NPF: WHITE ELEPHANT

There's something inherently interesting, not to mention disturbing, about abandoned places. The internet agrees, as it has fueled the growth in "urban exploration" as a (white, middle class) hobby. Search around and you'll find that pictures of abandoned factories, amusement parks, and malls aplenty. Personally, my favorite type of man-made wreckage is a good old fashioned white elephant. They might not be abandoned in the strictest sense, but they have this special kind of sad, pointless emptiness that you can't find anywhere else. Imagine walking around a museum alone or being the only fan in an entire stadium. But enough about going to Miami Marlins games.

I've never been to Montreal, but it is the Graceland of giant, burdensome, staggeringly expensive, useless public works projects. There's Olympic Stadium, but that's a story for another day. Here's a good trivia question. What is the largest airport in the world by area? While this title is now disputed*, I'm going to guess that Montreal-Mirabel Airport was not on the tip of your tongue. Why? Because you can't actually book a flight into the world's biggest, and almost totally empty, airport. At a hard-to-comprehend 396 square kilometers in area, Mirabel opened in 1975 (for the 1976 Montreal Olympics) and is easily visible from space.

mirabel-icar-1

Are you sure it's big enough? For the planes carrying tens of millions of people to…Montreal?

The gargantuan airport hasn't had passenger service for over a decade, handling only cargo traffic. The city has spent 30 years trying to find alternate uses for it – it has been used variously as a Formula 1 racetrack, a Bombardier airplane factory, a movie set, warehouse space, and more. For a while they were even talking about turning into an amusement park. So how does a city build the world's biggest airport and it ends up totally empty?

After Expo 67 (the spiritual successor of the great World Fairs of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries) and their winning bid to host the Summer Olympics of 1976, the city fathers in Montreal were making some boldly optimistic projections of the city's future (and possibly doing a lot of blow as well). Along with the Canadian federal government they began planning massive new infrastructure projects. Montreal was served by a relatively small city airport, Dorval (now – because god has a sense of humor – named Pierre Trudeau International) which was handling an unplanned amount of international traffic. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, airliners did not have the range we're accustomed to today. So west coast flights to Europe, Africa, the Mideast, etc commonly stopped in Montreal to re-fuel before crossing the Atlantic. So they hatched a brilliant plan.

Projecting that Montreal's airports would be handling a staggering 20 million passengers annually, they drew up plans for Mirabel to handle all international flights. Domestic flights would continue to use Dorval. When Mirabel opened, though, the floods of passengers never came. First, technological advances made it unnecessary for newer airliners to make refueling stops. Second, nobody within or outside of Montreal wanted to use the damn thing. It was built more than an hour's drive from the city (Dorval is much closer) and the promised high-speed rail line to connect the city and airport never materialized. It was expensive, so the airlines hated it. And because it could offer the size of a major airport with the convenience of domestic connections, airlines decided to avoid Montreal altogether and just fly to Pearson International in Toronto (the one Rush wrote a song about). After twenty years the governments collectively gave up on Mirabel and…expanded Dorval to accommodate 20 million passengers, which I guess they kinda could have done in the first place. At its peak, Mirabel handled 3 million passengers in one year. This is the amount of passengers handled in 2012 by the 52nd busiest airport in the U.S. – Port Columbus International in lovely Columbus, Ohio. Check out the bustling terminal at Mirabel today!

NKN-2007-08-05_144714_MIRABEL_AIRPORT(Yvan_Leduc_author_for_Wikipedia)

Let's just say things didn't pan out. And it's still standing to remind everyone of its failure. We've all made bad predictions and worse plans, but a literal concrete-and-steel monument has never been built to your bad ideas. Whoever finds this planet in a few thousand years after we're long gone will be baffled by it. Fittingly, they will probably land at Dorval. "Why would you land at the one that's farther away?" they will ask in their strange, alien tongue. Good question. Good question.

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28 Responses to “NPF: WHITE ELEPHANT”

  1. Kyle Says:

    As far as I know only Mont Tremblant, Mosport and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve have hosted F1 races in Canada. Can't recall a noteworthy race of any sort (F1, Champ Car, IRL/Indy) being held at Mirabel.

  2. Dixie Pomeroy Says:

    I've never understood why cities clamor and beg and cheer when they get picked to host the summer olympics. I mean, I know psychologically it can be exciting, but what is the financial incentive? You spend five years building outrageously huge sports arenas that will almost certainly never be full again, and I've always found it difficult to believe that the cities who host make back their investment on tourism and ticket sales. The winter olympics make a little more sense – they tend to happen in small towns that will always benefit from name recognition – I'm sure plenty of people would go skiing in Lake Placid solely because they hosted the olympics, but who goes to Montreal for that reason?

  3. Middle Seaman Says:

    Many mistakes can be corrected. You obviously cannot erase a white elephant airport. Otherwise, Mirabel is just a calculation mistake.

