Repurposing Institutional Space in Montreal

Montreal Children's Hospital
Montreal Children’s Hospital

What should we do with this building?

I ask what we should do because I believe this building, like all public and institutional space, belongs to the citizenry, and not the government or any of its ministries. The government exists for and by the people, and thus, because it is the people’s taxes which pay for the construction and operation of hospitals and schools (to say nothing of the operation of the government in and of itself) it should be the people who get to decide what we do with institutional space once it’s determined the facilities are no longer ideally suited to their original purpose(s). In the case of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, it is slated to leave this building for the greener pastures of the MUHC Superhospital in 2015, a project I’ve derided at some length.

So what will become of the building that once housed the Children’s?

Most likely it will be sold off to private real estate developers and either be demolished or converted into condominiums. It’s also possible (though not probable) that the building be demolished for the purposes of a new office tower or (god forbid) a shopping mall.

Of course, in all of these cases, the people lose vital institutional space, and lose their investment and ownership of the land and its buildings. We paid for it, but government gets to decide what happens to it, and apparently privatisation is on the table.

In my opinion there’s a far greater need for institutional space than new sites for condo development, and it just so happens that this particular part of the city – Shaughnessy Village – already has several other sites slightly more ideally suited for medium-height condominium projects (again, assuming our local real estate market could even handle more).

Aerial Perspective of Montreal Children's Hospital and Surrounding Shaughnessy Village
Aerial Perspective of Montreal Children’s Hospital and Surrounding Shaughnessy Village

Above you can see the area in question. The Children’s and Cabot Square are outlined in blue. Places where we’re likely to see demolitions for new construction (or where it’s already occurred) are outlined in red. The yellow arrow points to an existing RÉSO tunnel linking Place Alexis-Nihon, Dawson College, Westmount Square and Atwater Métro station with Cabot Square, the green arrow points to a potential RÉSO tunnel linking the aforementioned with the Forum and pointing to what is now the Seville Condominium project, and the purple arrow demonstrates how another tunnel could link the Children’s to the rest of the Underground City. This would allow someone to ‘warmcut’ from tony Greene Avenue in Westmount to within two blocks of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and its sculpture garden. Not too shabby.

But what could we use the Children’s for?

In all likelihood the Montreal General Hospital, located just up the street, will remain open and fully operational once the MUHC Superhospital comes online in 2015. I think parts of the Vic or some other slated-to-close-hospital might have to stay open as well simply because the Superhospital likely won’t have sufficient beds to replace all the hospitals it’s intended to. But I have a feeling the Children’s won’t be one kept open. From what I’ve heard, it would require a significant renovation in order to continue being useful, regardless of future functions.

If we were to look beyond continuing to use the Children’s as a hospital, what other functions could it serve?

A long-term care facility?
Subsidized housing?
Old age home?
The greatest daycare of all time?

Or perhaps as a school?

I think the Children’s might be a very interesting location for a rather large public school. Ideally, it would be an experimental joint venture between the CSDM and EMSB, a bilingual immersion school serving grades K-11. The Children’s is big enough it could easily facilitate such a school, and considering the downtown’s near total lack of public schools (FACE and Westmount High are the only public schools I can think of that are actually in the ‘downtown’) and the city’s stated goal of encouraging more families to move into the city, it makes sense to me that Children’s might be repurposed into such a role. Far better to recycle something already standing than start from scratch.

The most useless street in the city.
The most useless part of a street in the city.

The principle drawback however, is the lack of green space. The hospital occupies a large block bounded by (clockwise) Lambert-Closse to the east, René-Lévesque, Atwater and Tupper. I think it would be worthwhile to examine the feasibility of removing Tupper Street and reclaiming that space as part of Cabot Square (which would allow the square to grow by about a third) and relocate bus stops located around the square to a single location, outlined in black in the aerial view above. If I’m not mistaken there was once an STM bus terminus located here. A single terminus, ideally heated and hooked up to the Underground City by means of a tunnel, would be ideal compared to the current wide distribution of unheated, piss-drenched glass boxes underserving STM user’s needs. As part of the former Children’s renovation, an entrance on this side would aesthetically link the building to the square and should be considered. Cabot Square would be renovated to be part public square and part school yard. Suffice it to say the presence of a public school in this part of town would likely serve to improve the overall mood, if not the security, cleanliness and upkeep. Necessity would quickly make this one of the safest parts of the city to live and work in.

Though there’s no way a school here would have the green space of a suburban school, this shouldn’t bar us from considering the possibility. After all, other urban schools manage with limited access to green space by securing access to public recreation space and sporting facilities. Playgrounds could also just as easily be installed on the hospital’s ample rooftops.

This would not be a simple project; the Children’s and the public spaces around it would require a significant renovation and transformation, and an entirely new kind of school would need to be created, one that may test the abilities of our two largest school boards and the political will of the provincial government. And this is saying nothing of the lobbying that would be required to accomplish such a large undertaking.

But would it be worth it?

I honestly think so. It would provide a major incentive for families to to move back into the city, keep institutional space in the hands of the people, serve the public good and help kickstart a broad renaissance in a somewhat overlooked and run-down part of the city. Embarking on such a project would legitimately stimulate new residential construction, perhaps finally providing sufficient justification for new family-oriented condo towers. The areas outlined in red would likely be redeveloped very quickly, and the centrality of the location would make this an ideal public school for urban, working families.

In any event, just something to think about. What do you think should happen? What would you like to see here?

3 thoughts on “Repurposing Institutional Space in Montreal”

  1. Indeed – why not do it all is a good point. A building as large as the CHildren’s could easily support a public school, free clinic, subsidized senior’s housing, massive daycare etc.

    I like it – I want institutional space to remain in the hands of the people, serving their needs.

  2. I like the idea of a downtown school in the west end. Clearly the entire hospital complex is too big though, as a school that size would house thousands of students, and I don’t think there is that much demand.

    Perhaps the smaller building on Réne-Lévesque (the one with the smoke stack) could be re-purposed for that use. It’s about the right size and even looks like a school.

    But the tall buildings could not be used as a school because of the way they’re built. Schools have a unique characteristic in that every hour, virtually everyone in the building relocates to a different room, all that the same time. That’s why schools have exceptionally wide hallways, and more importantly, exceptionally wide stairways. (Have you ever been in a tall building during a fire drill? The stairs are clogged and it can take two minutes per flight to descend. Now imagine that every hour, with the added complexity that half the people are trying to go up.)

    Such a building would also need oversize elevators for the same reason. While I can imagine that widening the halls wouldn’t be that hard, you could only widen the stairs and the elevators if you completely gutted the building, plus you’d have to mess around with structural elements. Probably cheaper to knock it down and rebuild from scratch.

    But that’s all moot anyway, because they’d never fill so much space. I don’t see why the complex couldn’t be mixed-use. A new school in the small building, long-term care in one of the larger one, daycare, all of the things you mention. It’s a big facility, so why not do it all?

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