Brownstein: Montreal's Word of the Year, for all the wrong reasons

From Mount Royal’s roadblock to downtown’s parking hikes, City Hall made us swallow some bitter pills in 2023.

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This is the time of the year when the normally glam-less dictionary world hands out its equivalent to the Oscars: the much-anticipated Word of the Year honours.

To the surprise of few, Collins went with “AI,” the abbreviation for artificial intelligence. Oxford University chose “rizz,” evidently a riff on charisma. And Merriam-Webster opted for “authentic,” seemingly a rather hollow choice unless it’s really a negative reference to our muddled times.

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In a similar hollow vein, I submit “consultation” for Word of the Year in Montreal.

Consultation from either side of the coin here, but both bogus.

Consultation in the first instance is actually not a reflection of the much-ballyhooed spending excesses of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal. No, this is more a reflection of just how ineffective the OCPM process turned out to be.

About five years ago, Mayor Valérie Plante pledged to adhere to the results of one hot-potato consultation. She then backtracked this year in order to curry favour with her base.

I refer, of course, to Plante’s decision in September to renege on her promise not to shut down the Camillien-Houde portion of the Mount Royal passageway.

In one of the greatest-ever responses to any public consultation, involving over 12,000 people, the OCPM determined in 2018 that citizens were very much against the closure of the mountain road and recommended that the mayor abide by their wishes.

Plante went along initially. But she had a change of heart in September, when she announced the city would spend $91 million to transform Camillien-Houde into a green space and close down that part of the mountain road to regular traffic — apart from fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and maintenance vehicles.

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It will be the end of through-auto traffic along the mountain road in 2027, when this project is slated to undergo construction.

It is estimated that about 50,000 drivers will have to seek alternative routes, as they will no longer be able to access popular mountain sites and two cemeteries from the east entrance at Parc Ave. Drivers will essentially have to take a five-kilometre detour to Côte-des-Neiges and head along Remembrance Rd. to get to these spots.

Forget the fact that this procedure will do little if anything to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, with traffic set to pile up in adjacent Outremont.

Forget the fact that this will be a hardship for seniors and families with kids in tow trying to shlep up the mountain from the Parc Ave. side.

Forget the fact that this will be a major annoyance for families coming from the east having to detour around to Côte-des-Neiges Rd. to visit loved ones at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery.

Forget the fact that the Mount Royal Cemetery had a deal with the city going back to 1928 not to close the road to car access and has threatened to sue if this agreement is contravened.

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Forget the fact that $91 million would be better spent on public housing.

Forget the fact that not-so-hidden photo-radar cameras and resulting hefty fines would certainly curb the speeding of cars — and bikes — along Camillien-Houde.

And forget the fact that this is what Plante said during a council question period in 2018: “I will respect the recommendations of the OCPM.”

Right.

But there is a silver lining for opponents of the Camillien-Houde closure: There will be a municipal election in 2025 and a change in the leadership at City Hall could well result in a reversal of this Plante decision.

Montreal's Word of the Year for 2023
Many downtown merchants and Montréal Centre-Ville SDC executive-director Glenn Castanheira were blindsided by the Plante administration’s decision to lengthen parking hours in parts of Ville-Marie borough. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Now a look at the other side of the consultation coin.

Plante’s Projet Montréal could be driven out of power by myriad other factors, everything from ubiquitous road construction to increased taxes, where there has been little in the way of public consultation.

Then there are the issues wherein the city states there has been consultation yet none appears to have taken place. Such as the city’s decision this year to increase hours on parking meters downtown where shopkeepers and restaurateurs were already having a tough enough time surviving.

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Last April, Crescent St. publican Ziggy Eichenbaum, insisting he wasn’t tipsy, noticed a rather dramatic change in new hours posted on a parking meter outside his bar.

The meter indicated drivers would now have to pay for parking from 8 a.m.  to 11 p.m., Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Quite the leap from current rates: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

In a call to the Agence de Mobilité durable Montréal (formerly Stationnement de Montréal) that Thursday afternoon, a staffer claimed he knew nothing about any meter changes coming and after checking with an associate reaffirmed that it was all status quo.

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon when Sophie Mauzerolle, a Ville-Marie borough councillor and member of the city executive committee in charge of the Agence file, was able to confirm these changes and announce they would take place in two weeks in sections of the Ville-Marie borough.

If motorists from the West Island, South Shore, Laval and other regions weren’t already dissuaded from heading into the city and dealing with ubiquitous detours and orange cones, the prevalent feeling was that these changes could drive yet another nail in the coffin for downtown commerce.

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Serge Sasseville, the independent city councillor for downtown Peter-McGill district in the Ville-Marie borough, was shocked to learn of the changes.

“We want people to come downtown, not to chase them away. Business has been suffering so badly for so many downtown since the pandemic. Extended meter hours is definitely not the way to revitalize the area,” Sasseville said.

“This is my area. You’d think I would have been consulted by the city, but instead to learn this from a journalist is completely unacceptable.”

Montréal Centre-Ville SDC executive-director Glenn Castanheira wasn’t even aware of the changes until I was also the harbinger of this news. He was unamused.

“I’m furious,” he said. “I’m still digesting this. Our group has always had transparent conversations with the Agence. They’ve warned us about many of their plans. However, not once has anyone there brought up the changing of the hours. Not even a peep. No consultation, no courtesy calls.”

Castanheira added: “When it is announced, we’re going to ask these changes be suspended until there are proper discussions and consultations.”

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According to Mauzerolle, the issue was apparently addressed last February and noted somewhere in the Montreal budget then — although precious few, including city officials and councillors, had been aware. “Of course, we would have liked to talk to (Montréal Centre-Ville) and merchants before all this,” she said.

Three days later, the city decided to put a pause on the extension of parking meter hours and announced there would be a consultation process and a two-week moratorium before a final decision was taken.

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Such was not to be. In September, the city announced it was going ahead on increased meter hours beginning Nov. 15. The new hours are similar — save for Sunday mornings — to the ones previously announced then withdrawn in April.

The city’s rationale: “To promote greater traffic on commercial arteries and thus stimulate the vitality of the downtown area.”

Seriously?

And what about that consultation process?

In a communiqué issued, Mauzerolle said: “We took the time to meet with our downtown partners to present to them the objectives of these new measures and to listen to their comments.”

Reaction was swift:

“I never got consulted,” fumed Costas Dimitriou, owner of the Sherbrooke St. W. Zante restaurant. “This is bad for everybody. I understand paid parking during the day, but after 6, there should be no parking fees downtown. This is yet another reason not to go downtown. It’s going to become a ghost town.”

Eichenbaum said he was never consulted, either. “And I don’t know any downtown merchant who was. I’d really love to meet just one downtown business owner who was consulted and who thinks this is a good idea for stimulating business.”

Castanheira was left dumbstruck upon hearing the decision. Asked if he had been consulted by the city:

“Consulted is the wrong word. We were informed of the decision.”

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