Category Archives: Montréal Landmarks

Concordia students reject sketchy Faubourg acquisition project

The Faubourg Ste-Catherine

Now that Concordia students have voted against the Concordia Student Union’s proposed student centre at the Faubourg, let us take a step back and consider this project objectively, as I’m certain this issue will be back on the table with the next CSU general election. I had the privilege of being elected by the students of Concordia back in 2006 when I ran with the Experience slate, and the Faubourg project was a major motivating factor in my resignation from the CSU in October of that year. Since then I’ve completely abstained from any involvement with Concordia student politics, as I’ve yet to see any change in the culture of nepotism and self-entitlement that was so painfully apparent back in 2006. Keep in mind, this culture has been stimulated by the Concordia administration for years, and projects like the Faubourg are so rife with inherent corruptions and conflicts-of-interest, they stand more than anything else as a testament to a shared political impotence on campus. If something isn’t done soon, any hope of maintaining an institutional memory of self-criticism will be lost, as the Faubourg project already demonstrates. Perhaps it will be the job of future generations of Concordia students to form a critical opposition from scratch, but I would hope we could avoid the intervening years of navel-gazing.

To begin with, the entire scheme reminds me of the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ – why are the indebted students being asked to provide the funds for university real estate? Whatever money the CSU has collected through fee-levies – an estimated $7 million so far – is literally a drop of water in an immense bucket when compared to the long-term acquisition, renovation, reparation and maintenance of a major piece of downtown property. And let’s not mince words – there are no other properties being considered. Aside from the fact that a proposed student centre would require a generally large and continuous piece of property, it would necessarily have to be within the Quartier Concordia. There are few empty lots within the neighbourhood, so new construction is pretty much out of the question (not to mention, if it costs an estimated $50 million to renovate the Faubourg, a new building would be entirely prohibitive based on cost alone). That said, if there are few open lots for new development, there are fewer buildings whose owners are seeking to self-off their property for total re-development. So if the CSU or Concordia administration ever tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the students again by insinuating there are multiple pieces of property under consideration, you’ll know this is bullshit – categorically.

Since we know the Faubourg is, for the time being, the only property being considered by the university, let us consider it. It’s a very old building, originally constructed in the 1920s as a car dealership. It was thoroughly renovated between 1984 and 1986, at which time the Faubourg tower was constructed. Originally, it was designed as an urban market in the same vein as New York City’s Fulton Seaport Market or Baltimore’s Harbour Place. The neighbourhood needed the Faubourg at the time, and it stimulated the renaissance of the Shaughnessy Village, in conjunction with the development of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the LaSalle College building and Concordia’s Library Building. The new project featured office space, a 200-room hotel, condos, a fitness centre, cinema, an international market and many restaurants. Since about 2005 however, the Faubourg hasn’t quite been itself and it seems as though the current owner is quite motivated to sell it off. Enter Jonathan Wener, the man who has been pushing the CSU to acquire the Faubourg ever since he proposed the project to the CSU executive at his ostentatious summer home in the Laurentians back in 2006. I don’t know if Mr. Wener will receive a commission for his role in securing the sale, though I think he’d be remiss not to pursue one. Besides, he made a pretty penny selling the old student centre to Jacques Villeneuve – a bad precedent was set years ago. As he explained it to us four years ago, the student centre could be whatever we wanted it to be, insofar as all student activities were concentrated in this space. Also, the retail space would have to be maintained as is, with the CSU and administration apparently splitting the profits. It was not entirely clear what would happen with the Faubourg Tower, in which Concordia rents considerable space. According to the new plan, the university would also maintain administrative offices in the Faubourg, so whatever space is left over for the students would probably end up being quite small when compared with the overall surface area available in the building. Regardless, we were encouraged to imagine all the potential of this space, which was proposed to us in a manner designed to encourage special interest groups on campus. As I was going through the blueprints for the new Faubourg student centre, I was puzzled to see a large space labelled ‘Muslim prayer space’. Then it became quite clear what was going on – we were not being asked to consider a real estate project as much as we were being told how to sell it to the diverse political organizations on campus.

The university has diligently crafted a new image for itself since the Netanyahu protest got our Hall Building on CNN back in 2002. The new word on the street is that Concordia is the United Nations of universities, where people come from all over the world and participate in the shared pursuit of objective truth blah blah blah. I like the fact that this is generally true, but when it comes to the politics of multiculturalism, we couldn’t be more behind the times. While university spokesperson de jure Chris MoTa likes to point out all the different nationalities and cultures on campus by referencing the clubs sanctioned by the CSU, she does the university a disservice when she applies the same spirit of disingenuous tolerance when performing verbal and logical gymnastics necessary to defend the presence of Scientologists in the Library Atrium. The fact is that we are hardly a unified or cosmopolitan university, we are instead highly divided and played against each other, every single year, during the CSU election. The parties each have their base of special interest groups on campus, and preach messages that would appeal to their base. There are few organizations that can truly claim to be inherently multicultural and open to all students, despite the fact that all campus organizations must be that way according to our own bylaws. Instead, we have excessive division, and those groups that are truly open and engaging are often in the minority and on the side of the political ‘left’ on campus. And so when it comes time to discuss a student centre, the exclusive special interest groups are appealed to with promises of special space in a special building just for them. Enter the Muslim prayer space. The MSA is by far one of the largest and best-organized student groups on campus, so much so that winning their vote is crucial to winning the CSU election. Is it any wonder we were encouraged to speak often about this space (I guess its more realistic to put a large prayer space for the MSA in the basement of the Faubourg than it is to ‘suspend’ a thousand-person auditorium on its roof)? What the students ought to be looking for in a student centre is a space for shared experience, cultural exchange and intellectual openness, and not a gallery proving our ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ of one-another. As a favourite South Park character once pointed out, you tolerate a cold; cultures are meant to be embraced, they’re meant to be inclusive. How the CSU and the university treat the MSA is simply repugnant, and disingenuous to the open spirit of Islam, as they are both complicit in a divide and conquer method of managing the student body politic.

