Environment: Multilevel Man

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Vincent Ponte is a little-known planner who stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Doxiadis. Instead of designing huge urban regions, Ponte concentrates on small, heavily used plots in downtown areas. His specialty is multilevel traffic systems; his showpiece is Montreal. His emphasis: practicality. "Downtown pays for at least 20% of a city's real estate taxes," he says. "Shouldn't we take care of a goose that lays such a golden egg?"

Ponte was educated at Harvard ('49) to make grand designs; on a Fulbright in Rome, he studied the relationship of baroque planning to infinite calculus. But when he went to work with Architect I. M. Pei for Developer William Zeckendorf, the realities of real estate narrowed his focus. Helping to plan Zeckendorf's many urban-renewal projects, Ponte learned how even one strategically located building could improve a city's tax structure as well as its aesthetic ambiance. He discovered something else: "The feet have their own reasons. The activities that make a city—shopping, finance, law, culture—usually cluster within walking distance of one another. That is why downtowns seldom grow bigger than 200 acres."

Spreading Roots. Ponte's target is the traffic congestion that makes face-to-face meetings more and more difficult. "You can't realistically solve the problem by widening streets or banning cars," he says. "You have to adjust, reshuffle things and separate the trucks, cars and people, each on a distinct level. Back in the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans to separate traffic this way. Rockefeller Center tried it in the 1930s." In 1957 Ponte saw his chance to update both. To land a project in downtown Montreal, Zeckendorf had to submit a plan for the surrounding area as well. Included in that plan was Ponte's proposal for putting truck ramps and pedestrian ways underground.

Typically, Ponte started small—under Zeckendorf's seven-acre Place Ville Marie office complex, which opened in 1962. Since then, Montreal's subterranean system has spread as vigorously as the roots of a healthy young tree. It now extends through about 50 acres, linking offices, hotels, subways, railroad stations, theaters—all the places that keep downtown alive and zesty. Ponte sees two main reasons for the success. First, the walkways are carefully designed "not to make people feel like moles." Spacious, punctuated by open courtyards and lined with bright shops and good restaurants, the promenades are always full of people. Second, other developers soon joined and expanded the system because they saw that they could easily rent store frontage in basement areas. As a result, the city got a whole new level of circulation.

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