Once upon a time Le Faubourg Ste-Catherine was quite the place to be.
I remember when I first started coming downtown as a teenager (around the turn of the century) Le Faubourg seemed quintessentially Montreal – a large and often bustling urban market with a cosmopolitan food court integrated seamlessly into the urban fabric. It wasn’t a shopping mall even if it had a similar overall aesthetic on the inside, it certainly didn’t feel like a shopping mall from the outside. I appreciated it for integrating so many different functions into a single building, for the masses of people that always seemed to be in there, for how authentic it felt. A few years later when I commenced my studies at Concordia, the Faubourg was still a great place to grab lunch or to study between classes. In my youth, I considered the Faubourg a kind of ‘insider’s knowledge’; with so much of the urban core seemingly oriented towards tourists or suburbanites, the Faubourg seemed almost hidden in plain sight. For an individual who was looking for traces of sustainable urban lifestyles in what otherwise appeared to be little more than a rental ghetto, the Faubourg was a comforting reality – it meant real people still lived in a city I was told had been largely depopulated.
For additional context, see Kris Gravenor’s three-part piece about Montreal in the 1990s.
And check out this boss collection of photos of Montreal in the 1990s.
Anyways, prior to becoming an urban market in 1986, the Faubourg had been abandoned for several years after it ceased being one of the city’s first major downtown car dealerships (the Autorow – where fine McLaughlin Buick’s could be purchased circa. 1927). For a while in the 1970s, there was a plan to redevelop the Grey Nuns’ motherhouse (and quite possible the Faubourg as well though I’m not 100% sure) into a massive shopping and office complex similar to Westmount Square or Complexe Desjardins, a plan which was ultimately fought off by crusading architectural preservationist Phyllis Lambert. The conversion of the former car dealership into an urban market was a major undertaking as it involved both digging below the existing structure as well as building on top of it, in addition to completely remodelling the interior. The new Faubourg Ste-Catherine would be joined to a hotel (an Econolodge if memory serves) built at the southwest corner of Guy and Ste-Catherine Street (today it’s Concordia University’s Faubourg Tower Building), and featured a multiscreen cinema in the basement, in addition to a rooftop bar. Interesting note: the site of the Faubourg Building was once the location of Hector ‘Toe’ Blake’s Tavern, which would have closed in 1983. Also, the multiplex theatre in the basement closed and was converted into lecture halls (no shit!) in 2001, four years after Concordia bought the building to house the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.
Neat, isn’t it!?
Back to the Faubourg’s mid-1980s renaissance. Conversions of this nature were fairly common in Montreal in the late-1980s through to the 1990s; other prominent examples of this kind of ‘integrationist’ approach to rehabilitating the urban environment would include the construction of the World Trade Centre and Intercontinental Hotel in the Quartier Internationale, the Alcan headquarters, Promenades de la Cathedrale and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, though the widespread rehabilitation of traditional Montreal triplexes and former industrial space throughout the city during this time is the single overall best example of the phenomenon. After a thirty year period (from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s) of demolition and new construction, Montreal changed course and began trying to do more with what it already had.
The Faubourg’s success (I would argue it had a really good twenty year run before things started going south) is doubtless due to some excellent timing from the outset and the coinciding ascendancy of a massive urban student and institutional ‘ghetto’ (as the area is self-deprecatingly referred to by locals) all around it. Two years after the Faubourg opened it’s doors, flooding Ste-Catherine Street with the smell of fresh bagels, Dawson College consolidated its operations under one roof – that of the former Congrégation Notre-Dame motherhouse adjoining Atwater Métro. At around the same time, the LaSalle College building (which is today co-located with the Chinese Consulate of Montreal) would go up west of Fort, two blocks away from the Faubourg. Within the span of a few years, the western part of downtown Montreal would be completely transformed by a massive influx of academics, professionals and students, both foreign and local. Three years after the Faubourg opened the CCA would open its doors just a block away, and three years after that Concordia completed it’s Library Building. Throughout the 1990s the Shaughnessy Village transformed itself into a sought after urban neighbourhood, while apartment towers and antique apartment blocks further north quickly became de facto student housing. For about twenty years it was all working quite well.
