chose to ignore the residential area south of Dorchester, the area to be most impacted by their proposal.
This is not only disrespectful towards the residents of that area but it also does not make for a fair nor complete study. (Executive Summary)
The AGIL report admits that the area has undergone many important urban transformations “leaving it particularly unstructured and isolated from the rest of Westmount” (Executive Summary), yet it suggests further such changes by incorporating large modern buildings that are not the norm in the rest of Westmount, drastically increasing density to meld with the high-density mega condo area just east of Atwater.
Separate guidelines seem to have been set aside for the South East.
Urgent replacement of infrastructure
The report says that there is a “short to medium term need to replace existing infrastructure” (Executive Summary).
This could be the case for Sainte-Catherine Street but not Dorchester Boulevard. In fact, at the meeting with the city in August of 2017, the citizen’s group was told by Director General Benoît Hurtubise that Dorchester’s infrastructure is recent (1960s) and does not need to be replaced in the short term.
“Appropriate” but harmful density
The AGIL report talks of “a high-quality redevelopment with appropriate densities” (Executive Summary) but it wants to introduce excessive density in the South East similar to that of neighbouring Montreal.
There is a race to develop Shaugnessy Village with many high-rise condo/apartment towers (Children’s, Union on the Park) going up despite protests from local residents. Close to 9000 new residents are expected just east of us and they will be using our services.
Former Westmount mayor Peter Trent’s Memoir of the City of Westmount Relating to the Redevelopment of the Former Montreal Children’s Hospital – March 14, 2017 criticizes in particular the Montreal Children’s project stating, “This project must be scaled down. And the whole district needs more public green space if it is to avoid making a mockery of its name, le Quartier des grands jardins,” and “Mistakes in urban planning, once transformed into concrete reality, are irremediable.”
As well, the planned introduction of buildings of 10 floors on Sainte-Catherine Street in Westmount will add to further density in an area that is already the densest in our city.
The AGIL plan leans towards harmful overdevelopment. If implemented, the South East would wind up resembling Montreal more than the rest of Westmount.
Tupper Parking Lot development
AGIL proposes a series of rectangular housing structures of 4 to 6 storeys and of contemporary design, aligned perpendicularly to Dorchester Boulevard. These are to be separated by semi-private green walkways that AGIL suggests may be used by local residents as parks. These would be gateways to… the office buildings? The report also says that there is no need to mimic the architecture on the south side of Dorchester (p. 53), which opens the way to dissonant architectural design.
This concept reminds one of developments in the poorer parts of Montreal and does not reflect the neighbourhood directly south of it. The present homes on Dorchester are of high quality, many if not most being Category 1 according to Westmount’s Urban Planning Department.
Why should we integrate such a mundane project into an exceptional neighbourhood, the birthplace of and gateway to Westmount? Rather, it could be desirable to incorporate staggered LEED-certified row houses that, aside from reflecting the South side, would block the view of the unattractive office buildings from Dorchester.
The City has given the go-ahead to build 10-storey buildings, a decision that will only make the street darker and windier, and subsequently, less enjoyable. The AGIL report actually recommends these high-rises (even promoting one in progress – p. 67). Witness what is happening to Sainte-Catherine Street just east of Atwater, with the increasing development of condo/apartment high-rises, leading to a rather unattractive and even sterile streetscape. Do we want the South East gateway to Westmount to look like Downtown Toronto or do we want to give it a style unique to Westmount, differentiating it from Montreal?
The more pleasant commercial streets, Sherbrooke Street in Westmount for example, are bright and on a human scale.
The AGIL report does address some of the needs of pedestrians by suggesting the widening of the south sidewalk of Sainte-Catherine Street and the incorporation of street furniture, but relegates cyclists to dangerous, unprotected bike paths.
Loss of green space
District 8 has approximately 2.3 m² of green space per inhabitant while the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 9.2 m² per inhabitant.
The AGIL report suggests eliminating the median along Dorchester Boulevard. It says that the median is a muddy detriment to pedestrian safety with sick trees (see p. 18). It also recommends squaring off Dorchester/Clark and building in the portion of the existing park, just west of the RCMP building, while suggesting that residents could be content with semi-private green spaces along Dorchester and access to the private Dawson gardens.
Regarding the median (approximately 300 m² of green space), residents certainly do not see it in the same light as AGIL. The median, to us, is our “green belt” with mature trees (70% of them healthy), grass and shrubs that embellish the roadway, providing green relief from all the asphalt and concrete in the area. It could certainly be improved with a landscaping refresh and proper prioritized pedestrian crossings could be added. But to eliminate it would be a demoralizing loss of green space and natural habitat for the creatures that inhabit the mature trees (birds, bats, owls, etc.). In light of recent reports on climate change and the loss of species, the report shows an utter disregard for the impact of its recommendations on the environment.
‘To suggest that aging residents and young families can head over to Dawson or use the semi-private land between condo buildings is impractical in the very least.’
