Montréal’s Use it or Lose it List – 2012 Edition

Abandoned Bldg on Laprairie in the Pointe, credit to John Bryce Davidson

The following is a list of heritage sites in the City of Montréal which are all in danger of passing a point-of-no-return of sorts with regards to any potential redevelopment. Unless action is taken, more or less immediately, many of these buildings may have to be destroyed, and so goes with them crucial cultural heritage sites, not to mention many potential business and educational opportunities as well. All of the sites on this list have the potential to be redeveloped so as to serve a cultural function, in addition to providing revenue streams. But as the buildings and locations herein lie abandoned, they not only stain the urban fabric, but lead to lower property value, not to mention morale. It is exceptionally important that the people of the City of Montréal exercise some sort of say over what happens to these sites, because at the very least, it’s simply bad for business to tolerate too many open lots, empty buildings and stalled development potential. We want to be attractive to investors and want a better, more socially conscious gentrification of the urban core. Finding new roles for the following old buildings will help re-invigorate several key sectors of the city and, I feel, help renew a sense of civic pride amongst the general population. In essence, we need to invest in ourselves in order to stabilize markets, spur re-development and ‘steer’ the real-estate sector with urban-planning and urban-preservation best practices clearly in mind.

Thus, the Use It or Lose It list, 2012 Edition. Hopefully we’ll have some progress in a year’s time. Entries are in no particular order.

1. The Empress Theatre. Empty since the early 1990s. Multiple stalled projects to redevelop building as a performance venue and cultural centre, currently owned by the City through the CDN-NDG borough. There were talks of holding public consultations about what to do a few months back, not sure what, if anything, has come of it. Situated across from Girouard Park in NDG on Sherbrooke Street West, prime location for a new condo tower. I’ve mentioned before that if the city were to work out some kind of deal with the owner of the small commercial building and parking lot next to the theatre, the site could be redeveloped with a condo tower built into the Empress, which could possibly be a source of funding for the theatre’s multi-million dollar renovations.

2. The Victoria Rink. Parking garage since the 1930s. This is quite literally the place where the modern game of hockey came together as a professional sport, and is also the site of the first ever Stanley Cup game. It stands just north of Boul. René-Lévesque between Stanley and Drummond – the length of almost all professional hockey rinks are roughly the same distance. There’s been talk of doing something with the building from a few enthusiasts but so far it’s still a parking garage. I doubt there’s much if anything left from the original building aside from the walls, but it’s location is important, given the site is underused (as an aboveground parking garage) and is adjacent to a large open lot extending towards Ste-Catherine’s Street, again – prime location for high-density residential or commercial real estate development. Embarking on a project to re-develop the Victoria Rink as a heritage hockey rink and museum is what most would propose doing with the site, though I’d add the possibility of housing an official Habs museum and further, using the space as a much needed medium-sized downtown venue.

3. LaFontaine House. Abandoned since the mid-1980s as a result of the Overdale fiasco. Though the house of one of Canada’s Founding Fathers is still standing, it’s not in very good condition, and I doubt there’s much left worth preserving in the interior. The current owners of the property (in effect, the entire Overdale block right across from Lucien-L’Allier Métro station) are keen to provide the house for use as a museum or interpretive centre, but that requires an obvious source of funding and a party interested in embarking on such an endeavour. If a renovation were to occur, I can imagine an end-product somewhat akin to the Shaughnessy House (at the Canadian Centre for Architecture). Given how few Golden Square Mile mansions and manors are left, and the historical significance of LaFontaine, you’d figure this is a no brainer, but so far it seems to soldier on as a squat. And on that note, the Mount Stephen Club is now closed, and the scuttlebutt is that it may be turned into a boutique hotel or otherwise integrated into a new hotel built on the side of the adjoining parking lot, both of which may be a particularly innovative solution to our on-going problem regarding dilapidated old mansions. Now the question is whether there’s enough interest to convert the Redpath Mansion and a few other old homes along similar lines.

