the future of Westmount Park
What exactly is in store for the city’s largest and most beloved park?
As reported by Patricia Dumais
The City of Westmount tendered a contract for a Feasibility Study – Westmount Park Rehabilitation (Étude de faisabilité – réfection du parc Westmount) to Stantec Experts-Conseils on April 1, 2019. The city has yet to specify the exact nature of the rehabilitation, except that it was mentioned at a recent council meeting that the ponds’ membranes are leaking.
With the announcement of an upcoming Public Consultation on Westmount Park on Wednesday, November 13, WestmountMag.ca invited long-time Westmount residents Brigitte St-Laurent (BSL), Marilynn Gillies (MG) and Patrick Barnard (PB) to discuss their concerns. All three live in close proximity to Westmount Park and have been passionate users over the years.
PB – There is something that has struck me over the last months, going to Westmount City Council meetings and observing the way the idea of future work on Westmount Park has been handled. During the entire time, citizens have had to question, prod and demand in order to get the very basic information about what Westmount seeks to do in what council calls the “restoration” of the park.
The Stantec engineering firm has been awarded a $206, 470.96 contract for a “feasibility study” for “the restoration of Westmount Park.” I had to file a formal access to information request in order to get the tender document. And despite frequent questions at council, very few details of the tender document – work paid for by citizens – have been clearly described by sitting councillors.
… citizens have had to question, prod and demand in order to get the very basic information about what Westmount seeks to do in what Council calls the “restoration” of the park.
MG – The city is being very unclear about what it wants to do with Westmount Park. They must have an idea of what they are aiming for. Is this a major park renewal? Or are we just fixing water problems and doing only necessary aesthetic repairs? What is the ballpark budget for this project? As taxpayers, we are entitled to know how much the city plans to spend.
PB – Again, citizens should get information and not have to dig for essentials, like investigative reporters. Marilynn, through a direct question at council, got the information that the work would proceed in distinct stages – probably at least three – and she was told by councillor Cynthia Lulham “we don’t want to tear up the park all at once.” Hardly a reassuring thought…
BSL – The park has an aesthetic in the spirit of the Olmstead School. That must be maintained. It is a very well designed park that has been neglected over the years. Will this rehabilitation be in line with the Olmstead spirit or will it be drastically different?
I have very fond memories of the park but have noticed its gradual deterioration. Now when I go there I feel depressed – there are dead trees, broken paths, overgrown bushes, flower beds lacking flowers, the grass is in poor condition, there are weeds… it needs some serious TLC.
We would like a clear picture of what the city has in mind. You do not go to tender without something in mind.
‘The park has an aesthetic in the spirit of the Olmstead School. That must be maintained. It is a very well designed park that has been neglected over the years.’
PB – The tender is called Request for Professional Services for the Restoration of Westmount Park. One veteran Westmount observer has said that the actual tender document gives Stantec “a blank cheque to do what it wants with the park.”
If you look at the document, it is clear that envisaged work will start at the pond area and move to the northeast through the children’s playground area to the wading pool at the corner of Sherbrooke and Melville. There is a clear danger that the drive to bring “salvation” to the park will further erode its aesthetic.
The most striking portion of the document is at the beginning, calling for “eventual construction of new infrastructure and the repair of existing installations”. But the park has been very poorly maintained, and many Westmount residents have said that the maintenance – or “repair” – of the park should be the prime concern and should not come AFTER the construction of new infrastructure. That priority of giving fundamental care first priority is reversed in the tender document.
MG – The city also mentions it is looking at the naturalisation of the ponds – what exactly do they mean by this? Of course, if the ponds have water leakage issues, they must be dealt with but drastically changing the design of the ponds must be carefully considered.
PB – There is a broad feeling among Westmounters that the park has deteriorated. Is restoration needed? Definitely not, if it means a continuation of the present pattern which is why many residents fear what this council will do.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that former and present mayors and councillors see the park as a sort of service area. What they do not understand is that the majority of Westmounters see it as a living thing, just like a relative they know and love, and they are sad that that relative is in such bad shape. People view the park as a whole, they see the aesthetic of it, not a service area where you put this here and that there. This is very misguided and it’s certainly not how Olmstead saw it, nor the other architects who participated in the changes throughout the years – they were all thinking of the park as a whole.
‘Part of the problem… is that former and present mayors and councillors see the park as a sort of service area. What they do not understand is that the majority of Westmounters see it as a living thing…’
The Dog Run, for example, is in direct conflict with the original purpose of the park. In fact, there is a 100-year-old letter from Olmstead Brothers to city officials warning against unnecessary installations leading to over-use. And back in 2009, the Fauteux report, a thorough park study commissioned by Westmount, stated that the park has reached a saturation point and that introducing more services would lead to further deterioration. There is a brutal failure to plan the park in view of protecting the living organism that it is.
BSL – I am in total agreement with Patrick. I recently visited Chicago where I was amazed by the beauty of the city’s public parks, which are impeccably maintained. Closer to home the Borough of Outremont has very well maintained parks.
There seems to be a general lack of civic pride on the part of the city. There is shabbiness everywhere you look – crumbling, unsafe sidewalks, roads full of bumps, potholes and cracks. Could it be that the city has been so preoccupied with large-scale projects such as the Rec Centre that it neglected the rest?
