In Search of Urban Community in a Societal Wasteland

Boul. René-Lévesque West

A friend of mine recently asked me what I’d like to see happen to Griffintown.

I said: the Plateau.

How’s that saying go, brevity is the soul of wit?

A-yuk-yuk-yuk…

But seriously now. We were talking about looking for apartments and she was wondering what I thought about the area currently being marketed as ‘Griffintown’ along Notre Dame West. Admittedly, this would have been the northernmost extensions of Griffintown, and would likely have been considered a part of Little Burgundy that last time there was a stable local population. Keep in mind, a good stretch of this area around the new ETS building was once a CN stockyard; this is why the buildings on the northern side of Notre Dame are all new construction, whereas those on the southern side tend to be renovated industrial buildings. I’ve had the chance to pass through the area a few times recently, and will be going back soon to document the street-side ballet of this new urban neighbourhood. It strikes me that this area may one day soon become a vibrant community, but as it stands right now, there is something palpably missing. There are people here, it is defining itself, but it has yet to acquire all that is needed to be considered an actual community, a neighbourhood.

Part of the problem lies in what kind of living arrangements are currently available here. Its almost exclusively condos, and these tend to be rented almost exclusively by students, young couples etc. There seem to be very few families around here, and scarcely any family-oriented services, such as schools, libraries, cultural centres, clinics etc. While a stretch of Notre Dame West in Little Burgundy has enjoyed recent success developing into a chic strip for night owls and the socially-inclined, other parts of the new Griffintown are eerily quiet and devoid of life between certain hours on most nights. Public transit doesn’t seem to have kept pace with developments here, and at times it seems to suffer from the same fundamental deficiencies as the Quartier des Multimedias further East.

Clark Street looking South, 1976 - not the work of the author.

The plan for Griffintown seems to be more of the same – large condo buildings and renovated former industrial sites. It’s market-driven development with only the bare minimum of municipal involvement. So the question I asked my friend, as I would ask anyone thinking of moving into Griffintown and potentially considering purchasing a condo, is whether or not they think someone else is going to want to live there at some point in the future, in short, what is the re-sale potential of the unit?

And without the necessary societal anchors that are guaranteed to stimulate the growth of a viable community, the Griffintown redevelopment runs the risk of loosing its lustre. If the development is uniquely driven by market forces, so is its lifespan, and this is dangerous if the area suddenly falls out of fashion. That or we discover that the condo market is over-saturated. I don’t think we’ve yet to reach this point in Montréal, but I would caution against pushing it too far. If the market tanks and the area falls out of favour, the area may become scarred by unfinished construction projects – consider the stalled Ilot Voyageur behind the bus terminus and the surrounding Northeast corner of the Quartier Latin – new residential developments seem stalled as well, and the vast empty hulk is degenerating whilst simultaneously negatively impacting the residential market around the site.

Stalled Redevelopment at the Dow Brewery - not the work of the author.

Now, the Berri Square area suffers from other problems as well, but the Ilot Voyageur isn’t helping. Griffintown has a stalled project along Peel with the plan to redevelop the old Dow Brewery – the area can’t afford to let this continue, as it places an unfortunate obstacle for further development – consider the negative effects the abandoned art store across from the former abandoned hulk of the Seville Theatre on Ste-Catherine’s near the old Forum. One abandoned building can have a detrimental effect on the land-value of adjacent buildings. A good portion of Griffintown remains abandoned or underused, and unless the city plans on moving in and directing urban residential redevelopment, the market may not be stable enough to guarantee long-term investment. Ergo, the city needs to stimulate investment by demonstrating to developers their intention to craft a viable urban community.

The Halcyon Days of Victoria Street; the Eaton's Centre now sits in its place.

In order to accomplish this, the City’s going to have to take a good look at what makes our best urban communities work so well. What makes the Plateau what it is, what makes it so desirable, and can knowledge of these key characteristics be successfully applied to a new cooperative development scheme, where the City leads developers into a sustainable development model? The City should use its resources and contacts to develop the services that will stimulate the creation and growth of society, and not just a collection of places where people eat, sleep (and maybe build little forts!) The question I’ve been asked is why use the Plateau design model? In sum, residential housing design in Montreal from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, though by no means perfect, has some particularly interesting advantages, namely: the orientation of homes onto shared spaces (streets, alleys and parks), medium-sized housing density which allows for enough sunlight to penetrate shared spaces and stimulate local flora, and the availability of rental units for small-scale businesses, which are in turn oriented towards the needs of local residents. Moreover, areas of neighbourhood designed based on these concepts have proven themselves to be popular and developmentally malleable throughout the generations. It’s tried, tested and true and leaves enough breathing room to be highly adaptable. I can imagine an ideally designed Griffintown which blends this model with the industrial lofts and new condominiums.

Old Port Living - not the work of the author.

I’ve identified an area roughly bounded by Sherbrooke, St-Antoine, Mountain and Bleury wherein we find almost all new high-capacity residential development. Its this same area that happens to have a large quantity of open spaces for development, most of which are surface parking lots. This same area has no public schools, no libraries, no grocery stores as far as I’ve seen, and pathetically few options when it comes to affordable fine dining, especially after regular business hours. What’s especially maddening is that this same area is the very core of our city. It is a societal wasteland, and I would know – I’ve been told for some time I come from one.

While there is a vast difference between the West Island Suburbs and Montréal’s CBD, I would say the chief point of commonality is the similar lack of cultural venues and creative spaces in both areas. That said, at the very least, the West Island supports a large middle class community where neighbourhoods are well defined and in many ways unique from each other. They further benefit from ample social and community services. Now why can’t we offer the same in the heart of the City?

One thought on “In Search of Urban Community in a Societal Wasteland”

  1. Every metropolis has at least one, a formerly modest now stylish, convenient quartier filled with amenities that sets the standard of desirable urban living for other neighborhoods in transition: Greenwich Village in New York, Islington in London, Lincoln Park in Chicago, Le Marais à Paris, Le Plateau à Montréal. Though I think there’s a limit to the ability of a city government to engineer such districts, I certainly agree with you that there are steps it could take to encourage and support such development. Perhaps the areas you described are in an inchoate stage and will evolve to reach a critical mass allowing them to transcend real estate market vagaries. The Plateau took about two decades to become the choice enclave it is today. It needn’t take that long for Griffintown or Hochelaga-Maisonneuve if Montreal’s city planners apply the factors outlined in your thoughtful examination of what defines a vibrant city district. In the meantime, at the risk of seeming like a bourgois-banlieusard, forget hip art galeries and chic restaurants, a decent supermarket and primary school would be great.

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