4. Maison Saint Grégoire. Abandoned since the late-1980s, early-1990s I think. Located at 1800 Boul René-Lévesque West diagonally across from the CCA. Not an overwhelming impressive building, as a result of the boulevard’s expansion in the 1950s, the row-houses were torn down revealing the rear of the building. It was once an old folk’s home run by a religious community, but today, if it’s used at all, it’s as a squat. Any number of things could go here, and given the size of the site you could potentially put in a medium sized residential or commercial tower, possibly integrating into the existing structure. But given the institutional nature of the area, if may make more sense to try to encourage it’s use for education purposes. The building seems to be in good shape from the outside, and if we really anted to, I’m certain it could be transformed into a large homeless shelter without too much cost to the tax-payer. Of course that in turn wouldn’t do much to help the gentrification of the Shaughnessy Village area. Quite a conundrum, as the site has a lot of potential given a tall building at that spot could provide some exceptional views.

5. The Eaton’s Ninth Floor restaurant. Moth-balled for future use since about 1999. Apparently this place used to be a huge favourite for the downtown office crowd, offering traditional English and French cuisine at decent prices in an opulent Art Deco dining room modeled after one on the passenger liner Normandie. If nothing else it ought to be available as a reception space, but I still can’t fathom it wouldn’t work as a restaurant once more. Art Deco is always en vogue and we have an excellent collection, but letting this space slowly degenerate is the worse kind of fate. The City, in my opinion, needs to use it’s resources and connections and make a restaurant work on this site, or else find someone interested in establishing a downtown ‘establishment’ restaurant – we’re sorely lacking.

6. Notman House. Last I heard there was an ambitious project to make this the city’s start-up hub, but the last few times I passed by it didn’t seem as if much was happening. I seem to recall seeing the for sale sign outside. In any event, if it pulls through, this would be an excellent use of the site. If not, we really ought to have a dedicated Notman museum in this city. Perhaps something as broadly defined as the Notman Photography Museum of Montréal, but either way, the massive quantities of high-quality Notman photographs of the Montréal of yesteryear should be more accessible, if for no other reason than to educate the public about photography in general and let people see what life was like here over a hundred years ago. A vital link to our past, Notman’s photographs are particularly interesting because they give us a good sense of late-Victorian era and early-Edwardian urbanism – Notman took many city perspective photographs, documented parks, plazas and squares, not to mention our architectural and engineering achievements of the era. I say it’s significant because, like it or not, a considerable portion of our city was developed in the era Notman was most active, and many enduring aesthetic qualities and design decisions are captured in his photographs.

And then you have the rest of the list. Grain Silo No. 5, a major achievement and enduring landmark of industrial architecture, unused for almost twenty years. The most recent proposal I heard was to turn it into a massive data centre. Probably as good a use as any other, but I’d love to see some actual life return to this sector. Unless the Port of Montréal plans a major expansion of this area to accomodate growing maritime traffic, or develop a proper cruise/passenger terminal somewhere in the Old Port, then the options are somewhat limited moving forward. There’s a lot of diverse activity in the area known as the Cité-du-Havre, which is roughly everything East of Bridge and South of Wellington, including the Bickerdyke Pier. That said, there’s little to unify the area, and the large land allotments to light industrial activity may soon lead to residential re-development. Personally, I think our city could use a neighbourhood where port functions, commerce and high-residential developments could interface so as to create an urban neighbourhood of the kind the word Havre evokes in my mind.

I’ll have to come back and expand on this later, so stay tuned for a follow-up article. Consider these sites as threatened to one degree or another: the Imperial Theatre, the Royal Victoria Hospital, the Atwater Library, Fort Senneville, the Montreal Children’s Hospital, the Rialto Theatre, the Griffintown Gasworks and Saint James United Church all come to mind as places we need to seriously consider for City-sponsored redevelopment.