So once upon a time there was a large, densely populated working class neighbourhood just east of Old Montreal informally called the ‘Faubourg à m’lasse’.
The estimate is that in the early 1960s roughly 5,000 people lived there occupying 678 residences, and the neighbourhood would have included about two dozen factories and other industrial operations, not to mention a dozen or so restaurants and grocery stores and all the other services one would expect to find in a typical urban neighbourhood.
It’s highly likely some of those residents would have lived and worked much of their lives within the confines of the district, bounded by René-Lévesque, Wolfe, Papineau and Viger. I doubt it would have been very nice living in this area at the time: there were no green spaces to speak of, the housing likely wouldn’t have been terribly modern and, being as it was located immediately adjacent to the largest inland port in all of North America, it would have been noisy and at times smelly too. The apocryphal history of the area’s informal name indicates that there would have been a strong sent of molasses that permeated much of the neighbourhood, though this may have been confused with the sickly-sweet aroma of yeast used at the nearby Molson brewery. Either way, what was originally called the Faubourg Quebec was first home to the city’s French-Canadian bourgeoisie, though this began to change in the latter decades of the 19th century. Much in the same way that that the Anglophone middle class moved northwesterly from the Shaughnessy Village towards NDG and the West End, over the same period of time the Francophone middle class moved northeasterly out of the Faubourg Quebec, with new waves of urban working class occupying their old neighbourhoods.
By the mid-1950s the neighbourhood had been targeted for ‘revitalization’ by the Dozois Report which aimed to eliminate a wide-variety of urban social ills via expropriation and demolition. Large chunks of the city’s urban environment were to be obliterated entirely so as to ‘clean the slate’ and offer new tracts of land on which to build ostensibly more useful structures. It was reasoned evicting the working classes from their urban neighbourhoods was simply a continuance of established patterns in population movement; the new middle class of the 1950s were moving to outlying suburbs of detached single family homes, and so it was assumed their former urban neighbourhoods would receive those displaced by the evictions. Further, the grander scheme was to make land available for new high-density urban housing (partly realized with Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance), government offices (Hydro-Quebec) and an urban public university (UQAM), all of which was justified in the name of progress and sensible land use and leaves us with a tricky legacy. Thousands of poor people were strong-armed out of their neighbourhoods, the city-centre was radically depopulated and entire communities ceased to exist, but in some cases very useful things wound up occupying those spaces (UQAM and Place des Arts come immediately to mind).
The Dozois Plan not only recommended slum-clearance, but also land-use rationalization and the development of concentrations of activities (commercial sectors, housing sectors, institutional sectors etc.); part of this plan included the idea of a ‘media sector’ where the city’s major broadcasters would concentrate their operations. Jean Drapeau was particularly keen on the idea and proposed the Cité-des-Ondes, a large purpose-built broadcasting centre that would have combined all of Radio-Canada and the CBC’s Montreal operations, in addition to serving as the new corporate headquarters of the national broadcaster.
Two languages, two networks, under one roof.
As it happened, the SRC/CBC was looking to do the same; they had an internal team of architects and planners working on the project at roughly the same time.
Drapeau favoured a location close to the new central business district rising around Gare Central and Windsor Station, but it was during the brief interregnum of Mayor Sarto Fournier that an alternative location further east was decided upon to become the new home of the national broadcaster in Montreal.
Unfortunately, Fournier’s plan called for the expropriation and demolition of the Faubourg à m’lasse in its entirety. At the time I suppose they thought this was progress, though perhaps today we know a little better. From the detailed photographic archives available, it’s clear that though the area may have been poor, it’s hard to believe it was a slum beyond repair and rehabilitation. The ‘slum clearance’ was completed in 1963, with construction of the Maison Radio-Canada taking a decade to complete.
It is for precisely this reason I believe both the national broadcaster and the current heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, have an ethical responsibility not only to maintain ownership of the Maison Radio-Canada building, but further to develop the vast parking lots into affordable urban housing.
And wouldn’t you believe it? A plan to do just that was developed a decade ago.
Right now the argument is that there’s a surplus of available space and the building is essentially beyond repair or renovation. The SRC is currently exploring their options, which include: selling the building but continuing to lease space in it, selling it and building a new facility on the same site, selling it and building a new facility elsewhere in the city, or doing the latter but leasing space in an existing building. You’ll notice the common thread and that they’re being quite thorough in considering their options. According to Radio-Canada executive vice-president Louis Lalande, ‘the national broadcaster shouldn’t be in the real-estate business.’
Perhaps… but I’m not convinced building something new or leasing space will ultimately be that cost-effective. The national broadcaster has had its budget slashed repeatedly for years; had this not been the case it’s reasonable to suspect there might not be a $170 million renovation deficit nor the surplus of space. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a building that was built to last with broadcasting in mind and further to serve as a major pole of attraction for the city’s media industry (and on that note, job well done).
