Recycling Institutional Space in the Mountain Domain

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This scene is quite literally the stuff my somewhat Kafkan dreams are made of

Lots of talk recently on the future of the Royal Victoria Hospital and Hotel-Dieu given that both facilities are supposed to shut down once the super-hospitals come on line, and the extremely valuable institutional space may become locations for new development.

Considering that the ‘English’ super-hospital is already expected to be too small to fully replace all the hospitals it was intended to, I can imagine there’s still going to be need for the space, really regardless of the shape it’s in. If you’ve been by either of these hospitals lately, you know they would require extensive renovations in order to continue being useful. Whatever happens, there’s likely going to be a bit of a gestation period as the sites are re-purposed, so nothing’s going to happen immediately.

Of course, we can’t afford to let it sit and rot either – we’ve got a bad record when it comes to demolition via neglect in this city.

And as if that wasn’t complicating matters enough, there’s the added issue that the Vic isn’t supposed to be used for any other purpose than to heal or teach, (ideally both) and McGill doesn’t seem interested in converting the hospital for teaching purposes, or making any use of it whatsoever, despite being thoroughly integrated into the site. Elspeth Angus, a descendent of Lord Mount Stephen (who bequeathed the land for the purposes of a hospital) wants the spirit of the gift to be honoured and as such wants the area to maintain its institutional orientation.

And of course, it’s not just these hospitals – other facilities will soon be vacated and happen to find themselves relatively close by. The Shriner’s is moving to the Glen Yards site, while the Chest Hospital will leave it’s St-Urbain street location and the Children’s will depart from Cabot Square to join it. Institutional space frequented by Montreal’s Anglophone community have been consolidated in the West End even though this isn’t particularly convenient to Montreal’s Anglophone community (which is increasingly young, bilingual and living further East than ever before – another example of why the superhospital is an antiquated notion to begin with, but I digress). But a bigger problem, Montreal – in general – is lacking in institutional space.

As institutional space of this variety has been immensely beneficial in preserving the natural splendour of the Mountain Domain, and can continue to exist as such should we choose to recycle it, we must endeavour to use this space proactively.

Ergo, no condo.

What I feel is crucial here is the maintenance of institutional stimulus in this sector, and not simply cast this space off to the crap-shoot of free-market real-estate development. All of these sites could easily support diverse urban living experiments, but the loss of available institutional space would be insupportable for a city already lacking it. Future institutional space requirements will be constrained by the need to expropriate expensive urban real-estate. Furthermore, institutional space is already well-positioned in our city to act as a preservation instrument – there’s a reason so much institutional space was gathered about around the bottom of the mountain, it helps preserve the green aesthetic of the city, pulling civic infrastructure together into a broad realm. The mountain park is free and grand – we want our citizens to continue interacting with these spaces so positively impacted by the urban environment.

Let’s not lose sight of our past accomplishments.

A few thoughts on what we can do with these five hospitals:

1. Turn the Vic into a Maternity/Women’s Hospital; demolish anything not worth preserving, insert parkland.

2. Convert the Thoracic Institute into a homeless-shelter with a focus on rehabilitation; if I’m not mistaken there’s a detox hospital located just a smidge further down St-Urbain.

3. Redevelop the Children’s into two new facilities. Part educational, part healthcare. Close Tupper Street, extend Cabot Square to reach the Children’s, build a new front door.

4. Hand the Shriner’s Hospital over to Batshaw – they do good work and need good space, but NIMBY types out in the West Island don’t want them around anymore.

5. Like with the Vic, remove the architecturally insignificant buildings and excess parking lots at the Hotel-Dieu site, expand their beautiful and famous gardens, and recycle the hospital into a massive public assisted-living residence for seniors.

The Why:

1. The Vic was built into what we would now call the Mountain Domain largely because proximity to nature was considered immensely beneficial in the recovery process, something I don’t think is too far off the mark in all sincerity. The Vic is also very well respected as a maternity hospital and has developed particularly strong bonds with Montréal’s urban middle-class community as the choice location to have your child.

But the Vic is also an immense and vastly complicated rabbit’s warren of buildings and tunnels, only about half of which are architecturally significant and prominently located. It’s old and is in need of repairs, maintaining it as a fully functioning hospital is likely an overly expensive proposition the provincial health authorities would be disinclined to pursue, especially if they felt they could possibly profit from a real-estate deal.

So cut back – there’s no reason to keep half the space at the site, many of the newer (yet architecturally unappealing and unimportant) buildings could be removed, the space returned to a natural state, extending the reach of the park further south, interacting with the city. Renovate the buildings we want to keep, and turn the facility into a specialized maternity and women’s health hospital, a serene sanctuary atop the mountain, really one of the safest places you could possibly be in the city core.

Oh, and we should get around to opening up the immense tunnel system under the Vic to the public. Make it a tourist attraction, I say. Charge people ten bucks a head to walk around in the steamy underbelly of the city – a modern catacomb.

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2. We have a homeless problem and we need a more comprehensive, effective, solution. As health budgets are cut and persistant unemployment and underemployment keep the working classes locked in a state of near poverty, even our otherwise robust social safety net quickly loses most of its ability. If you’ve walked our city’s streets over the past few years you’ve doubtless noticed there are simply many more poor, homeless and often psychologically impaired individuals in our public spaces.