If I recall correctly, around the middle of the last decade the Faubourg was modified with awkwardly-designed rooftop ‘loft’ office space, an entrance was closed off and new storefronts were built opening directly onto Ste-Catherine Street. The interior was left in shambles and the market quickly fell to pieces. It didn’t help that rents were raised to stratospheric levels: $360,000 for 15 months for an operation not much larger than a kitchen and counter up in the food court. The redesign was ill-conceived, in my opinion, and was rather blatantly intended to make a quick buck on the new space it could lease at standard Ste-Catherine Street rates. What it did was add a few ‘brand-name’ retailers on a street already encumbered by so much of the same, and as such the Faubourg lost its ‘indy’ cachet (not to mention the total massacre job on the interior, and the installation of two chain cafés (a Starbucks and a Second Cup) which took a lot of the students out of the food court). The last time I passed by, the inside was a ghost town and a couple storefronts were branded, unfortunately appropriately for this city, À Louer.
I wonder if this move wasn’t done in anticipation of Concordia buying the building to turn it into some kind of a student centre? I remember when I was a member of the Concordia Student Union back in 2005-2006 there was a lot of talk about this proposal, as a member of the Board of Governors ran the company which owned the Faubourg at the time. The school was insistent that the new Faubourg would have commercial rental properties facing Ste-Catherine and that the students would get the rest of the space, though the students wanted the entire space and didn’t want storefronts as part of the deal. It all eventually fell through, but the damage was done.
As it stands today none of it seems to work at all.
And here’s where I see an opportunity.
I think the Faubourg should revert back to being an urban market, but not as it once was. Rather, I think the city should purchase it and redevelop it was a public market, much in the same style as the Atwater or Jean-Talon markets.
And here’s why it’s in the city’s interest to do so: thousands upon thousands of new residents will soon be pouring into the new condo towers going up but a few blocks east of the Faubourg and they need an ‘urban market’ to go along with their ‘urban lifestyles’. I can’t imagine how a public market at the Faubourg could possibly lose money.
What’s killing the Faubourg now is excessively high rents and an illogical renovation which has left the building careening headlong into abandon. If the city buys the building outright for the express purpose of converting into a market, it can reset rental rates to more appropriate levels, encouraging sustainable business development.
But the city can’t go it alone and would need some kind of a ‘strategic partner’. Concordia is the logical choice given it’s ownership of the Faubourg Building and the Grey Nun’s Motherhouse immediately to the south, which is itself currently being transformed into student housing.
Hundreds of hungry students living next to a market…
I think this might work.
A ‘public-public’ partnership between the city and the university could facilitate extending the RÉSO underground city network from the Molson building across Saint Catherine’s Street to the Faubourg, and then onto the Grey Nun’s student residence, linking all the major buildings of the university’s downtown campus (not to mention the Métro’s Green Line) directly with the market.
Think of the possibilities!
Further, there’s still the issue of the office space on the upper levels of the market, and I’m sure Concordia could find a use for them.
Again, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t quickly pay for itself.
The Shaughnessy Village/Concordia Ghetto is, if you can believe it, the single most highest density neighbourhood in Québec, with an estimated 13,000 residents in an area of less than a square kilometre, and the Faubourg lies close to its centre. By 2015 they will be joined by thousands more who will occupy the new towers of our future skyline – L’Avenue, Icone, YUL, Le Drummond, Tour des Canadiens de Montréal, Le Rocabella etc.
A public market at the Faubourg could do for Ville-Marie’s western residential sector what the Atwater Market did for the Sud-Ouest borough.
Anyways, food for thought. Pun intended…