Monday 18 June 2001
Park Ave. dilemma posing problems
For many, the urban debate in the increasingly trendy district along Park
Ave. can be boiled down to a core issue: Cars or people?
As architect Susan Bronson walks down the outdoor staircase of her
third-floor flat on Jeanne Mance St., she beams with pride.
"This is the best part of Mile End," she says as we stroll beside weathered
graystone triplexes and mature elms and maples.
But when Bronson and her dog Pilote reach the corner of Park Ave. and Mount
Royal Blvd., the stress level rises in direct proportion to the traffic
It's 3:30 p.m. and Park Ave. is jammed with cars revving their motors or
zooming through yellow lights, heading north on the unofficial highway to
Laval. Cars illegally parked are being towed. For almost a decade, the east
side of the street has been reserved for buses and taxis between 3:30 and
6:30 p.m., as is the west side in the mornings.
At this hour, Park becomes "almost a physical barrier to getting from one
side to the other, and it is simply not pleasant," Bronson notes.
For many, the urban debate in this increasingly trendy district can be
boiled down to a core issue: cars or people?
But for merchants trying to keep their businesses vibrant, the issue is a
little more complicated. They want the people. They want the cars. But they
want the people to be able to park the cars, so they can get out and shop
rather than just zoom past.
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The area bounded by Park, Mount Royal, St. Urbain St. and Van Horne Ave.
retains the residential-commercial mix it had at the turn of the century,
notes Bronson, a specialist in Montreal neighbourhood architectural history.
"What happened then and remains the case today is that you have stores on
the street level and residential above on two- and three-storey buildings,"
she said. "There still is residential, and this is a very healthy sign."
Those who were around in the late 1940s and early 1950s recall the families,
many of them new arrivals from Europe and some of them World War II
survivors, strolling down Park, pushing baby carriages and with children in
tow, showing off their Sunday best and stopping to chat with neighbours. The
avenue had a leisurely and expansive feel to it.
Some of that can still be felt and seen today, especially on the long block
between Bernard St. and St. Viateur Ave., where young mothers, including
neighbourhood Hasidic women with baby carriages and two or three children
tagging along, amble by constantly.
This is home to the world's best bagels, just around the corner at the St.
Viateur bagel shop and at the nearby Fairmount Bagel Factory. And there's
excellent Greek cuisine, including the top-rated Milos fish restaurant on
the next block. The YMCA is abuzz with activity seven days a week, and the
Bibliotheque Mile End has a wonderful collection of children's books and
volumes in a variety of languages, including Vietnamese and Spanish.
The coffee shops on St. Viateur east of Park are good places to hang out for
the 30-something crowd and those who yearn to relive their hipster days and
Farther south, facing Mount Royal, is Jeanne Mance Park, known in the 1940s
as Fletcher's Field and featured in Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of
Duddy Kravitz. You will no longer hear speakers on soapboxes preaching
revolution, but you will see hundreds of people gather every weekend to
picnic and play. Many more gather around the Sir George-Etienne Cartier
monument at the foot of Mount Royal to soak up the vibes and listen to the
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Hanging out in the park is a good way to retreat from the main drag, where
dense traffic and the resulting noise and pollution have stolen much of the
"In the 1950s, the car started to be used as the main means of
transportation, and that's when (Park Ave.) started to be treated as a major
artery," Bronson explained. "Northbound St. Laurent Blvd. is hopelessly
slow, St. Urbain St. is one-way south, so Park Ave. became the preferred
route for people going north."
Also helping turn Park into a primary north-south traffic artery was the
decision during Mayor Jean Dore's administration to introduce the rush-hour
reserved bus lanes and parking ban in September 1992. It includes the odd
system of five lanes, with a central reversible lane that is southbound
during the morning rush hour and northbound during the evening race to the
The bus lanes were part of a plan to increase public-transit use. In terms
of bus ridership, the plan is rated a success, with 5 million to 6 million
passengers a year using the Park Ave. service, said Odile Paradis, a
spokesman for the Montreal Urban Community Transit Corp.
But merchants on Park have a different view of the bus-lane effect. They
blame the lost parking for lost business, and point to the vacant
storefronts that dot Park as a sign of the malaise.
Mayor Pierre Bourque says Park cannot avoid the role of being a main artery
between the downtown core and the north end.
In a recent interview, though, he said "it was a mistake" for the
Metropolitan Transit Agency not to have done more consultation with Park
shopkeepers and residents before introducing the reserved bus lanes.
What's the solution for Park? According to Bourque, it could emerge from a
study proposed by the transit agency to look into the feasibility of putting
a light-rail train - a tramway - on the street, linking the Parc metro
station at Jean Talon Blvd. to Rene Levesque Blvd. The tramway would replace
the No. 80 bus.
