Culture | The little neighbourhood that could

Dreaming of a utopia for the Hippodrome project

A surprising number of Montreal residents are unaware of the massive abandoned race track near the Décarie expressway. If you have heard about the Blue Bonnets racetrack, later rebranded the Hippodrome, chances are it has something to do with the 2011 U2 show – the only time the space has been used since it closed as a racetrack and casino in 2009, ending over a century of racing glory. Now there’s talk of the Hippodrome area undergoing a total makeover starting in 2017, as the City plans to create a utopic neighbourhood with green spaces, cafes, public schools, pedestrian areas, and lots of local businesses.

In 1991, the city bought the Blue Bonnets racetrack from a real estate developer for $50 million, renaming it the Hippodrome. In 1997, the City sold it to the provincial government at a loss, for $35 million. Last year, in March, Quebec announced it would let the city decide the Hippodrome’s fate, provided half of the profits from property sales end up in the provincial coffers. There’s still a lot of time left – property sales and development on the Hippodrome site are only slated to begin in 2017.

The Hippodrome area, located in the Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough, is 43.5 hectares, or the equivalent of 80 Canadian football fields – about the same size as the Vatican City. Creating a new neighbourhood here is no small feat; once developed, the Hippodrome neighbourhood could eventually be home to 20,000 residents in 8,000 housing units – about the population of Westmount.

The City’s official website for the project lists the main challenges of the Hippodrome site as being “surrounded by rail lines, Décarie Highway and an industrial area,” with “no infrastructure, public utilities or local stores.” Bleak prospects. But there’s a twist urban planning fiends may appreciate. The City is proposing “an ambitious five-year planning project to create a new neighbourhood built around sustainable development principles” on the Hippodrome site.

“The city will establish an inclusive model community on this site,” explains the City’s website. “It will develop a world-class living environment incorporating [the] best practices of sustainable development, urban design and community participation.” This urban utopia is set to include car-free areas, parks, community gardens, green roofs, public transit, green architecture, and local services catering especially to families with children. No condos this time. Well, hopefully not – but the City’s love of the big dollars that come with condos is a powerful force.

For the Hippodrome project to work, Montreal’s municipal government needs to put aside its desire for immediate profit. The City has put little effort into developing more single-family residential units with two or more bedrooms in the past few years, a type of unit that has facilitated the creation of tight-knit, family-friendly communities in some of Montreal’s established neighbourhoods.

“[This project] is a fine example of utopianism,” said Nik Luka, a Professor in McGill’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and member of the city’s advisory committee for the Hippodrome project, in an interview with The Daily.

The idea that the Hippodrome site will be car-free seems pretty wild. This blank slate of a neighbourhood, only about nine kilometres away from downtown Montreal, is surrounded by the Décarie expressway. So public transit or not, residents of the Hippodrome neighbourhood will be hard-pressed to escape the lure of the automobile. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the City’s idea of encouraging public transit was just building up condos with no parking spots, leaving residents with the unappealing choice of either making the long trek to the one metro station near the Hippodrome site (Namur) or endlessly circling for the elusive parking spot.

The dream of a Hippodrome utopia is bound to slightly fade while we wait for the municipal elections coming up on November 3; we still have to elect the mayor who will have the final say in the Hippodrome’s fate. “The project seems totally moribund now, at least until the municipal elections have come to pass,” explained Luka. The time has not yet come for the little neighbourhood that could.