Josh Freed: Terrasse-gate is a symbol of Montreal’s bureaucracy, chaos and sludge

It must not happen again. But something like it probably will.

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Call it Terrasse-gate.

There’s been a huge uproar since fire prevention authorities shut down a Portuguese restaurant terrasse and others on Peel St. last weekend, halfway between the eggplant appetizers and the côte de boeuf.

This although the places were jammed, in the middle of the Canadian Grand Prix, our city’s biggest money-making event of the year.

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Be thankful inspectors didn’t close down the Formula 1 race itself because spectator rain tents didn’t meet fire regulations, while police handed out tickets to race car drivers for speeding.

Evacuating some terrasses in mid-meal was an incredibly stupid bureaucratic mistake. In itself, it’s not a catastrophe as there were no deaths or injuries, except to the restaurants’ and our city’s reputation.

But the online and personal fury of many Montrealers suggests Terrasse-gate is a symbol of much that’s frustrating in our city and province today.

For the restaurant and its neighbours, it’s another blow to the district previously known as downtown, now renamed Conetown. That’s because a mind-boggling array of orange cone mazes seem to rearrange every hour to make sure you never figure out what blocks are open.

Worst hurt are many downtown restaurants and stores that no one can reach by car, or even easily on foot. Restaurants bravely build lovely terrasses for those willing to skirt potholes, cranes and debris to arrive, then listen to heavy machinery serenade them during their meal.

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Maître D’: “Welcome to Montreal for Grand Prix! Our locally inspired table d’hôte today is Coquilles Saint-Jacqueshammer, followed by duck à la cône d’orange, with a deconstructed re-constructed chocolate mousse for dessert — accompanied by fresh earplugs.

“Your table will be ready shortly if fire inspectors don’t seize it.”

Yes, obeying fire rules is important, but this was an outdoor tented terrasse, so the bureaucratic sledgehammer could obviously have waited a few days, or at least till dessert was over.

But underlying Terrasse-gate’s anger may be general shock and bewilderment at what’s happening on our city streets, best symbolized by downtown. We are cone-ing off Ste-Catherine St. not just because of infrastructure work, but because of a decision to narrow its once busy street into a one-lane road with no parking and vastly wider sidewalks.

This is an enormous piece of work in itself that hasn’t been much talked about. Is it worth the extra construction time and budget? Will it reinvent Ste-Catherine, or kill it as few motorists can drive there, let alone park?

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I don’t know the answers, but I also don’t remember much public debate about this major decision.

That symbolizes yet another frustration with the city that always talks about consulting the public, but rarely does. Or doesn’t listen once it does, as in the Mount Royal affair.

Another underlying frustration that Terrasse-gate symbolizes is the widespread bureaucratic sludge we all sense in our city and province.

Figures show developers must wait forever for Montreal building permits, despite our housing shortage. Women’s groups complain Quebec’s bureaucracy prevents them from opening desperately needed shelters.

A recent study shows our province’s construction workers are far less productive than in provinces like Ontario.

You can see this in the chaos surrounding our roads.

It’s become a popular Montreal driving activity to play a version of “Where’s Waldo?” in which you spot an inexplicable clump of construction cones barricading the lane beside you and someone shouts: “Where’s the construction?”

And no one can find it.

I think citizens should be empowered to remove any construction cones where there’s no sign of construction, if they take a picture demonstrating the offence.

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Then the contractors should be fined $1,000 per cone, which would clean up our excess cone problem in a week.

This administration is excellent at greening our streets with trees and flowers, but not at paving them. The same streets are closed, then opened, then reclosed repeatedly, with no apparent co-ordination between road crews.

This construction chaos would be a massive early election issue anywhere but here, where we are too pothole-shocked and bureaucracy-beaten to notice. Will Terrasse-gate prove a turning point like Legault’s tunnel flip-flops, or Coderre’s Formula E race debacle?

Regarding Terrasse-gate, there’s also the city’s response, which is rarely straightforward.

The episode took place in the mayor’s own downtown district, so she’s toured various media struggling to explain what even she describes as “chaos on Peel Street.”

The overall result?: The city has suspended two fire department employees and will launch yet another inquiry that will eventually find:

a) The bureaucrats acted too bureaucratically;

b) Communication between city and restaurants was too uncommunicative;

c) It must not happen again.

But something like it probably will.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this city for all its imperfections, sometimes because of them. I love its fun vibe mixed with its funky seediness.

I love the friendliness of all language groups toward each other, despite the current Quebec government which doesn’t.

I love its festivals and terrasses teeming with life, when they’re permitted.

But I don’t like the bureaucracy, the sludge or the chaos that holds us back from what we could be — and takes the “all” out of Montreal.

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