But even with a tram, Bourque said, a no-parking zone would still have to be
enforced, at least part of the time, to ensure smooth traffic flow during
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Peter Menis, whose family owns the Nouveau Falero fish market on Park near
Bernard St., says business has been good for 41 years, but "no thanks to the
"There is no question we would be doing much better if we had more parking,
or more access to parking," he said as a half-dozen customers loaded up with
When drivers double-park on Friday afternoons and there are only two lanes
going south, "it gets crazy. Traffic stops; people are honking," he said.
"We need two driving lanes in each direction, six lanes (including one lane
in each direction for parking), the way it was before."
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The family-run PA supermarket on Park near St. Joseph Blvd. is a
neighbourhood institution, where you bump into friends as you pick your
tomatoes. Co-owner Sam Erimos has some thoughts on why business is thriving
despite the problems on Park. "I'm selling basic necessities. And people in
the area come here on foot," he said.
For those who come from afar, or who order large quantities, Erimos offers
free delivery. "I've got three vans running all day long."
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Milos, one of the top-rated Greek-style fish restaurants in the city for
more than 20 years, has met the parking problem by offering valet parking
behind a nearby building. Still, owner Costas Spiliadis says the reserved
bus lane has been terrible for his business - and not just because of the
"My lunch-hour business is weak and my business is mainly at night. The
buses have created psychological difficulties connected with a negative
perception of the street. Speeding is a terrible problem, and the buses lead
the way. It's become an expressway.
"Park Ave. has to redefine itself as a street with residences and plenty of
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Jean-Claude Marsan, an urban-planning specialist at the Universite de
Montreal, says Park Ave. is more rundown today than it has ever been. Still,
he notes that it retains its colourful multicultural flavour, with all sorts
of businesses and shops, from leather-jacket manufacturers near Van Horne
Ave. to chocolatiers near Fairmount and Laurier Aves.
If the city wants to figure out the best way to reinvigorate the
neighbourhood, Marsan said, it will have to do some in-depth study - and not
just look at transportation issues.
"The interests of businesspeople may well conflict with the needs of
residents," Marsan said, citing the neighbourhood coalition that is fighting
plans by the owner of the historic Rialto theatre near Bernard St. to
transform the building into a discotheque.
Other experts agree that careful study is needed to produce a workable plan
to balance the area's role as part of the commuter route north with measures
to make the neighbourhood more livable.
Bronson cites streets like Mount Royal Blvd. and Ontario St. E., which have
made deals with the city to spruce up building facades and create spaces to
sit and talk.
The stakes are high, says Annie Chelin, a consultant in urban planning who
lives on Hutchison St. near Bernard and has studied the area's problems and
needs. "Yes, we live in North America, we have suburbs and the car takes
lots of space. But we also have a downtown and residential neighbourhoods.
If we don't want these neighbourhoods to deteriorate further, we must
One way might be to follow the example of cities in France that have lower
tax rates for older houses that have been renovated, she said.
Urban geographer Demaris Rose, who also lives in the area, said merchants on
Park should do a better job of catering to residents' shopping needs and
"There is more home-language English and home-language French here, (while)
the number in other-language categories is decreasing," Rose noted. "This is
consistent with gentrification, and the fact there are more professionals in
Urban planner Raphael Fischler cited a recent report by the U.S.-based Urban
Planning Institute, which represents major developers, on reviving
commercial streets. The report suggests it might be unrealistic to expect
long streets to thrive from beginning to end.
"Park Ave. may not have the critical mass necessary for a mile of thriving
shops, and commerce may have to be concentrated on parts of the street that
work well," like between Bernard and St. Viateur Sts., or from St. Joseph
Blvd. to Fairmount, Fischler said.
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Bronson points out that despite the problems of Park, the neighbourhood -
with its solid stock of row triplexes and proximity to the mountain and
downtown - is a good one in which to live.
"There are a lot of people who work at home - artists, not necessarily rich
people, but people who will try to find what they want in the neighbourhood
before going downtown."
Park Ave. can once more become the heart of the neighbourhood, as it was
back in the 1950s, she suggested. "The potential is there to have that
feeling again. There are a lot of people out walking and doing their
shopping, walking their dog or just looking at people."
But it all comes back to people vs. cars, she added. "To really revitalize
Park Ave. as a neighbourhood street, the traffic has to slow down. If it's a
priority of this new tramway to reduce the number of cars and make it a more
civilized place, then the spirit of those days could return. The potential
- Irwin Block can be reached by E-mail at iblock@...