PB – The Fauteux report of 2009 also recommended some serious upkeep, about $300,000 worth, which unfortunately Westmount did not implement. Why did the city not follow through on these recommendations?
MG – The Park has been going downhill for some time. We three did a tour of the park with neighbours, listing and photographing everything wrong with it, and we published our findings on the WMA web site – 50 Things Wrong in Westmount Park.
A neighbour noticed the lack of flower plantings in some areas and suggested that it would be easier on maintenance and less costly if more perennials were planted. These provide constant blooms throughout the spring, summer and fall.
‘… back in 2009 the Fauteux report, a thorough park study commissioned by Westmount, stated that the park has reached a saturation point and that introducing more services would lead to further deterioration.’
PB – I personally got involved with protecting Westmount Park back in 2006-2007 when there were talks of installing synthetic turf in the soccer fields. The citizenry rose up against it. Synthetic turf creates a heat island effect. It can never replace the multi-use properties of grass. People take pleasure in spreading a blanket on natural grass, watching the children play while enjoying a thermos of coffee. That led me to work over a decade for the environment as I realized that in our very advanced society there is a deep hostility to nature.
What Brigitte has seen in Chicago and Outremont is attention and care. What we have seen here in Westmount is neglect.
BSL – I have concerns for the seniors who would love to enjoy the park but have to avoid the broken and badly drained paths. In winter, snow clearing on the paths has not been efficient, leading some people to use the often-cleaner bike path to cross the park, to the detriment of their safety.
PB – The multi-purpose vocation of the park was highlighted in that correspondence between Olmstead and city officials. One of the great things about the park is that people can play sports, hang out with friends or be quiet in a natural setting, but it is a delicate balance to maintain all those activities and the park that supports them.
The Mayor and council should think about the real park and what it gives to people. Another of the Fauteux Report’s recommendations, one of the eight priorities, was to install $20,000 worth of comfortable benches for older people. Again, this was not done.
‘One of the great things about the park is that people can play sports, hang out with friends or be quiet in a natural setting, but it is a delicate balance to maintain all those activities and the park that supports them.’
A recent study demonstrates that people who live near trees and vegetation live five years longer than those who don’t. As the Fauteux Report stated, Westmount’s parks are saturated, thus the need to protect them. And if any opportunities arise, create more parks. Even more so with Westmount and its surroundings’ urban density ever-increasing with upward development, putting a strain on neighbourhoods. Every decision must be assessed in terms of quality of life.
MG – Many of the Westmounters I speak to care deeply about the park, as well as many people who live outside Westmount. It is after all one of the larger historical public parks in the west end of Montreal.
BSL – It’s a strange state of affairs. A feasibility study, after all, examines whether something concrete is practicable. The question here is, what is the “something concrete”?
PB – Through our own interventions we have learned a number of things: the work will be done in discrete, separate stages; we have been told that there will be no new lights installed; Mayor Smith and councillor Lulham have both said that synthetic turf will not be installed in Westmount Park.
Long ago the Olmsted firm warned Westmount against unnecessary installations in Westmount Park, and Marc Fauteux, in his 2009 report also warned that the park had gone beyond “saturation point” for use. So citizens are going to have to watch this process very carefully to ensure that any new work will not destroy the aesthetic of the park.
MG – No major design change. Repair what must be repaired and provide ongoing maintenance. Avoid introducing extra uses that contribute to saturation and deterioration.
‘At the last election, we were promised more transparency. Transparency means that information is forthcoming and gladly conveyed, not pried with difficulty from council.’
PB – The City of Westmount must be honest about its plans for the park and stop beating around the bush. At the last election, we were promised more transparency. Transparency means that information is forthcoming and gladly conveyed, not pried with difficulty from council.
Now is the time for the city to present a straightforward situational analysis to residents in view of ultimately letting THEM decide the future of THEIR Park.
Survey on Westmount Park
Visit engagewestmount.org or the Westmount Public Library for a printed version of the Feasibility Study.
The survey began on October 28 and will end on November 18, 2019.
Public consultation on Westmount Park
Wednesday, November 13 from 6 pm to 8:30 pm
Victoria Hall, 4626 Sherbrooke West.
Feature image: Andrew Burlone
Other images: Brigitte St-Laurent
Marilynn Gillies, a former nursing teacher at Dawson College, has lived in Westmount for 35 years. She has played outdoor hockey and soccer in Westmount Park. She is a member of the Association of Pedestrians and Cyclists Westmount (APCW) and a former board member of the Westmount Municipal Association.
Patrick Barnard is a board member of The Green Coalition, a non-partisan, Montreal environmental group. He also is a board member of Montreal’s Legacy Fund for the Environment, an organization that gives legal aid to fight for the environment. He taught English literature at Dawson College and was a radio documentary maker for CBC radio.
Patricia Dumais has lived in Westmount for almost 30 years. She walks through Westmount Park at least once a week and enjoys Shakespeare-in-the-Park, Family Day and other park activities. She is a former Westmount Healthy City Environment Committee member (2005-2016) and is a founding board member of the Association of Pedestrians and Cyclists of Westmount (APCW).
Brigitte St-Laurent is a former university administrator who worked at both Concordia and McGill universities. She lived abroad for several years and developed a keen interest in urban design and the preservation of nature. She has been a frequent visitor of Westmount Park as well as other parks in Westmount for over thirty years.