Montreal·Analysis

Is Montreal developing mega-event syndrome?

The outdoor pools and the cycling track will be closed this summer on the city's oasis on the St. Lawrence to make way for an amphitheatre. Is Mayor Denis Coderre's penchant for big events making Montreal a less livable space?

Urban planners find cause for concern when hosting giant spectacles overtakes more quotidian needs of citizens

Evenko will move its summer concert lineup to the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve this summer, shutting the racetrack down for cyclists and in-line skaters.

There will be no swimming this summer in the outdoor pools of Montreal's urban oasis, Parc Jean-Drapeau. And no cycling either, on the popular racetrack that winds its way around Île Notre-Dame.

The disruptions are to accommodate a private event promoter — Evenko — which has persuaded Parc Jean-Drapeau's administrators to build a 65,000-seat amphitheatre that it can use to host future outdoor concerts.

Mayor Denis Coderre has lauded the construction project, insisting it will be worth two full summers of inconvenience for the tens of thousands of active Montrealers who flock to the islands to swim, bike and in-line skate.

"When we have Osheaga or Week-ends du monde or other events, having the facilities that will accommodate these large-scale events is something extraordinary," he said last month.

At the time, Coderre was defending the decision to raze 1,000 trees on Île Sainte-Hélène to make way for the amphitheatre. The opposition at city hall called it a "tree massacre."

The aquatic complex at Parc Jean-Drapeau will be closed this summer due to construction on a new amphitheatre nearby. (Radio-Canada)

Montreal likes to bill itself as a city of concerts and festivals. Coderre, in particular, has made celebrating Montreal's 375th anniversary a priority for his administration.

A long list of events with hefty price-tags have been unveiled under the auspices of the anniversary. Among them, a $24-million electric car race, $20 million to project images of the city's past on buildings and $73.4 million to build the amphitheatre on Parc Jean-Drapeau (for which the city will pay more than half).

In all, Montreal plans to spend more than $300 million on capital works related to the anniversary.

Mega-event syndrome?

There is no question that such grandiose projects can make the city an entertaining place for residents and tourists alike.

But urban planners in many cities are growing wary of the fixation with hosting big and flashy mega-events, at the expense of the daily needs of residents.

The textbook cases of "mega-event syndrome" — a term coined by Martin Müller, an urban geographer at the University of Zurich — are sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup, which require event-specific infrastructure that then go underused once the crowds have returned home.

At Evenko's request, a new 65,000-seat amphitheatre is being built on Île Sainte-Hélène at Parc Jean-Drapeau. (Société du Parc Jean-Drapeau)

Montreal's year-long birthday party doesn't quite qualify as a mega-event, but it does reflect the mayor's apparent belief that a city of spectacles makes for a livable city. There are signs that this Montreal administration has developed a case of "mega-event syndrome," or at least a version of it. 

For instance, one of the symptoms described by Müller is what he calls "event takeover," which is when long-term planning priorities are sacrificed for the benefit of the mega-event.   

"Venues for hosting an event occupy space, often in prime locations of a city, that could be used for other public facilities with broader or more sustained public benefit," he wrote in a 2015 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association. 

A city not just for the fanboys

Sound familiar? A good chunk of Parc Jean-Drapeau — one of the city's most prized public spaces, especially in summer — will effectively be turned into a private outdoor concert hall. 

Montrealers lose access to two principal venues in the park for relaxation and play — the Jean-Drapeau aquatic centre and the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve racetrack, where Evenko's concerts will take place this summer.

Tough luck for the city's cyclists and in-line skaters; but at least the aging Axl Rose fanboy who paid $1,250 for the riser experience will still get to see Guns N' Roses play.

It is not just a question of a few minor inconveniences during a construction project. That is something Montrealers are more than accustomed to. 

The danger, rather, is that by investing in festivals and races and concerts, there is less money to go around for more quotidian needs.

Montrealers, after all, still need to use the city between the outdoor parties.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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