Beginning on Monday, Montreal’s famous Ste-Catherine Street and the merchants along the busy commercial artery will be subjected to a familiar rite of passage in the metropolis: a major construction overhaul.
A 2.2-kilometre stretch of road will be transformed between Atwater Avenue, the historic former address of the old Montreal Forum, all the way east to the entrance of the entertainment district, where locals and tourists enjoy jazz, comedy and music festivals.
Downtown Ste-Catherine Street is about to be re-imagined. Photo by M3etaphysical via Wikimedia Commons.
The construction is needed primarily to replace the roughly 100-year-old underground infrastructure, but the city also plans to use the opportunity to expand sidewalks, plant more trees and offer free Wi-Fi access along the commercial strip.
Montreal’s new city administration also promises things will be done differently from previous municipal governments.
But business owners still fear being caught in another construction nightmare: streets ripped up, closed, then reopened, as well as labyrinths of orange cones and treacherous plywood walkways repelling clients and revenues.
“I requested two things form the city,” said souvenir shop owner Faress Zahed, who’s been on Ste-Catherine for 23 years. “Finish the job faster by using two shifts of workers one after the other, and to give us a break from taxes.”
The Iraq native has owned his shop through several municipal governments and rounds of construction mazes.
He clasps his hands behind him and pretends to peer into a big crater, imitating what he says were previous construction supervisors outside his store who seemed to do a lot of looking around while the site languished.
Zahed is a little incredulous that this time around will be different.
“Honestly, that’s a big question mark,” he says with a smile. “I wish once in a while the mayor comes by and sees for herself or sends one of her advisers. Let them come and see if the workers are doing what they said they would.”
Robert Beaudry, the city councillor responsible for economic development, says tourists and shoppers along certain sections of Ste-Catherine over the coming years will definitely be walking through a construction site, but hopefully one that is welcoming.
“We are working with communication companies to have a signage system that is very clear,” said Beaudry, whose team was elected last November under the city’s first female mayor, Valerie Plante.
“We want shoppers to know the stores aren’t just open, we want to show people they are invited to come and visit,” he said.
Plante’s government is also open to offering tax breaks and credits, or subsidies to businesses who suffer financially from the renovations.
“All of that is on the table,” Beaudry said. “We are working on a plan and we’ll have details by this summer.”
Phase 1 of the project will renovate the strip between Mansfield Street and the entertainment district to the east, and is scheduled to be completed in 2021.
The second phase, from Mansfield west to Atwater Avenue, will begin after that.
Beaudry said the cost of the initial phase will be at least $115 million, but he recognized the price tag “could vary enormously depending on the types of choices we make.”
The first project proposed by the previous administration planned for heated sidewalks and a giant, inflatable tunnel running down Ste-Catherine Street to shelter pedestrians from the work site.
“That’s all under study right now,” Beaudry said.
Several other business owners on Ste-Catherine contacted by The Canadian Press spoke about similar concerns: diminished pedestrian traffic, declining profits, lack of parking and the fear of delays and cost overruns.
They also mentioned the well-known delays and mismanagement of major construction sites that plagued other commercial streets in the city and caused many businesses to shutter without any help from city hall.
Benoit Vendette, co-owner of Nyk’s Bistro Pub, is not worried.
The businessman’s restaurant, which he has owned for nine years, is located a few metres off Ste-Catherine Street and overlooks two ongoing construction sites around the city’s entertainment district.
“We’ve lived through it all,” he said. “The entertainment district was built from A to Z while we were here. There used to be a crater right outside for a month and a half.”
Vendette said his business comes mostly from pedestrian traffic, and that past construction sites have actually led to more customers because they force people to walk by his store.
He said the city should focus on attracting more tourists to Montreal by doing things such as expanding the downtown convention centre and supporting festivals.
Vendette says its too easy to complain.
“It’ll be magnifique when the project is over,” he said of the future revamped Ste-Catherine Street. “We’re here for things to go well. The goal is to be happy.”