Viewpoint (July 01, 2004)

The recent RAIC annual Festival of Architecture held in Quebec City from June 16-19th included an impressive roster of professionals and academics gathered from across the country to speak on all matters of interest: from heritage to sustainable design to building technology. Those busy few days in Quebec City provided a reminder of the breadth of professional activity in Canada.

A few minutes’ walk from the conference in Old Quebec, a very extraordinary part of the city was in full bloom: the rebirth of St. Roch (as pictured above). When I worked in Quebec City during the summer of 1990, St. Roch was a neighbourhood that was essentially given up for dead. With a misguided covered mall straddling a fine 19th century streetscape, empty lots and abandoned buildings, the neighbourhood was essentially decaying underneath a network of adjacent highway overpasses and arterial connections. Today, the situation is considerably different. With new buildings focused around a large park on the corner of Dorchester and Charest, St. Roch has undergone a transformation that deserves to be celebrated on a national level. It owes its success largely to its four-term mayor, Jean-Paul L’Allier, a politician with a vision for architecture and urban design. Under L’Allier, St-Roch has grown considerably, with public and private investments of over $400 million, thousands of new workers, students inhabiting new facilities for the Universit de Qubec and a vibrancy contributing to growth among neighbourhood businesses. Quebec City should be considered indebted to the valiant efforts of L’Allier and his political will to navigate the difficult waters of local politics.

As the RAIC Festival was taking place, an important referendum was underway to reverse an amalgamation process that swept through the province four years ago and jeopardize the efforts of those like L’Allier. Thirty-two amalgamated communities were voting to reject a law that created several megacities throughout the province in 2002. This was done by the Parti Qubcois government and with little public consultation. As many towns and villages had been weakened as a result of amalgamation, it was no surprise that 10 of the 12 communities around Quebec City decided to revert to pre-amalgamation status. L’Allier would be pleased as he has long-advocated a position that valued a public consultation process over the “intermunicipal cannibalism” occurring amongst a mega-city system that divvies up revenues from municipal taxes. He was quoted in the Montreal Gazette as declaring that “(Now) our commitment is to make sure that we have a city that’s both near to the people and at the same time strong, to ensure its development.”

Part of L’Allier’s commitment to development includes the Perspective Littoral, an ideas competition that may in fact be the first project to benefit from the new post-amalgamation Quebec City. The goal of the competition is to redevelop part of the riverfront extending over 30 km from Montmorency Falls to the old St. Lawrence cement plant in the east end of the city. The winners were announced at the RAIC Festival and all the submissions were put on display during the conference. The competition proposals had to take into account the challenges posed by four centuries of urbanization along the riverfront, with 20th century highway construction as a particularly difficult obstacle. The highways have altered the shoreline’s natural environment and cut off residents’ access to the St. Lawrence River, which has weakened the residential, commercial and industrial activity in the area. The outcome of the competition is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, the recent RAIC Festival enabled me to gain an important lesson about the necessity for a small city like Quebec to leverage its political and physical assets while priming its ambitions to encourage progressive architecture and design. Ian Chodikoff