Why not make more of our shoreline accessible to all? Here are three projects that dangle that promise.
Michelle Lalonde, Montreal Gazette, publié le 11 octobre 2020
The pandemic has given Montrealers a new appreciation for this city’s natural spaces, particularly waterfronts.
Restrictions on travel sent Montrealers flocking to local beaches and waterfront parks this summer. The beach at Cap-Saint-Jacques and the new one in Verdun were swamped during the heat waves, while Jean-Doré Beach on Île Notre-Dame had would-be beachgoers signing up online to reserve short stays in advance.
Beach battles: fighting for more waterfront access for Montrealers
The increased demand has emboldened longtime advocates to beat their drums even louder for better public access to the shores and waterways that surround the island. They say the public should have access not only to the shorelines, for strolling, cycling and picnicking, but to the lakes and rivers themselves to practise water sports, including swimming.
Here is an update on three projects, each at different stages of realization, that dangle the promise of full public access to the natural bodies of water that surround us.
The Lachine River Park
In a few weeks, Montreal’s city council will be adopting a 10-year capital spending plan for nature parks and riverbanks, including a $25-million envelope to create a new “nautical park” in Lachine.
The idea, announced by the city in July, is to transform the Port de plaisance de Lachine, a 750-metre-long peninsula currently accessible only to pleasure boaters who rent berths in its marina, into a “nautical park” open to the public year-round. The project necessitates, controversially, the closure of the province’s largest marina at the mouth of the Lachine Canal.
The city claims the marina has been a drag on public finances ever since the former city of Lachine took over the lease from the Iroquois Yacht Club in 1986. The financial history of the marina is long and complicated, but suffice to say that millions of dollars of public funds were invested and large debts to Lachine and to Montreal were forgiven over the years.
In 2015, responsibility for the marina was transferred from the borough of Lachine to the parks service of the central city, although the borough remained responsible for day-to-day operations.
The site suffered heavy damage during spring flooding in 2017 and 2019, which only added to a long list of repairs required at the marina site. Shores are eroding, docks need repair, the gas station reservoirs and septic tanks need replacing, electrical and communications systems are out of date, and the site’s three buildings require renovations. The parks department estimates the facility would need work totalling $16.5 million, much of it urgent, to continue as a marina.
“It is this $16.5-million investment, for a facility reserved for 450 boat owners and their guests, that we cannot justify,” says Lachine borough Mayor Maja Vodanovic in a long Facebook post explaining the history of the site and why she supports the closure of the marina to create a nautical park.
“It represents a total of $37,000 per boat. We don’t believe the users of the marina have the means to pay for the investment, just as they did not have the means in 1985, in 2004 or in 2012, since we would have to more than double their annual fees, which would cause many to leave.”
Preliminary designs for the proposed park include plans to rehabilitate the shoreline, remove most of the concrete and asphalt on the peninsula and replace it with vegetation, add a pedestrian link to nearby Parc René-Lévesque and floating islands and wetland areas to improve water quality. There is also a plan to repurpose the marina’s docks for sunbathing and swimming, pending the results of water quality and safety studies.
At a meeting on Sept. 14, Lachine borough councillors adopted a motion that ends the management contract of the marina, and it is set to close at the end of October.
Not surprisingly, the plan has not gone over well with pleasure boaters. Josée Côté, president of the Pleasure Boaters’ Association of the Port de plaisance de Lachine, is outraged the city decided to close the marina without consulting boaters. The group is seeking an injunction to block the city’s plan.
“Motorized and non-motorized water sports have co-existed well in Lachine for 100 years already, and we will continue to speak up so that this co-existence can continue and be improved,” Côté said. “We are not giving up.”
She says the cost of needed repairs to the marina is only about $5.3 million, and boaters are prepared to cover that cost through higher rental fees. They have come up with a plan that would open the site to the public, yet allow the marina to stay open. That plan would see some environmental improvements to the site and separate zones for motorized boats and other water sports. The city has dismissed it as unworkable from a safety standpoint and financially untenable.
Côté objects to attempts to paint the pleasure boaters as wealthy members of a private club. Rental costs for a berth for the season currently range from $850 for a small boat to $3,500 for the biggest boats, she said.
“It’s a public marina. It belongs to the city of Montreal. It’s a public service that we rent. It’s not private. Anyone can join as long as they have a boat and they pay their fees and there is availability. … If you have a boat you can rent a dock. They say it’s private because we have a gate for security reasons.”
She says the city has not considered the human aspect, adding some boating families have been using the marina for more than 30 years, and so are losing their summer community.
“We are not rich people. Most of us, our boats cost the same price as a new car, on average. There are big boats and really small ones too. We are middle-class people,” she said.
Alan DeSousa, Ensemble Montréal’s critic on finance, administration and transportation, says he is all for improving public access to Montreal’s waterfront. But he thinks the Projet Montréal administration is moving too fast in Lachine, without proper consultation on whether the vocation of the site should be changed.
“To announce something without consultation out of the blue in the middle of summer with no effort made to recognize there are people impacted by the decision … that is against not just everything this administration said they would do, but it’s in line with a long line of other decisions that freeze out public consultation.”
