Residents appeared bitterly divided over plans to return seating to the corner of Church and Alexander streets at a private stakeholders’ meeting hosted by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
Four benches belonging to the Alexus condominium and the Bank of Montreal were removed from the corner last fall after residents complained that the benches encouraged drug dealers and sex workers to hang out in front of their building all night long, causing disturbances and harassing residents.
The removal surprised community members who enjoyed sitting in the quiet space during the daytime and elicited outrage from some Xtra readers.
At the time, Wong-Tam said that the large, wide sidewalk on the corner would undergo a redesign as part of a larger Church St beautification project. She’s now consulting with the nearby residents, neighbourhood associations and business owners on design ideas before consulting with the broader public.
Robert Mays, from the public realm section of the city’s transportation services department, showed three preliminary designs (embedded below) for the revamped space. One involved new tree and flower beds with raised seating areas, another replaced the seating with two small mini-golf greens, and a third included a double row of trees separated by a decorative walkway with a single bench.
The third option seemed to be the favourite among attendees, but members of the board of the Alexis condominium were strongly opposed to any new seating.
“This is not NIMBYism,” says Jamie McLennan. “This is a case of serious concern for physical and mental safety.”
“Would you want a place for people to congregate night and day in your front yard?” McLennan asked. “Our board is officially against any seating there, even a curb.”
But other stakeholders, including some residents of the Alexus, insisted that they want the benches back.
Sergeant Craig Summers, of 51 Division, was invited to weigh in on the public safety aspects of the proposals; he also agreed that limiting the new seating was the best solution for the neighbourhood.
“The corner causes much less concern now,” he says. “Any new seating opportunities have to be not ergonomically too comfortable or you get people who stay hour after hour.”
“Long-term police coverage is not the right solution for the corner,” he adds.
Alternative proposals for the corner included adding large flower planters that would be too tall to sit on or throw garbage into and beginning a walk of fame for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community.
Liz Hurley, from the Bank of Montreal, suggested that the bank might be willing to contribute to starting up the walk of fame idea, and David Wooten, from the Church-Wellesley Village BIA, says that Pink Pages publisher Antoine Elhashem is interested in spearheading the project this year.
Wong-Tam appeared open to the proposal but insisted that there’s no city money to pay for it or maintain it. The walk of fame would have to be maintained by a community group, as the AIDS Memorial in Cawthra Park is.
Wong-Tam was also touting a proposal to bring more life to Church St by allowing bars and restaurants to extend their patios out into the curb/parking lane of Church St to create more seating, similar to what has been done with success in recent years in Montreal’s Village neighbourhood. Restaurants would be responsible for paying the required parking fees for as long as their patios are occupying parking spaces. The proposal requires approval from city council.
Two features of the corner are going to stick around, whatever the stakeholders decide. The Bixi bike station has proven popular with the neighbourhood and residents say that their placement along the building’s edge discourages smokers from lighting up outside their windows.
And despite some rumours to the contrary, there are no plans to remove or relocate the statue of gay icon Alexander Wood that stands at the corner. Wong-Tam says the statue is so heavy that even moving it a few feet is unfeasible.