If we want to change things we’re going to have to develop our own solution – how can we expect governments that favour austerity to preserve their material wealth to help us help those who cannot help themselves? It runs counter-intuitive to the poorly-understood ramblings of Ayn Rand that make up nearly the entirety of contemporary conservative political discourse.

And the PQ, of course, is far more concerned with running PR damage control after the world caught wind of the idiotic and punitive language legislation currently being discussed by an apparently serious independence movement.

All of these plans necessarily require that a future city administration take a leading role in managing these projects, but it’s my hope that our next administration has the common good at the forefront of their minds, and acts accordingly. Creating a facility designed to get the homeless off the streets and back into functioning society should be a top priority, because homelessness is a surprisingly massive strain on our social safety net resources. Not addressing it simply makes it worth, and devalues what our tax dollars are spent on.

A facility like the Chest Hospital is ideal for a homeless shelter because it’s within close proximity of the city core, but wouldn’t have an overly negative impact on local land value – the area is principally student housing as is – but also has a degree of seclusion I believe might facilitate rehabilitation efforts. Even if it was just a 24hr soup kitchen/multi-floor shelter it would still be better than what we currently have, which is to say far too little.

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3. Both Dawson College and Concordia University need new institutional space within proximity of their main campuses, and we’d be wise to retain an additional emergency room in the urban core. The Children’s hospital location is large enough to accomodate a new college pavilion as well as an emergency room/ 24hr clinic. It seems as though every year there are periods in which the ERs are ridiculously over capacity, so why not have one you use specifically on those occasions? The eastern portion of the Children’s is sufficiently large enough it could easily accommodate a spare ER/ round-the-clock city clinic, something else we’re lacking. I can imagine the remaining potion could easily be transformed into classroom space for Dawson, Concordia or any other post-secondary institution short on space.

As an aside, the bit about removing Tupper Street and extending Cabot Square so as to unite a larger block with the eventually converted hospital is as much motivated by my desire to see more students than homeless in Cabot Square as is our need for more green space in general. Why not make a park a touch larger if all that stands in the way is a seldom used side street?

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4. Last I heard Batshaw’s plans for expansion in the West Island is facing stiff opposition from the local ‘concerned citizens brigade’, though their general habit of dancing around the issue makes it very difficult to ascertain precisely what problems they’re anticipating. I’m assuming they think troubled teens getting supervised rehabilitative support is going to devalue adjoining property, or perhaps introduce an unwanted criminal element to their suburban utopia, but let’s face it – I think most people just don’t want to be reminded of the various social ills that exist in any society.

I think we can expect this trend to continue. Suburban land is the least developed, and as a city grows so to does its requirement for a wide variety of things suburbanites desperately need but don’t want to live next to. The inexcusable opposition to Batshaw’s expansion is, though morally wrong, shrill enough to occasionally get its way.

The Shriner’s Hospital location on Cedar solves this problem, somewhat, in that there’s not much else that can be done with the building and it’s surrounded on three side by forest. Cedar is sparsely populated on that stretch, and but a stone’s throw from the General Hospital. It’s conversion into a halfway house and rehabilitative centre for troubled and at-risk youth seems logical enough given the proximity to other Batshaw facilities further south off Atwater and could, much like Hotel-Dieu or the Vic, make excellent use of the rehabilitative qualities of a tranquil and bucolic surrounding.

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Hotel-Dieu in a simpler time… a time of steamships, Kaisers, widespread apocalyptic Marian Visions, and a curious new brain tonic called Coca Cola…

5. Finally, the building I fear is most likely to be converted into a sprawling and hopeless mess of condominiums, the Hotel-Dieu, a historic and culturally significant public space at the foot of the Mountain, perhaps the most easterly extent of the domain. The Hotel-Dieu is more than just an ancient hospital as the religious order that ran it also kept its residence there, and have over the years developed expansive grounds and apparently magnificent (though seldom seen) gardens inside its massive walls. The Hotel-Dieu will soon move on down and merge with the new CHUM/St. Luc super-duper-hospital, leaving many to wonder what comes next. Unlike the Vic, there doesn’t seem to be the same community and institutional convergence to possibly find a new role for it (though that said, I’d be delighted to find out I’m wrong on this one).

I’d argue in favour of converting this space into a massive public seniors’ assisted living complex.

Let’s face it – our future is going to be filled with lots of old people, and the public will require an elevated state of publicly-funded elder care, as our current system is inadequate. The Hotel-Dieu’s grounds are expansive and the buildings large enough to accomodate a significant number of people, even if we were to tear down what wasn’t worth preserving and deemed excess. The grounds offer an urban sanctuary for the residents and use in this respect would guarantee the manicured parkland is used appropriately and not paved over. Large parking lots on the St-Urbain side could be repurposed, and the influx of people may help clean up that stretch of the street. It would certainly stimulate the development of new services to cater to the geriatric mass.

Not to mention, just down the road at La Cité is a comparatively large shopping mall they can walk around in. They’ll have great fun.

That’s all for now, let me know what you think.

Oh – last point because it still, unfortunately, needs to be said. Though most of these facilities are used principally by the local Anglophone community, they are in fact open to all and serve all. Any future developments of these sites should follow in that tradition. It is the hallmark of our cultural identity, we may as well link it, conceptually, with the identity and heritage of the space we occupy.

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