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Modernizing downtown Québec City

Modernizing downtown Québec City in the 1960s

In the 1960s

Québec City, the province’s capital, found itself at the forefront of the changes washing over Québec in the early 1960s as Québec’s government sought to be in the vanguard and put all of society on the path to progress. As part of this mission the authorities decided to replace large swaths of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood they deemed to have fallen into disrepair with a modern administrative centre. The change was spectacular.

Starting over

Two major reports in 1956 and 1963 recommended an overhaul of downtown Québec City, while leaving its historical centre untouched. As the Québec government hurried to hire thousands of new employees to work in new areas the state was now responsible for—particularly in health and education—transforming the neighbourhood into a new administrative and business centre meant wrecking balls and rebuilding work rather than years of renovation and restoration. The city and provincial government therefore agreed on a joint project to quickly transform the area around Parliament Hill, in places making a clean sweep of things. The private sector joined forces with them.

Aiming high

Work began in 1965 by building new roads that would bring thousands of people to work in new office towers, stay in first-rate hotels, and shop in a revitalized city centre. Boulevard Saint-Cyrille (today René-Lévesque) appeared for the first time. Then blocks of houses were expropriated and demolished to give way to the new Dufferin-Montmorency expressway. Place-Québec, a new shopping mall, was also built.

Work peaked in 1969 with the start of construction work on a series of skyscrapers that would cement Québec’s position as a truly modern city. Complexe G, Édifice de la Haute-Ville, 800 d’Youville, the Hilton Hotel, and Hôtel Le Concorde on Grande Allée all sprang up on lots that had turned their backs on the past once and for all. These ambitious projects were completed in 1972, while the raised Dufferin-Montmorency expressway, which led right up to these impressive buildings, would not fully open until 1976.

Upheaval

In all 2,000 downtown buildings were torn down between 1960 and 1976. Most were in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood, which became the modern capital’s centrepiece. The change was so quick—some said brutal—that second thoughts from decision-makers and alternatives put forward by developers were given short shrift.

Discontent grew as the projects finished. People were aghast at the impact on the neighbourhood’s identity and community spirit, with more traffic and busier roads and the loss of a number of beautiful Victorian homes along Grande Allée. Increasingly organized opposition groups began to make their voices heard. Ultimately civic engagement, growing skepticism, and a lack of funds put an end to the wave of radical modernization that was synonymous with the decade from 1965 to 1975 and would otherwise have continued unabated.

What legacy?

Many measures have since been put in place to minimize the negative impact of this period of rapid change in the city. René-Lévesque and Dufferin-Montmorency, in particular—the redesigned section of the latter renamed Avenue Honoré-Mercier—have become more pedestrian friendly and even have a certain charm.

There’s no denying that all this modern infrastructure has fulfilled its purpose by giving locals a place to work and visitors somewhere to stay just a hop, skip, and jump away from Old Québec, which in turn has been able to keep its historic character. Was the strategy right from the start? Opinions are still divided. But decision-makers in the 1960s deemed sweeping changes to be both urgent and necessary if the city was to assume its role as a regional urban centre and the capital of a vibrant, modern Québec.

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