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Quebec City's 400th birthday facelift creates some jealousy

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QUEBEC -- Quebec is the most beautiful city in Canada, Stephen Harper said when he wished the town a happy 400th birthday on July 3. Whether you agree with the prime minister or not, the $500-million facelift the city has undergone for the yearlong celebrations is making some people jealous.


Surprisingly, the latest display of envy comes from Montreal, the archrival of Quebec City. The dispute between the province's two biggest cities has been going on for decades. Montreal residents often view the capital as a postcard-like, but boring, city with its thousands of civil servants.


It's an image that infuriates Quebec City residents.




"I had visited Quebec a few times, but I never saw more than a cute, monochrome, neat and tidy little town," wrote Rima Elkouri in a column titled Jealous of Quebec City in Montreal's La Presse newspaper last week.


"But Quebec has changed. While Montreal is stagnating, the already beautiful capital underwent a $500-million facelift for its 400th anniversary. Everywhere, I've been charmed by the careful planning and development, the promotion of heritage and the creativity. How is it that, when it comes to urban planning, Quebec is succeeding where Montreal is failing?" she added.


Her column prompted a lot of reaction in both cities and highlighted the fact that the festivities have been a catalyst for long-term urban renewal.


The large sum of money invested by the federal government for Quebec City's 400th birthday (more than $150 million) has also raised the dander of organizers of British Columbia's 150th anniversary, who will get $6 million from Heritage Canada.


In a recent interview with Global National, the prime minister said Quebec City's bash is only one of a number of commemorations being funded, but noted it has a special national historic significance because it marks "the beginning of the Canadian state 400 years ago."


In the years leading to the milestone anniversary, the federal, provincial and city governments have invested some $500 million in infrastructure projects, including a new airport for Quebec City.


In comparison, the federal government forked over more than $450 million for Montreal's 350th birthday party in 1992, including a $100-million facelift of the old port.


In the capital, the lion's share of the money for the 400th celebrations was also spent in the old port. After years of focusing on the industrialization of the shore of the St. Lawrence River, Ottawa and Quebec have pitched in $225 million alone to give residents improved access to the river, including a 2.5-kilometre promenade and recreational facilities.


Dinu Bumbaru, of the architectural preservation group Heritage Montreal, was in Quebec City last week for a UNESCO meeting and said he was pleased with what he saw.


"It's OK to be ambitious and to have big development projects, but the small things and details are also important and that's what I noticed. They enhanced the historic district with public places, fountains and artwork. It's like the notes that make a symphony beautiful," said the Heritage Montreal's program director.


Bumbaru said the city had the political will to go ahead with these projects and credited former mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier for pushing forward despite criticism and sometimes local opposition.


L'Allier, who ran the city from 1989 to 2005, spearheaded the revitalization of the lower part of the town that encompasses the old port and a neighbourhood called St. Roch. What was once a seedy deserted area - dubbed plywood city because of all the covered shop windows - has become a trendy and lively neighbourhood packed with swanky restaurants and high-end boutiques.


"It went from the place where no one wanted to be, where junkies, prostitutes and the poor lived, to the place to be," said Quebec City historian and former councillor Rejean Lemoine.


"And all of that happened in a short 10 to 15 years," added Lemoine who is now a researcher and radio commentator for Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the CBC.


This area is now home to Espace 400e, a gathering place and performance site at the heart of many activities of the year-long celebrations.


Lemoine said one the greatest achievements of local authorities has been to bring residents back to live in the downtown areas that were deserted in the 1960s and '70s.


He also believes that the success of the development of Quebec City lies in the step-by-step method.


"The city revamped one neighbourhood at a time, with many different projects, some smaller, some bigger. That's how in the end they were able to attract businesses like Hugo Boss or Ubisoft (a video game developer)," he said.


In an editorial published on the city's birthday, local newspaper Le Soleil wrote Quebec City had no reason to be ashamed of what it has become 400 years after Samuel de Champlain founded his modest trading post.


"Today's capital is indeed a tremendous success," wrote editor Claude Gagnon.


The paper stressed that the St. Lawrence promenade and revitalization of the St. Charles River are among the most important projects of the last decades.


For the city's 300th birthday, the federal government offered the Plains of Abraham as present. It became a city landmark. For the 400th birthday, Ottawa paid for three brand new facilities on the St. Lawrence riverfront. Will it have the same impact?


"Only time will tell," said Heritage Montreal's Bumbaru. "But if I can offer one piece of advice to Quebec City, (it) is to maintain the facilities after the party is over."


Bumbaru recalled that after Montreal's 350th anniversary, some of the revamped facilities in the old port were neglected.





© Canwest News Service 2008

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RE: Quebec City's 400th birthday facelift creates some jealous


I've been to both several times and I have never felt that Quebec was at all exciting or entertaining. More than a day there is too much.


the Cajun

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