Montreal’s $200M birthday spending spree: Bridge lights, granite stumps among ‘legacy projects’

MONTREAL — When Toronto celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2009, city hall voted a $230,000 budget for a few low-key events, a song contest and a debate with an actor dressed up as the city’s first mayor.

Vancouver went bigger when it turned 125 in 2011, spending about $6 million on a year-long festival. But when it comes to quarter-century , Montreal is getting ready to shatter spending records.

Next year is the 375th anniversary of the founding of Ville-Marie, the missionary settlement that grew into modern-day Montreal, and between and “legacy projects,” Montreal is on track to spend more than $200 million.

Initially conceived as a way to boost the spirits of a city battered by revelations of waste and corruption, the whirl of spending — including nearly $40 million to light up a bridge, $55 million on an urban walkway and $3.5 million to install granite stumps on Mount Royal — is coming under increasing scrutiny as the city struggles to maintain its basic infrastructure.

“Montreal has so many pressing needs. There is so much that could be done with the money being spent on this 375th anniversary,” said Alex Norris, a councillor with the opposition Projet Montréal party.

When public consultation office was enlisted in 2011 to seek ideas on how the 375th anniversary should be marked, its report acknowledged a significant problem. “Highlighting 375 years of existence is not , according to the participants, a distinctive anniversary,” the commissioners reported. It could, however, be “a pretext” to change the “social dynamic,” they said.  “After the latest setbacks linked to corruption, the city has to change course and move toward something more positive.”

HandoutQuebec City is giving Montreal some sculptures to be erected in a park near Olympic Stadium.

All that brainstorming was not going to go to waste, and the report was brimming with proposals to persuade people 375 is a significant number: plant 375 trees; install 375 signs honouring historical figures; build a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly housing complex named le 375; declare the year longer and give it 375 days. Though most of those ideas failed the final cut, festivities are scheduled to begin in late December, effectively lengthening the year of celebration to 375 days.

Scores of others have been approved, from the grandiose to the absurd. In the latter category, the borough of Rivière-des-Prairies—Pointe-aux Trembles (population 106,000) has commissioned its own anthem at a cost of $119,000. “We want something that gives goosebumps and creates a feeling of belonging among residents,” the project’s co-ordinator told TC Media last May.

As for grandiose, the federal government is contributing $30 million of a total $39.5-million project to light up Jacques Cartier Bridge in colour schemes that will change with the seasons. The budget covers 10 years of maintenance of the , which Mayor Denis Coderre said would shine in the red, white and blue of the Canadiens should the team ever win the Stanley Cup.

An urban walkway will link Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River along a zigzagging route. The Gazette has reported that the cost of the project, which involves widening sidewalks, installing signage and furniture and closing short stretches of to car traffic, has shot up. Originally budgeted at $42 million when it was announced, it is now expected to cost $55 million, the newspaper reported.

One of the most controversial projects, a series of “discovery stops,” will cost $3.5 million to install stump-shaped granite sculptures on Mount Royal. The cost of this project also exceeded the city’s estimate of $2.7 million. Mayor Denis Coderre the stumps as “art” that serves a double purpose as a resting stool.

Peter Trent, mayor of the suburb of Westmount, said mayors on the island of Montreal recently voted against contracts for the urban walkway, the granite stumps and another 375th project to encase biogas monitoring stations at a former garbage dump in fiberglass bubbles. Trent said the rush to be ready for the anniversary is inflating costs.

“We felt that Montreal was paying through the nose because they wanted to get this done in time for next year,” he said. The contracts were approved despite the suburban opposition, resulting in what Trent said is a roughly 25 per cent premium.

“I suggested, why not simply announce them and have them built over the next couple of years. That way you’ll pay a lot less,” Trent said. “Is it really that critical that they’re completed before the 375th?”

Westmount rejected installing the stumps on its section of the mountain, preferring to keep it wild, and Norris said the Montreal administration should have followed suit. “Mayor Coderre says that we need to give the mountain a new signature,” he said. “Mount Royal need a new signature. It need to be rebranded. It’s already beautiful. It’s already a work of art in and of itself.”

Dario Ayala/Postmedia/File
Dario Ayala/Postmedia/FileThink how nice Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge will look with nearly $40 million in coloured lights.

Even when Montreal receives birthday gifts, they come with a hidden price tag. Quebec City is giving Montreal a $225,000 artwork consisting of four columns topped with an athlete wearing a jersey featuring a different animal and a significant date in Montreal . The columns are to be erected in a new Quebec City Park, which Montreal is paying to build near the Olympic Stadium. Another gift, a huge steel sculpture by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa loaned for 25 years by André Desmarais and France Chrétien-Desmarais, will cost the city $500,000 to transport and install, the Journal de Montréal reported.

Coderre is on vacation this week, but an aide, Catherine Maurice, defended the various legacy projects as lasting investments that will improve life in the city. “The 375th anniversary is an opportunity to restore Montrealers’ pride through celebrations but also by investing in a legacy for years to come,” she said.

In addition to the infrastructure projects, a non-profit organization has been given a $106-million budget to organize events throughout 2017 — $60 million from the province, $35 million from the city and $11 million from private companies. Plans include arts festivals, a specially commissioned symphony, street theatre and giant marionettes.

Asked why there was such a big deal being made over a 375th anniversary, Alain Gignac, general manager of the Society for the Celebration of Montréal’s 375th Anniversary, said it “was born from Montrealers’ will to take this opportunity to celebrate our city’s vitality, its history, its heritage, its people, its neighbourhoods. Many consultations took place over the past year, and our activities rigourously represent what Montrealers are looking for.”

Norris thinks the money would be better spent improving public transit and adding green space, and he worries about the precedent being set. “If we’re spending that much money on the 375th anniversary of Montreal, how much are we going to spend on the 400th?” he wondered.

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About Graeme Hamilton