  4. PhilM Says:

    "The Graceland of giant, burdensome, staggeringly expensive, useless public works projects". My new favourite way to look at the remnants of Montreal's megalomaniacal age. Maybe we should adopt it as a city nickname.

    My parents still miss Mirabel and lament having to wade all the way to Dorval. Building a convenient international airport for people who live north of the city obviously wasn't the idea behind Mirabel, but it filled that role perfectly. It was just a tiny little bit of an overkill for the market.

    Come on a mayor smoking crack is hardly a scandal. How much (in million $) did it cost the taxpayers and who's facing criminal charges for it? You see? hardly scandalous. Step up your game Toronto. Though you did win handily the "ignominious exit from the NHL playoffs" battle, I'll grant you that.

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    Say what you want about the stupid airport, but Montreal is a great and beautiful city.
    I used to go up there frequently, back in the late 70's and early 80's – great food, gorgeous women.

    And sure, the people could be assholes sometimes – but, I'm from NY City, so I felt right at home. I even learned a few French curse-words, to throw back-at-'em!"

    Besides the airport, the other worst use for a space in that city had to be using the giant Olympic Stadium there for Baseball.

    I went to a game there once, and sat way up in the Right Field seats (we moved down later on, since the stadium was practically empty). And in the first inning, off in the distance, I could see (barely) that someone had hit the ball hard, and started to run. He was almost halfway to 1st by the time I heard the crack of the ball hitting the bat.

    One last comment on bad municipal investments – Football Stadiums.

    I can understand Baseball parks, and Basketball "gardens," and Hockey
    arena's.
    They're smaller, in that they use up less space, and hold less people than Football Stadiums. And they're used for games anywhere from 40+ times for Basketball and Hockey – especially if the team goes to the playoffs.
    And 80+ for Baseball.
    And they can accommodate conventions, and concerts, quite easily.

    But why cities pay to build 70,000+ seat Stadiums that are used – if you're lucky and your team makes the playoffs – a dozen times, is beyond me.

    Sure, back in the day, The Who, or The Rolling Stones, used to pack them.
    But now, all those guys can pack, are their Depends – those who are still alive, I mean.

    No matter what the sports venue is, it's usually "We the people" who end up paying for the Billionaires, and/or corporate, owners to build Xanadu's that celebrate the glory that is 'them.'
    Uhm…
    Why?
    Cities need to start to say, "You want your Xanadu? Ok, we'll find some space, YOU buy the land, and YOU build it!"

  6. MontrealGuy Says:

    Jean Drapeau (the Mayor at the time of these crazy projects)was not the kind of guy that indulged in the white powdery substance. But he was a crazy megalomaniac and his shadow still looms over Montreal.

    But, on a side note, building Mirabel based on failed predictions is not as bad as the amount of "Let's bulldoze old/historical stuff so we can build newer and uglier stuff" that went on during the 60's and 70's.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    Ah yes Montreal 1976 — sort of like mentioning The War.

    It was the game changer. Now it's all "Official Partners".

    I wonder how much of the megalomania was driven by québécois pride and trying to prove something. Probably a far better explaination than coke.

    I hear ya CU. I'm looking forward to seeing how Grand Pa Grumpy's new bill goes for cable broadcast. Especially the components that prevent "free to air" local zone block outs for home games. What was his attitude? Something about private interests using public funds for private gain…

  8. Anonymouse Says:

    Gulag is right; Montreal is absolutely beautiful. I was stationed 45 minutes' drive south (in NY) back when you could cross the border between Canada and the USA without 20 forms of ID and a federal directive, and I spent many happy weekends in the city–at Chinatown, the Aquarium, the Planetarium, the University, not to mention the concerts, the bookstores, the parks, the shopping…

    I now live smack-dab between two cities with football stadiums, 20 miles from each. They're huge, money-sucking pits that only enrich the coffer of the billionaire owners who strong-armed the cities into paying for them.

  9. deep tin Says:

    Did you say abandoned amusement parks?

  10. Freeportguy Says:

    The non mentioned biggest tragedy of Mrabel was the expropriation of hundreds of farms and high quality land to build it.

    The problems with Mirabel, as far as I'm concerned, were:
    - distance (you felt he was already half way to Europe by the time you got at the airport)
    - boarding system (busing using a bs system).

    "If you build it, they will come"… You keep hearing that about sport venues. What a crock! Cities have this belief they "made it" once they land a sports team. We!!, that is as long as the team wins, because if it doesn't, it tends to badly reflect on the city, unless that city is named Miami, Chicago, NY and LA.

  11. xynzee Says:

    @Dixie: To answer your question there is some good that can come out of an O-lymp-(d)ics. You know that great icon of Sydney, the Harbour Bridge? Up until that time almost ALL traffic heading south into the city came across the bridge and was dumped into the city centre. The rest was shuffled off to the east by 1kM and got shunted onto other central Sydney streets.

