Fun city

Montreal is just one city that’s making the arts a downtown development strategy

Fun cityIt was the first week of June, and a new downtown Montreal was rising from the old. These few square blocks running east of Bleury Street and north of Ste. Catherine Street used to be the heart of Canada’s shmatte trade, an assortment of 10-storey brick buildings where seamstresses worked row on row, making fashion affordable to the masses. But that was nearly a century ago.

Now there were construction crews everywhere, working double shifts to get the first phase of Montreal’s downtown renaissance ready in time for the Montreal International Jazz Festival. On Jeanne-Mance Street across from Place des Arts, one crew paved a public square the length of a city block while a second installed a row of gargantuan lighting towers across the street. Around the corner still another crew was building a cozy concert bistro from scratch inside one of the old rag-trade buildings.

Faded letters on the brick exterior proclaimed the building’s former vocation: “GOOD CLOTHES ‘Nothing Else’ Blumenthal and Sons Canada’s Greatest Clothes Shop.” But inside, the Blumenthal building was transforming into the Maison du Festival, the permanent headquarters of the jazz festival with an elegant concert space on the ground floor, a public relations office upstairs, an art gallery on the next floor and multi-media arts library on top of that. In turn, the Maison du Festival will serve as a kind of cornerstone for the Quartier des Spectacles, a square kilometre of concert and theatre spaces, public plazas, cafés and condos designed to turn Montreal’s creativity and conviviality—its fabled joie de vivre—into the main motor of its economic activity.

Jacques Primeau, a wiry veteran concert producer and rock-band manager who heads the Quartier des Spectacles project, rattled off the numbers for me as we prowled the project’s various sites. The quartier will be home to 30 performance spaces with a total of 28,000 seats. Together the federal, provincial and municipal governments are paying $120 million in taxpayer money to fund the project. That’s on top of the $266 million the Quebec government is paying to build a new concert hall within the Quartier des Spectacles for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The activity that taxpayer money will enable is already attracting $1 billion in private investment.

That’s serious money. It will transform Montreal profoundly. The city’s young creative types used to have a joke you’d hear during long beer-soaked afternoons on one sunny térasse or another: people in Toronto had jobs, whereas Montrealers had lifestyles. With the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal is betting that lifestyles can bring jobs.

But Montreal is hardly the only Canadian city making that bet. Winnipeg’s Exchange District was one of the precursors to more recent projects such as Toronto’s Distillery District, located at the old Gooderham and Worts distillery, which has become a colony of galleries, boutiques and the headquarters of the Soulpepper Theatre Company. In Quebec City, the St. Roch neighbourhood in the once-benighted Lower Town is becoming a haven for live music, good food and condo lofts. And in Calgary, a team of private developers and public sector administrators aims to turn the decrepit East Village into a showcase for museums, shops and pedestrian living. East Village developers like to say they’re going to provide the “there there” that has long been missing in Calgary’s centre as the city sprawled in every direction.

Each of these projects is different, but they share common themes. They aim to revitalize the traditional heart of a city’s downtown as an antidote to suburban sprawl. They are mixed-use, often hectic and jumbled, and built on a scale pedestrians can handle, in contrast to the single-purpose behemoths that used to mark downtown development, like Montreal’s Place Ville Marie office tower or Toronto’s big arts museums. They combine private entrepreneurship and public sector seed money and planning capacity. So in almost every case, asking “Who’s in charge here?” is likely to get you a long answer.

But above all, these new downtown developments bet big money on the most ephemeral of experiences: a night out, a blue note, a soliloquy, a comic’s punchline. “We’re developing a new primary material,” said Réal Lestage, the project architect for the Quartier des Spectacles. “We’re making creation the motor of economic activity.”

Montreal, of course, has been a show business town for a long time, but never at this level of organization and coordination. This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which began as a weekend of open-air concerts at the old Expo ’67 site. It soon moved into the downtown core, but for many years split its free outdoor component between Place des Arts and the St. Denis Street corridor a few blocks east, which meant festival-goers had to navigate a decrepit no-man’s land of strip clubs and hot-dog joints in between. By the early 1990s the festival had consolidated its activity around Place des Arts, ceding the St. Denis corridor to jazz’s only real summertime competition, the Just for Laughs comedy festival. Other festivals like the Francofolies, a celebration of French-language pop music, soon filled out the summer schedule.

The jazz festival became Canada’s largest annual tourism event without ever needing to establish a permanent footprint, said Alain Simard, its founding president, because Montreal was such an economic wreck. “We were squatting on vacant lots.” And it’s true: when he told me that, the condo development we were walking past used to be a weedy field of gravel that would host salsa bands for 10 days every July.

But Montreal’s economy finally picked up after 2000; suddenly, vacant lots where Simard could toss up an outdoor stage were turning into condos. The festival needed to become a permanent part of the city’s urban geography. “We know what land was left and we know what real estate projects are on the way,” Simard said. “There weren’t 36 solutions to this. It was either bye-bye—we have a city like a doughnut hole, with no more residences downtown, no more neighbourhood life, we build office towers and we rake in the tax revenue for the city. Or we create public spaces. It costs money but it’s a long-term investment in the city’s image and its personality.”

Getting the city, province and country to make that investment required that a lot of business rivals work closely together. Simard and Gilbert Rozon, the guru of Just For Laughs, have egos to match their talents and budgets, and they have not always been on speaking terms. But along with the administrators of more than a dozen other organizations, they put rivalry aside to coordinate. The resulting development plan stretches over the next half-decade. The first big pieces of the new quartier have now been inaugurated: L’Astral, a gorgeous 350-seat concert bistro in the old Blumenthal building, and the Place du Quartier des Spectacles, a 7,500-sq.-m plaza that held the bulk of the 200,000 people who came out on June 30 to hear Stevie Wonder play a huge free concert. Because the Quartier des Spectacles is mixed in with buildings that don’t have a performing-arts mandate, the ones that do will be identified at night with an elaborate lighting signature: red light pouring out of upstairs windows and red spotlights on the sidewalk in front. You’ll be able to spot a cultural venue from blocks away. The choice of colour is conscious, Primeau says. For half a century this neighbourhood contained Montreal’s red-light district. Only the meaning has changed.

Not everyone is an unabashed fan of this sort of choreographed public-private bohemianism. On the face of them, these neighbourhoods are designed to be yuppie playgrounds. Christian Poirier teaches at INRS-Urbanisation, Montreal’s urban studies university, and he has mixed feelings about the Quartier des Spectacles and its rough equivalents in other cities. “It’s really going to depend what type of [arts] projects get promoted,” he said. “Very often these projects come from big promoters with big machines. What I hear a lot is that more independent artists are asking whether this will really enrich the community.”

The quartier’s promoters say they had little choice but to band together and think big. If they hadn’t, the summer festivals might eventually have been pushed out of the core. The exodus of money, people and creative energy from Montreal’s centre to its periphery would have accelerated. The competition is fierce. In 2006, developers opened Le Quartier Dix30, a $150-million, 140,000-sq.-m “lifestyle centre” in the South Shore suburb of Brossard. The Dix30 is mammoth, with luxury shopping, a boutique hotel, and the Montreal Canadiens’ training arena. Against this aggressive challenge from sport-utility-vehicle culture, Montreal had to strengthen its appeal to pedestrian culture.

That raises a question: if a half-dozen of Canada’s large cities are making smart investments in downtown culture, can the cities that aren’t—cities like, say, Ottawa—long afford to stay asleep at the switch?