Montreal·Analysis

Will Montreal's 375th celebrations cement Denis Coderre's legacy or be his undoing?

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has made the 375th a focus of his tenure in power, pouring millions into projects for projects timed to be completed for next year's anniversary.

Mayor has put millions of taxpayer dollars into ambitious projects to be completed for next year's anniversary

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has defended the city's plans for the 375th anniversary, saying "we want to reshape this city and be proud." (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Mayor Denis Coderre has made celebrating Montreal's 375th birthday a priority during his time in office, pouring millions into projects slated to be completed in time for next year's anniversary, and his re-election campaign.

The city has set aside funds for everything from lights for the Jacques Cartier Bridge to a new downtown skating rink. Coderre has even lobbied to have Pope Francis visit Montreal on its birthday.

In all, the city set aside $329 million last year for capital works projects for the anniversary.

Additional funds are going toward projects overseen by the Society for the Celebration of Montréal's 375th Anniversary, which is supported by the city, the province and a host of private corporations. 

Jean Drapeau served as mayor of Montreal from 1954 to 1957 and 1960 to 1986. (Doug Ball/Canadian Press)

The ambitiousness and scope of Coderre's plans has echoes of another high-profile Montreal mayor, Jean Drapeau, who was hailed as a visionary for overseeing the development of the Metro system and the international success of Expo 67.

His mishandling of construction projects related to the 1976 Olympic Games, however, left the city with a debt load of over $1.5 billion.

In Coderre's case, some of the projects have been the subject of controversy, like the $3.4-million plan for granite tree stumps to encourage "discovery stops" on Mount Royal. That proposal has since been scaled back.

Eyebrows were also raised by cost overruns to the Fleuve-Montagne walkway. The planned walkway from Mount Royal to the Pointe-à-Callière Museum is $13.1 million over budget, and is now slated to set the city back by $55.3 million.

An artist's rendering of the controversial granite stump project. (City of Montreal)

Others projects have been subject to delays and confusion.  

This past week, the city was forced to suspend its $28-million plan for Viger Square because it still needed approval from Quebec's Transport Ministry.

The early stages of preparation were initially supposed to be completed by the end of October, but the target date is now sometime before the arrival of winter, a city spokesperson said.

Valérie Plante, a councillor with the Opposition Projet Montréal, said the city's failure to secure final approval from the ministry before going ahead is an example of poor planning.

"They want to go fast, for the photo-op and the announcement," she said Thursday.

The upgrades to Place Jacques-Cartier were put on hold.

Another project, the overhaul of Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal, was scrapped entirely.

Restaurants had raised concern about the project, saying it raised safety and hygiene issues.

In the end, only one firm placed a bid for the contract to carry out the work, and its proposal was well above the city's $5-million estimate, so the city cancelled the call for tenders.

A heavy equipment vehicle sits idle in Viger Square earlier this week. Work on renovations to the square has stalled. (CBC)

A sample of the other major projects the city is helping to fund: 

  • $147 million to turn the Bonaventure Expressway into an urban boulevard.
  • $20 million for Cité Mémoire, a large-scale projection of the city's past projected onto the walls of Old Montreal.
  • $67 million for Esplanade Clark, an add-on to the Quartier des spectacles, including restaurants, a pavilion and skating rink.
  • $98 million for the first phase of an overhaul of Ste-Catherine Street between Atwater and Bleury streets.
  • $80 million for renovations to St-Joseph's Oratory.

There are also more than 100 smaller projects at the neighbourhood level, totaling $4.2 million.

They run the gamut, from a country festival in Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve to a pop-up film studio in Verdun that will allow the public to create short films with historic decor. 

This all comes as Coderre prepares for the upcoming municipal election, in November 2017, following a summer of anniversary related events.

In June, Coderre defended the city's plans, saying "we want to reshape this city and be proud, and [that's] what the city deserves."

A mock-up of one of the projections that will be part of a light show in Old Montreal. (Finzi Pasca, 375mtl)

It remains to be seen whether the celebrations will end up being a help or a hindrance to his re-election bid.

If the anniversary projects are success, they have the potential to recast the city in a positive light. Many of them promise to make Montreal a more liveable city, adding green space and pedestrian-friendly arteries.

But an ambitious construction program comes with risks. As Drapeau learned, spending can quickly spin out of control, saddling public coffers with decades-worth of debt. 

Moreover, if the 375th celebrations turn into a boondoggle, they could sink Coderre's chances of securing himself a second term in 2017.  

At the moment, though, Coderre has room to manoeuvre on the political front, given the largest opposition party at city hall, Projet Montréal, is currently without leader.

The party kicked off its leadership race earlier this month, billing itself as "the alternative to Denis Coderre."

So far, however, only François Limoges, a Projet Montréal councillor, has entered the race.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

with files from Radio-Canada

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