He says the administration is jumping the gun to suggest the site could offer a swimming area before water studies have been done.
“That little finger of land is backfill and it was made primarily to act as some sort of docking point. … Is (the sediment) contaminated? We don’t know. Is the water clean? … I haven’t seen anything serious that is documented and real. In the absence of a solid file, I think it is people winging it.”
But Vodanocic says the nautical park idea was borne out of years of reflection.
“Even though some people were surprised by this announcement, it was not improvised,” Vodanovic told the borough council meeting. “It is the result of an internal reflection at the city of Montreal that has been going on for more than ten years, supported by many technical studies under three different mayors. The studies indicate that the maintenance of the marina is not possible solely through fees paid by the pleasure boaters.”
Public consultations and fine-tuning of the park’s design are projected to take until the end of next year. Then environmental impact studies, including water quality testing, would likely go on until the end of 2022. Construction would start in April of 2023 and, if all goes as planned, the nautical park will open officially in 2025.
The Plage de l’Est
A beach project at the eastern tip of the island in Pointe-aux-Trembles, the Plage de l’Est is still under construction and swimming is not yet permitted.
Decades of lobbying by environmental and community groups in the borough finally began to bear fruit in 2018 when the first phase of the project was completed. That phase included a chalet, volleyball courts and some park furniture. An illuminated concrete boardwalk, part of which will extend out over the water, is currently under construction. Eventually, there will be a pebbly beach with, in theory, full access to the water for swimming and platforms for sunbathing.
The water access portion has been delayed by a 2017 study that revealed contaminated sediment from a former marina at the site. The project awaits authorization from the provincial environment department and a $5-million decontamination process, expected to be completed in time for summer 2022.
The Harbour Bath
You can still find Mayor Valérie Plante’s 2017 campaign promise for a Copenhagen-style “harbour bath” online and it was very clear:
“The shores belong to Montrealers, more and more of whom want to take them back, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of people who flock to the beaches of Jean-Drapeau Park, Cap-Saint-Jacques and the Clock Tower Quay. I promise to offer them a harbour bath during my first mandate.”
But more recently, the Plante administration has indicated the harbour bath project — basically a floating swimming pool just off the Clock Tower Quay in the Old Port — is not going to happen; at least not at that location, and not during this mandate.
“The city of Montreal has carried out numerous technical studies to proceed with the Harbour Bath project and to respond to the challenges posed by co-existence with port activities,” executive committee spokesperson Geneviève Jutras told the Montreal Gazette. “Unfortunately, the conclusion of the studies and of discussions between the city and the port was that the site chosen was incompatible with port activities.”
She said the Plante administration remains committed to establishing a harbour bath in the Old Port sector. “The city is studying other sites and continues to work in collaboration with the Port of Montreal and the Old Port to ensure the compatibility of the project with port activities.”
Victor Balsis, president of Les AmiEs du Courant Sainte-Marie (ACSM), is hoping the city will get behind his group’s harbour bath project, which he says would be even bigger, better and technically simpler to install than the one the city had in mind.
The group, which has been advocating for better public access to the river in the south-central neighbourhoods of Montreal for the past decade, proposes the establishment of a massive swimming area in the Clock Tower Basin. One side of that basin already has an artificial beach, but the ACSM proposes that beach be expanded to line the basin on three sides.
“We say build a huge beach, that really looks like a beach, all around the Clock Tower Basin,” Balsis said. “Give us the idea that we have really gone to the beach, but we are staying downtown. It would be a big advantage for the city for tourism and it would encourage people who live in the city to stay in the city.”
The project would require the removal or displacement of the Yacht Club de Montréal marina, a 205-berth marina in the Clock Tower basin. Balsis suggests the marina could be moved to one of the other basins of the Old Port.
“We saw that basin there and it just looks perfect to have some swimming, so people can go right into the river,” Balsis said. “For people who live downtown, the Plateau, Centre-Sud and Griffintown, it’s in walking distance to all those places. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
The idea does not go over particularly well with Sylvain Deschamps, president of the Yacht Club de Montréal. The establishment of a marina in the Clock Tower Basin was a passion project for Deschamps since 1993. He got the financing together to upgrade the site and the marina opened in 2006 with a 20-year lease.
“At the time (1993), that basin was a wreck,” Deschamps said. “It was only old boats, not commercially developed. … Now after 14 years, the marina is in good shape and all around it everything is nicer. Now people say, ‘That’s a nice spot, maybe we should put a beach over there.’ Where were they back in 2000?”
Balsis said his group has been trying to meet with the Port of Montreal to discuss the project for some time, but no luck.
Other sources told the Montreal Gazette the port authority is against the whole idea of a harbour bath.
Mélanie Nadeau, director of communications for the Port of Montreal, said the port authority would not comment on the harbour bath project. The Port of Montreal is an autonomous federal agency that builds and maintains facilities in the Old Port and leases them out to private companies.
Balsis said it’s unacceptable if the port authority is blocking a project that is supported by elected officials and on publicly owned lands and waterways.
“Why can’t we have access to our river? Why do you have to own a boat or pay to take a tour? Why can’t we put our toes in the river, or go right in?”