An urban space for people in Westmount

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By: Jerry Miller

In Westmount, an important gesture can be made in planning for the future of Victoria Avenue. It can be made into a pleasurable pedestrian link beginning on St. Catherine Street and joining up with the many amenities and facilities on Sherbrooke Street.

The new hospital complex will potentially introduce thousands of people into the area.

The conditions and generators are present for the design of a people-friendly urban space (a street is an urban space) shared with reduced automobile use. Victoria Avenue has a mix of uses, including residences, small businesses, restaurants and cafes, to make the walk between the two poles a pleasant and interesting experience. The width of the street is also conducive to the development of a comfortable scale urban space.

The market and political forces which would support such an undertaking are already in place. The new hospital complex will potentially introduce thousands of people into the area. It is not difficult to envision the future expansion of the MUHC hospital-research centre. The life span of modern medical technology, diagnostic and treatment facilities changes rapidly almost every five to ten years. This will lead, over time, to great pressure to expand the hospital complex into the eastern part of the Glen site, with the consequent impact on the Victoria Village and Victoria Avenue.

There is a renewed interest in urban planning for a better quality of urban life. Witness the developments in New York, Toronto and even in some parts of Montreal. The current Westmount Sustainability Program, of which the WMA is an active participant, aims at a healthier and greener environment. Under study, the transportation plan with its thrust towards a friendlier pedestrian city can also be part of reinforcing the design of the new Victoria Avenue.  To complement these undertakings the new B R I C study commissioned by the Urban Planning Department should provide some interesting insights.

Victoria Avenue can, with imaginative and timely planning, become a model street filled with crowds of people enjoying a congenial environment, lively and safe. Zoning considerations for the future, given an increased pedestrian use, should enhance the experience.

Imagine a walk through a linear space designed to delight, a space with an interesting paving pattern, attractive lighting and colourful landscaping. Absent would be the sidewalks and curbs to limit pedestrian movement replaced by judiciously placed bollards to slow and define vehicular movement. The south end of the street could present a restful and attractively landscaped environment in the quieter residential area, possibly including a small café. And what about the Westmount station at the pole of the south end of the street? Could one envisage a comfortable safe pedestrian underpass leading from the east end of the Glen site (after the hospital expansion) to or even through the station giving it a new life and a choice of several possible vocations? Hopefully the B R I C study will illuminate  possibilities.

The WMA itself is working with urban planning students through the CURA (Community University Research Alliance) project to look as aspects of Victoria Village, particularly the old train station.

The time to start the planning process is now. Construction of the MUHC has the potential of creating increased traffic flow and pressure for undesirable development. Consideration for Victoria to be a one-way street north between St. Catherine and Sherbrooke streets for vehicular movement certainly merits some investigation, since this would contribute to the quality of the environment. The implementation of a plan would need to be done in stages to allow for adjustments as the area develops. However, the benefits to the community of undertaking such an initiative, the transformation and development of a model urban space, a true “rue conviviale” dedicated to the pedestrian, cannot be overstated.

Jerry Miller is a board member of the WMA and has a Masters degree in Urban Design from the University of Harvard.

Organizations: MUHC hospital, Urban Planning Department, CURA University Research Alliance University of Harvard

Geographic location: Victoria Avenue, Westmount, Victoria Village New York Toronto Montreal

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