MONTREAL - A 10-minute walk from Ste. Catherine St., up steep Peel St., is an inviting new entranceway to an oasis from the bustling city.
The city of Montreal spent two years and about $5 million to spruce up a dilapidated, little-used pedestrian access to Mount Royal, at Peel and Pine Ave., creating a major downtown entranceway similar to the one Frederick Law Olmsted envisaged when Mount Royal Park opened in 1876 but that was not built at the time.
The new mountain gateway features a granite landing with a view down Peel to the St. Lawrence River, as well as a stream, two new sets of wooden stairs, and an artwork/rest area commemorating the John Lennon song Give Peace a Chance, recorded in Montreal in 1969.
The project, which covers an eight-hectare area that has a vertical drop of 45 metres, also improved drainage to control runoff. Trees and shrubs were planted and invasive vegetation removed.
It's a far cry from the crumbling stone walls and stairs that previously welcomed visitors to the area, overrun by weeds and rogue trees.
The city is expected to open the entrance officially in May - Mount Royal Month in Montreal - but much of the work is finished. Barriers around the new stairs were removed this week.
In yesterday's balmy spring weather, the area was crawling with tourists, joggers, cyclists, parents pushing prams, sunbathers and people out for holiday strolls.
Reviews were positive.
"It's just lovely," said Carol Weiner, a tourist from North Carolina who happened upon the entranceway and decided to hoof it up the stairs - almost 400 of them - to reach the chalet and lookout.
"You're so lucky to have this great park in the middle of the city."
Jean Bouchard of Montreal was also impressed with the city's efforts, though he's not sure he's happy about it.
"I love running here. It's like my own personal part of the mountain," he said, taking a break from a morning jog.
The new entranceway makes the area more pleasant, he added, but "this is going to take away from the serenity - I'm going to have to share it."
The city hopes the rest of the project will be completed by early summer, said Alan DeSousa, the city executive committee member responsible for Mount Royal. Final touches are to include signage and urban furniture.
Before the work, the area was in bad shape, he said. The stairs and handrails were falling apart, the soil eroding.
"It was narrow, it was rickety, in some places it was not even safe," DeSousa said.
"It was only the die-hard joggers and mountain-lovers who would go up there."
The new entrance will attract people who live and work downtown, and tourists, he said. "People will have a very easy access to get up to the summit, said DeSousa, who visited the site yesterday.
He expects the entrance itself to become a destination, especially on days like yesterday, when the rush of the spring runoff turned the stream into a burbling cascade.
"The attraction is seeing the water and listening to it in the springtime," DeSousa said. "And if you're daring, you can dip your toes in the cold water," as some people were doing yesterday.
When Mount Royal Park opened, the Peel entrance was designed to provide calèche and pedestrian access to the mountain's summit.
The entrance still features the original winding gravel trail - the Serpentine - leading from Pine to Olmsted Rd. in Mount Royal Park. A pedestrian path and stairs were added in the 1960s but little else had changed since the late 19th century.
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