In any event, the thought had occurred to me that if the Maison Radio-Canada has a surplus of space, why not go back to the original plan and concentrate the whole SRC/CBC operation in Montreal?
In my eyes this would be the most sensible solution, not to mention potentially the most rewarding. For one, we’d end the senseless linguistic segregation of the national broadcaster. Two, Canadian media would subsequently be less Toronto-centric. Three, the CBC could sell its broadcast centre in Toronto and corporate office in Ottawa, which if I had to guess are both sitting on land far more valuable than the Maison Radio-Canada. Montreal’s cost of living is lower than Toronto’s, which would be a boon to the broadcaster’s employees, and Montreal further benefits from some of the nation’s premier journalism, communications and media production programs.
Seriously, what’s not to love?
I reached out to Radio-Canada with a variety of questions and got a reply from the SRC’s PR director, Marc Pichette.
According to him, combining the CBC and SRC under one roof at the Maison Radio-Canada has “never been an option.”
The rest of the email exchange was disappointing and at times seemed contradictory. I asked if the SRC felt it had a responsibility to the public to maintain the site for public use, and the response was that “…in 2009, following an extensive public consultation, CBC/Radio-Canada signed an agreement with the City of Montréal for the development of the site currently occupied by (the Maison Radio-Canada). This agreement, which lays out the City’s expectation for social and community housing, green spaces and public transit (to name but a few), is still in effect today.”
But in response to a question concerning an old plan to develop mixed-use housing on the site, and whether this was still on the books, Pichette replied that “…this option has been considered in the past. However, the property can hardly be developed without approval of a master development plan for the entire site.”
So what’s this then?
It seems as though the SRC did come up with a plan to revitalize the Maison Radio-Canada and the parking lots around it about a decade ago. This plan called for the development of the parking lots into mixed-use housing and selling off the tower (for conversion into condominiums) while retaining the base of the structure with all its recently renovated and culturally significant studios.
As François Cardinal writes in this impassioned ‘open letter to Mélanie Joly’, the plan developed by architects Daoust Lestage (and pictured above) would have accomplished several goals, namely: integrate the structure into the surrounding residential area, build new housing on the parking lots, keep the SRC in the same spot and do all this while also selling the surplus tower.
The sale of the tower would in turn pay for the construction of a new office space better integrated into its surroundings and in accordance with their now smaller space requirements.
As Cardinal notes in his La Presse report, the Daoust Lestage proposal would have led to the creation of a large new urban neighbourhood and would have become the ‘eastern door’ to Montreal’s central business district.
It should be noted that the Daoust Lestage plan dates from 2006; the entire Faubourg Quebec has seen nothing but growth since then. Consider the new CHUM superhospital, the successful rehabilitation of the Gare Viger or the reclamation of former port lands for new medium density residential housing. The Daoust Lestage plan for the Maison Radio-Canada could add housing for thousands more in a part of town that has suffered from depopulation for far too long (see their presentation here).
And yet, despite this, the SRC is sticking to its guns. Pichette replied to Cardinals’ open letter by indicating that years of budget cuts, the 2008-09 economic collapse and the digitization of media has contributed to the SRC reviewing their space requirements and that the Daoust Lestage plan was far, far larger than what they currently need.
And that’s unfortunately quite myopic. From Pichette’s reply to Cardinal (and myself), it would seem that the Société Radio-Canada is more concerned with the per annum bottom line than any bold plan to make good use of its real-estate assets, or what future space requirements might look like if the Fed were to invest some serious coin and bring the national broadcaster back to the ‘glory days’ of the 1960s and 1970s.
Which is what brings this all back to Mélanie Joly. Her predecessors under the Harper administration were always quick to mention the national broadcaster was an ‘arms-length crown corporation’ and therefore not the responsibility of the ministry. There’s hope the Trudeauites may actually take some responsibility for their ministerial portfolios. As heritage minister, Joly is directly responsible for Canadian heritage, media, arts and culture.
And the Maison Radio-Canada is an indelible part of all those things.
There are other options than simply walking away from a purpose-built broadcasting centre and abandoning it to the free-market, and the SRC has already spent millions of taxpayers dollars coming up with a sensible plan to breathe new life into an ascendant sector of the city. Joly should consider that option at the very least.
Walking away from the Maison Radio-Canada is thoroughly unethical given 5,000 people lost their community in order to see it built, and it doesn’t matter that the obliteration of the Faubourg à m’lasse happened more than fifty years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if land is expropriated for public purposes, then it should remain in the public’s hands.