Since 1967, off-island visitors to Montreal would swoop in from the south, over the Champlain Bridge, pass the iconic Farine Five Roses sign, and arrive via the Bonaventure Expressway; passing over a derelict no man’s land of factories and slums known as Griffintown before arriving in the heart of the city.
“The idea was to build an elevated expressway to get cars through the area as quickly as possible,” says Simon Pouliot, an urban designer with the City of Montreal who has worked on the team in charge of the new Bonaventure since 2012.
The expressway was built for Expo 67, the world’s fair that led to the construction of Montreal’s Metro system, a man-made island, a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, and the Turcot interchange, which is currently being rebuilt over five years to the tune of $3.67 billion CDN.
But the Bonaventure was an eyesore and contributed to Griffintown’s isolation and blight. So, in the early 2000s, the city decided to kill it and rebuild an urban boulevard in its place.
The plan actually worked.
Reimagining the urban boulevard
Unveiled in September 2017 after six years of planning, construction, and demolition (and many more years of political wrangling) the new $141.7-million expressway—dubbed Projet Bonaventure—is actually quite pleasant, as far as expressways go.
Where a concrete overpass once loomed now stand hundreds of saplings, about five football fields’ worth of public green space, thousands of perennials and shrubs, rain gardens, exercise equipment, a fenced-in children’s play area, two large pieces of public art, seven ground-level traffic lanes for cars, and two dedicated bus lanes. The sustainability-minded design earned the city a SITES certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2018.
Bracing against the brisk late-autumn cold on a deceptively sunny day, Pouliot and I sit in the new park facing Source, a sculpture by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa. It’s a larger-than-life rendition of a human figure composed of letters from multiple alphabets, referring to Montreal’s cultural diversity. Its name—which means the same thing in both English and French—is also a nod to the nearby water that has fed Montreal’s busy port for generations. The wealthy Desmarais family, which owns management and holding company Power Corporation, commissioned the work and is lending it to the city for 25 years.
At the other end of the park is Dendrites, a sculpture by Montreal artist Michel de Broin. Two twisted tree trunks made of metal burst out of the sidewalk, inviting passersby to climb the stairs to get a high-up view of the Bonaventure Expressway and the city itself.
Pouliot says the vision and purpose of Projet Bonaventure was threefold: to create a prestigious and user-friendly entrance to downtown, mesh together disparate neighborhoods, and support urban development. There are other benefits, too. The green space will help reduce the heat island effect in the area, and might make the neighborhood more palatable to condo buyers.
“It’s too early to fully assess the results of this, because there’s still so much construction going on,” Pouliot says, pointing to the office towers and condo buildings being built on either side of the expressway. Hammering, drilling, and the beeping of backing-up trucks has been the soundtrack to life in this southwest pocket of Montreal since its condo boom began around 2004. And nearby, the new Champlain Bridge is being rebuilt after just 50-odd years of use.
A long history of razing and rebuilding
Montreal has a long history of inadequately constructed infrastructure, especially in the city’s poorer areas and particularly under the leadership of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who ran the city for 29 years between 1954 and 1986. Much of what was built under his watch was marked by low-quality concrete and bad design choices “in the rush to build up Montreal ahead of Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympics,” concrete infrastructure expert Saeed Mirza told Canada’s Maclean’s magazine in 2011.
Back in the 1960s, it seems no one gave much thought to the lasting impacts the Bonaventure Expressway would have, particularly in Griffintown, the neighborhood on its western flank.
“Griffintown was a shithole,” says Matthew Barlow, a historian and the author of Griffintown: Identity and Memory In an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. The area was first settled in the early 1800s by mass Irish immigration. A second wave of working-class immigrants who came over on boats during Ireland’s Great Famine made the area a distinct Irish enclave. Industrialization brought jobs to the area, making it a magnet for other immigrants.
But by the end of World War II, many of its original residential and commercial inhabitants had gone. Around 1,000 people lived in Griffintown by the 1950s, says Barlow. Chronic unemployment, derelict row housing, and more taverns per capita than anywhere else in the city made the area an easy target for development. “Griffintown was made building by building, but they were tearing it down block by block,” says the historian. “The Bonaventure Expressway was one of the last straws for the Griff.”
The city re-zoned Griffintown for industrial development in 1963 so that it could build the Bonaventure Expressway through the east end of the neighborhood. By 1970, its population dropped 70 percent from a peak of 60,000.
A new future for Griffintown
The raised highway created a physical boundary where a psychic one already stood. In the decade following the Bonaventure’s construction, Griffintown imploded. In the 1980s, the city bought large swaths of Griffintown with the intention of building a new neighborhood called Quartier des Écluses, but the project stalled when Montreal’s real estate market crashed. Meanwhile, Montreal also devised home-ownership incentive programs—such as the 20,000 Logements of the 1980s and more recently a subsidy program for first-time home buyers—as a way of keeping families from leaving the city for the suburbs. These incentive programs helped kickstart the Griffintown condo boom in the early 2000s, which continues to this day.
The area is now almost exclusively comprised of gleaming glass towers with rooftop pools. The median income for condo buyers in Griffintown is $80,000, according to data collected by the Canadian government—$7,000 higher than the average incomes of home buyers in other parts of the city.
Now that the expressway is at ground level with a landscaped park in the middle of it, the hope is that the waterfront can finally be unified. Projet Bonaventure couldn’t have come a moment too soon: The most recent Canadian census revealed that Griffintown experienced a 642 percent population growth between 2011 and 2016.
Once the trees grow tall and nearby construction is finally finished, the Projet Bonaventure plaza may very well become a crown jewel for Montreal—that is, until it’s time to rebuild it again.