If it’s done right, McGill College Ave. will be “a place all kinds of people will want to come back to,” says Jérôme Barth.
John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette
What does it take to create a public place that’s a magnet for people?Activities — whether it’s an outdoor chess game, yoga classes or just a rendezvous point to hang out while you’re waiting for a friend.A clean, safe environment.And finally, a “spirit of place” (genius loci) — that special something that tells you that you couldn’t be anywhere else.Those are the ingredients that need to be in place if the redesign of McGill College Ave. is to be a success, says Jérôme Barth, an expert “place-maker” attending a three-day meeting in Montreal to chart the future of the downtown artery.Barth, a native of France who now lives in New York, honed his skills helping to create that city’s High Line, a 2.3-kilometre linear park on a former elevated railway that attracts more than 4.5-million visitors a year.“Cities have the ability to transform the environment,” he said in an interview Thursday at McGill University’s Faculty Club.The High Line, which opened in 2009 and was expanded in 2014, has inspired cities around the world to create innovative public spaces, said Barth, the former chief of operations for Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy. He is now vice-president of the Times Square Alliance and a consultant.“It’s a triumph of the imagination,” he said of the elevated park.You need to make the public dream, give them an optimistic vision, so they say, ‘I want to get involved.’“You need to make the public dream, give them an optimistic vision, so they say, ‘I want to get involved.’ ”McGill College Ave. is itself a success story of sorts. In the early 1980s, citizens and the business community joined forces to defeat a plan for a shopping centre and concert hall that would have spanned the street, blocking the view of Mount Royal.While the view was saved, the north-south artery from Sherbrooke St. to Cathcart St. is due for an overhaul. Lined by ho-hum office towers, it lacks street life and a sense of identity, critics say. A downtown station for the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light rail line is set to open there in 2021.Montreal’s public-consultations office recently submitted its report on the proposed redevelopment of McGill College Ave.While the Valérie Plante administration had mused about turning it into a pedestrian-only square, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) recommended that vehicle access be maintained, while giving priority to pedestrians.Barth said he agreed with that proposal.“My personal intuition is to treat the space like a ‘Woonerf Street,’ ” he said — a concept for lively streets developed in the Netherlands where all vehicles share the space but pedestrians have priority.“The car must not be the hero,” Barth said.If it’s done right, McGill College will be “a place all kinds of people will want to come back to,” he said.Luc Ferrandez, the executive committee member responsible for large parks and green spaces, said the goal of the meeting is “to gather ideas from around the world on how to position McGill College, to make it a unique place.”In the coming months, the city will compile a report on the redevelopment, he said.Ferrandez said he is willing to listen to different views on whether the street should become a pedestrian-only space.“I’m not leaning either way,” he said.The city will launch an international competition to redesign the street at the end of the yearThe city will launch an international competition to redesign the street at the end of the year, he said.Citizens are invited to register online for a meeting on the future of McGill College Ave. Saturday morning from 9:30 to 12:30 p.m. at the Université du Québec à Montréal, 200 Sherbrooke St. W., Room SH-4800 (Salle Polyvalente).