As for the existing Dorchester/Clark Park, the AGIL plan would further reduce green space by making the area even easier to develop by squaring the irregular lots. It actually suggests developing what would be a newly created square lot just west of the RCMP building and, in time, this could pave the way to further development on the remaining park space.
To suggest that aging residents and young families can head over to Dawson or use the semi-private land between condo buildings is impractical in the very least. Aging residents and young families need more public green spaces in proximity to their homes. Semi-private is not public and can be made private at the whim of the landowner – all it takes are a few noise or vagrancy complaints. Stayner Park, a popular small park that has experienced a steady increase in visitors from the neighbourhood and beyond, has reached the saturation point.
We simply need more parks and public spaces!
‘… l’aménagement d’un tel équipement (piste cyclable) devrait se faire au détriment de l’agrandissement des terrains développables.’
– AGIL Report p. 54
… the development of such equipment (bike path) would be at the expense of expanding developable land.
The above statement makes it clear that AGIL’s priorities lie with prioritising development to the detriment of quality of life. It says that until Montreal decides to implement a bike path on René-Lévesque or Atwater “a path on Dorchester would not be of much use” (p 54). Interesting that Montreal will be expanding its bike path on René-Lévesque, from Berri to Saint-Mathieu and it would only be logical to further extend it all the way to Atwater. If Dorchester is narrowed to suit AGIL’s plan it will be impossible to introduce a protected bike path in the future, unless parking is removed.
In Westmount, the de Maisonneuve bike path is already saturated and more east-west bike paths will be necessary to meet the demand. At present, protected unidirectional (one-way) bike paths could be easily and inexpensively installed on Dorchester without removing parking or hindering traffic.
Instead, AGIL is recommending that unprotected bike paths be installed on Sainte-Catherine Street. It is clear that AGIL did not consult with any cycling experts who would certainly have advised against this idea.
The only truly safe bike path, especially on a busy commercial street, is a protected one.
Dorchester Boulevard is a secondary arterial road and the second most important gateway from the east to Westmount, after Sherbrooke Street according to the Westmount Master Traffic Plan. The AGIL suggestion of narrowing Dorchester and squaring off the Clarke/Sainte-Catherine curve will not improve traffic flow. In fact it will cause back-ups as illustrated by graphs from the second Stantec traffic report accompanying the AGIL report:
The first graph depicts the actual situation where traffic flows relatively smoothly through the area.
The second graph shows how the area will be impacted by the change. The principal trouble spot is the Greene/Dorchester intersection, which will experience a significant increase in backups (the coloured arrows), and air and noise pollution from cars.
Motorists will try to avoid this trouble spot, leading to more traffic along other east-west streets such as Sainte-Catherine, de Maisonneuve, and Sherbrooke. Side streets such as Prospect and Clandeboye may be used as bypasses, increasing traffic on those otherwise quiet streets. It is interesting to note that the first Stantec traffic report also mentioned traffic overflow on north-south streets as far west as Melville and as far east as Fort.
Furthermore, the City of Montreal recently announced that it is considering reducing Sainte-Catherine Street to one car lane. This plan could see Dorchester/René Lévesque, as well as Sherbrooke and de Maisonneuve, experiencing a noticeable increase in traffic.
In view of these facts, does it really make sense to narrow Dorchester?
So what will we taxpayers get for the millions of dollars a project like this would cost?
- Loss of green space; no new and badly needed public parks/green spaces
- More traffic and congestion
- Increased densification leading to many more residents with whom to compete for local services, on top of the major densification happening just east of Atwater
- A large, unnecessary, disrupting and expensive road replacement project (Dorchester) that will further inconvenience all Westmount residents and commuters
What would developers gain?
Larger, regular shaped lots that are easier to develop, at the expense of taxpayers.
The South East, gateway to Westmount
In the 1960s, poor urban planning, similar to what AGIL is proposing, all but obliterated the quaint shops and pleasant homes of the South East in favour of large-scale urban projects. No other area in Westmount has undergone so much upheaval. There were many quality homes, some could have been candidates for Exceptional Category 1 designation, like those that have survived south of Dorchester. I say “survived” because at one point there was even a plan to demolish that entire area, replacing it with office and apartment towers.
Though the harm cannot be undone, it is time for the city of Westmount to own up to this past destruction and begin to give the South East, the gateway to Westmount and an area of exceptional and important architectural styles, the same respect it bestows to other parts of the City.
We are not a dumping ground for what would never be built elsewhere in Westmount. And we are not a part of Montreal – we are a part of Westmount and we want our neighbourhood to reflect that.
Upcoming article: The greening of Westmount’s South East
Feature image: Andrew Burlone
Read also: other articles by Patricia Dumais
Patricia Dumais is a long-time (28-years) Westmount resident; a former board member of Centre Greene (1991-1993); a former member of the Westmount Healthy City Project – Environment Committee (2005-2015); a former Secretary of the WMA (2005-2017); and a present director of the Association of Pedestrians and Cyclists of Westmount – APCW (2009- ).