    You read that right. The largest berg in Aus. dumped practically all of its north-south traffic into the city centre. Thanks to the games we now have few things that move traffic off of the central CBD streets. Sydney is still the biggest cluster F### for a city of its size for car traffic. It's a good thing Aussies do not have free access to fire arms. otherwise road shootings would be incalculable.

  12. Major Kong Says:

    I've flown cargo into Mirabel. It looks like something out of a Mad Max movie. All the facilities are there but there's no people around. It's a bit spooky.

  13. Major Kong Says:

    I believe the largest airport in terms of area is Jeddah Saudi Arabia. The entire DFW airport would fit between the runways at Jeddah. It's normally not that busy of an airport except during the annual Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

    We operated B-52s out of there during the Gulf War.

  14. tenactius Says:

    Dixie Pomeroy & c u n d gulag;

    Most of these projects are not endorsed by the majority of a city's inhabitants. It's usually driven by land owners and developers and their supporters in political machines. They are not usually talking about it making money for the hoi polloi but for construction companies and municipal shot callers.

  15. deep tin Says:

    @tenactius:

    EXACTLY! So by that standard Mirabel was a smashing success since I'm sure some developer became VERY rich because of it.

    Yay Capitalism!

  16. Rosalux Says:

    First off, Montreal – as many other commentators here have already pointed out – is an awesome city. Far more livable, interesting and cultured than any American city. And if you talk shit about Montreal in the Plateau neighborhood, they'll stab you.

    Second, you didn't mention a kind of weird but also kind of awesome public art project, Habitat 67: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitat_67

  17. Major Kong Says:

    I've always enjoyed Montreal. It's about as close to being in Europe as you can get without crossing an ocean.

  18. acer Says:

    As a Chicagoan, I'm still traumatized from our corrupt egomaniac ex-mayor Richard M. Daley's Olympic bid, which most discerning citizens knew a) probably wouldn't happen and b) had the potential to be a massive clusterfuck visible from outer space.

    Fortunately, he ended up embarrassing himself and the President and setting a huge pile of money aflame.

    He was basically our Mayor Quimby.

  19. Hobbes Says:

    I'm working at a convention at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare this weekend. The Hyatt's meeting rooms are named after world airports, including one named Mirabel.

    Mirabel has been used as a temporary home for a lot of things. No one really knows what's supposed to go there and ultimately it's unused. I really don't think that was intentional.

  20. Weird Old Tip Says:

    Glancingly relevant–the Kansas City airport consists of four large circular terminal buildings, themselves arranged in a circle. Airplanes are supposed to belly up to the outer circumferences of each terminal. These days, with more than half of the space empty, you can walk away from the vicinity of your gate & go 1/2 mile down a gently curving corridor, completely empty, like the establishing shots of the interior of the Jupiter ship in Kubrick's 2001.

  21. Xynzee Says:

    If you think Montreal is all European and old worldy then let me draw your attention to the only fortified city in North America: Quebec.

  22. chris Says:

    I was 13 in the summer of '67 and had a season pass to Expo67. It was beyond awesome and I'm still waiting for my flying car.
    Memories of the '70s are hazy but I believe that part of the reason for Mirabel was supersonic flight. The Concorde was the coming thing but it was too loud to fly into cities and needed much more runway than Dorval could offer. Anyone else remember this?

    Also, ditto Québec City. Go if you can, it's beautiful.

  23. Davis X. Machina Says:

    Kansas City was a hub for TWA, Braniff and Eastern — not a good troika of horses to have staked your shirt on….

  24. Mike Says:

    It's not strictly just cargo. Some charter flights, such as for direct line resorts or vacation packages, fly out of Mirabel. I took one out of their in 2008 for Mexico. Nothing was as sad as the cold February drive to and from the airport in the middle of no-where.

  25. Montrealer Says:

    This is a great example of a good idea gone bad.

    Dorval Airport is a pitiful excuse of an airport: after 10 years of heavy work it is starting to look almost good, but it is on the west part of the town, so tens of thousands of people are now disturbed by the noise these planes make from morning to night (I'm one of them).

    And you know why at heart? Because the bitch in charge of Aeroport de Montr

  26. Adirondack Says:

    God did not rename the airport.

  27. Stephen Says:

    I think for all the money spent every 2 years on the Winter or Summer Olympics we could have built several fully functioning cities around the planet that open and close every 2 years just for the Olympics. It would be like the *dreaded* BCS Bowls. We just rotate through them every new Olympics. When its all over, someone turns off the lights and we open the city back up again in 16 years or however long. Just so silly to see these cities spend the kind of money they do on the Olympics and to see just about every one of the facilities either abandoned or struggling in just a couple years time afterwards.

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