Tag Archives: Urban Development

Griffintown co-op to be rebuilt; residents offered accommodation at nearby condo project

Brickfields Conceptual Rendering
Brickfields Conceptual Rendering

Some late breaking good news.

It appears the now homeless former residents of the Saint Anne housing co-op in Griffintown have caught a break after several days of devastating news.

To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.

The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the co-op’s insurer has insisted the incident was a ‘landslide’ and thus an act of god. They refused to compensate for the demolition. The condo developer has also indicated they’re not responsible either.

So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.

Today’s news is that three levels of government are going to collaborate in re-building the demolished homes, and that the nearby Bassins du Havre will provide temporary housing for the displaced, though details have yet to be worked out.

Brickfields Concept Rendering - Mountain Street Profile
Brickfields Concept Rendering – Mountain Street Profile

I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed façade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.

Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montréal re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”

He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.

So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.

Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.

Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block - Google Street View, May 2015
Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block – Google Street View, May 2015

There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.

Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.

That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.

Maybe it will become a restaurant…

Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.

The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.

Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.

While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.

I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.

Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.

What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.

Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.

Tourisme Montréal actively soliciting Ripley’s to build aquarium, believe it or not.

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - photo credit to B+H Architects
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – photo credit to B+H Architects

A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.

As Réjean Bourdeau points out, it’s the second time in fifteen years that the Pattison Group has been approached to build an aquarium here in Montreal. The last attempt was made by the Société du Vieux-Port, which has been conducting surveys and public consultations of late on how to make the Old Port more inviting and interesting.

Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.

What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).

Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966
Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966

That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.

The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.

I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.

Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.

That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.

And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.

I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.

At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.

And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.

We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.

Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.

The Exciting World of Montréal Urban Planning & Municipal Politics

Fantastic graphic design from the City of Montréal

No, I wasn’t being sarcastic…

Kate McDonnell’s always informative Montreal City Weblog brought these little bits of information to my attention – hats off to you Kate, you do damn good work keeping me and a whole mess of other people well informed about our city and its diverse affairs.

I figured I’d add my two cents while they’re still in circulation.

The first comes from a report in Métro concerning a recent UQAM conference, the URBA 2015 Forum, where organizers advocated that Montréal’s diverse transit services, and indeed everything concerning public transit and transport in our urban area, be folded into a single organization, such as Vancouver’s TransitLink.

TransitLink has a rather broad portfolio, in charge of making key decisions about roadways, bike paths, freight transport, buses, LRTs and commuter rail. It’s comprehensive, including the 20 municipalities comprising Metro Vancouver. Imagine if we could roll the MTQ’s Montreal division, the STM, the AMT, Federal Bridges, the RTL, STL etc all together into a single operating entity?

It would certainly allow for a drastic reduction in operational waste. Administering a single pension fund wouldn’t just be comparatively cheaper, but potentially better performing too. Security operations could be streamlined and there’d be far better options for career advancement within the larger organization. We’d be much better off this way, I think, and we’d likely have the means, under a single organization, to execute some impressive expansion and renovation projects.

Otherwise I fear we’re going to get bogged down in expensive, disconnected and disorganized mass-transit, more of an inconvenience than municipal revenue generator. I don’t know how much more bickering between the AdM and AMT I can stand.

The second concerns a successful measure by a Projet Montréal councillor in St. Henri which has temporarily stalled the conversion of the old Archivex warehouse (right behind Lionel-Groulx Métro station) into a seven-storey commercial building for 2,000 white-collar jobs.

I’m a little puzzled as to what the manner of the objection is.

If it’s due to a lack of centralized civic planning I can only say, well, what do you expect from Montréal under the direction of Union Montréal? There hasn’t been too much in terms of a cohesive city plan, and less still for neighbourhood redevelopment. Their opinion is – if it’s on private land, hands off, let the market dictate development as it sees fit.

This isn’t the best way to plan a city but it’s what we have at the moment. The developer suggests that the new building would be LEED-certified and, given it’s potentially direct-access to the Métro, naturally progressive and ecologically sound in design.

The point about LEED-certification is a bit laughable since it’s an industry standard, and has in the past been dismissed as the ‘Oscars of Green Washing’, but I digress, I don’t know enough about the particulars.

My view is simply this. It’s a private building – a warehouse without any heritage value – and as it stands it’s a waste of space. There are better places for warehouses than a residential zone. Building a commercial office tower would be breaking new ground for St. Henri, an area without any purpose-built large-scale office space. A seven-storey building isn’t overly large, not imposing when set against the large open space around the station (there are apartment buildings and loft buildings of similar height in the area) and the economic potential of 2,000 some-odd office workers could be a major boon for the area’s small businesses, especially those at the Atwater Market, along Notre-Dame and St. Jacques.

The developer’s estimate is a $2.4 million annual cash infusion for the surrounding area, based on the number of potential employees spending roughly $25 a week at local businesses. And that’s not including municipal taxes on the building itself.

If the public hasn’t been adequately consulted, that’s one thing, but otherwise I don’t see what the issue is at all. Build it and make sure the developer is insured and the tenants ready to sign leases. If the market wants an office tower at Lionel-Groulx, I can imagine it will have beneficial consequence for local businesses and residents alike.

If Councillor Sophie Thiébaut reads this blog I’d like to know what I’m missing, as this seems pretty straightforward to me. Better planning, on a per-quartier basis, will be achieved when and if Projet Montréal is elected, but until then let’s not deny the people of St. Henri the potential economic benefit of 2,000 office workers in the meantime. Plus, why concentrate all office buildings in the downtown core. Let’s open up the real estate market to new speculation, growth etc.

Third, and this time from La Presse, concerns Projet Montréal councillor Josée Duplessis’ understandable vexation at the lack of transparency exhibited by the previous administration concerning municipal contracts. In this case, it concerns the never-ending story and complete disaster that is the renovation of the Hélène-de-Champlain restaurant at Parc Jean-Drapeau.

Apparently, it will now cost more than $16 million to complete structural renovations before another estimated $3-5 million is required to actually make the site a functioning restaurant again.

The restaurant was built in 1937, as were many other such pavilions build in public spaces as make-work projects during the Depression. During Expo 67 it was used as a VIP reception space, and post-Expo as a high-end gourmet restaurant of sorts. The last time I remember seeing it open it seemed to be more family-restaurant than gourmet treat, but that was some time ago. Renovations have been costly and this will invariably lead some to question whether the city ought to try and kick-start another restaurant in the same space.

Perhaps we just keep it was a VIP reception space, i think it would be a shame to tear it down, it worse still, turn it into a food court. Consider for yourself.

I think Parc Jean-Drapeau could use both higher traffic and somewhat of a dress code – it would be nice if we had a massive urban park that was also a kind of perennial exposition, the kind of place where you go to re-create Seurat scenes. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but it would be nice to have a full service, ‘business-casual’ restaurant, especially given the large terrace and unkempt rose garden. Perhaps the building could serve other purposes as well – seems to big to be a single restaurant.

In any event – it all seems like more of the same doesn’t it?