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2006 02 27
What Lies Beneath, Part I
Metro Map and the Underground City

Montreal’s underground city is a labyrinth of over 30 kilometres of tunnels connecting office towers, metro stations and above all stores, through which half a million pedestrians pass daily. This behemoth is made up of some 3.6 square kilometres of floor space, distributed under a twelve kilometre area of prime downtown real estate. It connects to ten metro stations and two bus terminals, seven major hotel complexes, two universities, over a thousand offices and apartments, forty banks, over two thousand stores, several hundred restaurants, two major department stores, a cathedral, numerous cinemas, the Montreal stock exchange, the Olympic Park, Molson Centre, Place des Arts and the Palais des Congrès de Montréal. One can walk across the entire city centre without leaving the underground city, from the Place des Arts to the Bell Centre. As a purely technical feat, it is staggering.

The first passages of the underground city were built in 1962, to connect the newly erected Place Ville Marie to the Gare Central. The project’s planning team originally conceived of an above-ground walkway, an idea quickly nixed by city’s urban planning authorities. Instead, planner Vincent Ponte and architect Leon Ming Pei, inspired by New York’s Rockefeller Center, created a shopping center directly under the Place Ville Marie, the city’s first skyscraper. Place Ville Marie, envisioned as a testament to Montreal's cosmopolitanism, was a 45-storey tower occupying 285,000 square metres, and the shopping complex that was built underneath took up the same surface area. The idea proved popular and profitable, so new tunnels began to metastasize from the original development, multiplying below ground such that the original feat, the skyscraper itself, became just the tip of a commercial iceburg. The success of the construction is marked not only by its immensity but also by its virtual replacement of above-ground commercial development; to wit, not a single major downtown retail development has been built on the surface since 1964.

Many locals today view the underground city as little more than a vastly over-hyped gargantuan of interconnected shopping malls, a stream of indistinguishable subterranean corridors that make up the Place Cathédrale, Complexe Les Ailes, Place Bonaventure, Complexe Desjardins, Place Montreal Trust, Concours Mont Royal or the Place Ville Marie. The history of the underground city reads as a warning about the dangers of allowing commerce to build the world untrammeled by city and public authorities.

Tomorrow: The Underground City in the 1960s.
[email this story] Posted by Emily Raine on 02/27 at 12:00 PM

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