With this in mind, we become aware of the danger of allocating limited student space to a specific function for a specific group. And if the student centre is supposed to cater to all the specific needs of all the specific groups on campus, well, you realize just how quickly we’d render the limited space in the Faubourg quite useless. Its utterly futile to think everyone an be pleased all the time, and therefore, all student space must be, by its very nature, designed to encourage and foster a new collaborative spirit. So, multi-religious prayer space is fine, and the MSA can sign up with the Wiccans, Rastafari and Evangelical Christians on campus to share it. And of course all of this is aside from the fact that we ought to be more focused on the inherently open and objective arts and sciences than the various dogmas of different religions. By providing prayer or meeting space for any religious organization on campus we are tacitly supporting division between students in general, and a divided student body is much easier to control, far easier to please with bread and circuses.

I think a student centre is, in the long-run, a genuinely good idea, but the students should not be asked to pay for it, neither should we make any money off of it – let us be free of this corrupting influence. Whatever new plan is put forth by the university administration, we should be quick to counter any element of the plan designed to divide the student body and foster the development of special interest groups, as the building must reflect the spirit of the student body through form and function. And if the politically inclined on campus ever want their university to reflect a more progressive nature, a more philanthropic character, we can start by getting a lawyer to help the CSU free that seven million dollars for the student centre and have it used instead to provide thousands of poor Montrealers full university scholarships. The university is filled with people who can all talk a good political game, but its time for the self-congratulatory rhetorical auto-fellatio to stop. I’d recommend putting our money where our mouth is instead.

Cultural Synthesis

Church of St-Micheal and St-Anthony, Montréal

This is a picture of the Church of St-Micheal and St-Anthony, in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montréal. Originally built for the largest anglophone parish in Montréal, the church initially served the Mile End’s original Irish working-class population. Completed in 1915, the church is particular for its generally Byzantine-style architecture, undoubtedly an homage of sorts to the Hagia Sophia, with a large copper-clad dome and a minaret. However, upon closer inspection you’ll notice traditional Irish symbols, most notably the ubiquitous shamrock, which take the form of reliefs and windows, among other things. In 1964, the church opened a Polish mission to reflect the change in local religious demographics. Today it serves a primarily Polish/Italian congregation.

So to recap: Montréal has a beautiful church built for an Irish population, in a Byzantine style heavily influenced by a massive cathedral/mosque in Istanbul. It serves a predominantly Polish and Italian congregation with additional services in Ukrainian, and is strategically located in Montréal’s Jewish/Greek/Hipster neighbourhood.

You gotta love how we do cosmopolitanism…

Public space transformed: Carré St-Louis

 Saint Louis Square, Spring 2010

It’s amazing how things change. Forty years ago, this was where you came to purchase drugs and prostitutes. Fortunately, the gentrification of the surrounding neighbourhood, and in particular the stately value of the homes on Laval Avenue, has effected a major transformation on this beautiful urban retreat. Having spent a considerable part of last summer hanging out here after work, drinking with friends, watching the world go by, I find it exceptionally difficult to imagine this was once associated with dangerous hoods and gangland shootings. Certainly, its still got plenty of freaks and geeks waltzing in and out, bathing in the fountain, acting crazy etc, but such is the life of a beautiful urban square, which links the Prince Arthur pedestrian mall to Sherbrooke Métro station, the ITHQ and St-Denis Street. In a similar vein as Dorchester Square, this is one of those places you detour through because its simply so nice. I remember passing by the park in the middle of the day, but just after a freak rainstorm. The rain made everything glow, and the colours shone brighter than ever. People used their hands to wipe water of benches so they could enjoy their lunch, merrily leaping over puddles to guarantee a seat near the fountain in this little urban oasis.

What were they thinking? {No.1}

Site of a former tram-tunnel, now open-air, on the Camillien Houde Parkway

(Part of an unfortunately on-going series)

The Camillien Houde Parkway has got to be one of the stupidest ideas ever conceived of in the history of Montréal, which is unfortunate given that its a beautiful and exciting parkway. Make no mistake – I love this street, I especially love all the great memories I’ve attached to it, such as taking it to go visit my newborn brother when I was three. Unfortunately, it came at too-high a cost, and any individual in this city who is concerned about the future of our most iconic landmark should see the Camillien Houde Parkway as public enemy number 1.

Here’s why:

a) It’s named after former Mayor Camillien Houde, well-remembered for his charisma, anti-conscription related internment during WW2, the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the many Vespasiennes (adoringly called Camilliennes for decades) he had constructed as make-work projects during the Depression. He also vehemently opposed the construction of any street or boulevard bisecting Mount Royal. At the very least could we consider changing the name?

b) As you can see from the map embedded here (use bird’s eye view for best results), the parkway cuts-off access to a small, but significant, portion of Mount-Royal Park. I say significant because the ‘dead-zone’ would allow better access to the undeveloped portions of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and the parkland owned by the Université de Montréal. Thus, any discussion of a Mount Royal pedestrian and cycling ring-road would have to consider whether such a path and the parkway could actually coexist. Chris Erb of Spacing Montréal discusses the proposal for a new park on the Outremont Summit, an idea which was floated around in the Fall of 2009 and, I believe, is still very much up in the air. If anything, Mount Royal’s protected status is more tenuous than ever with the announcement of a new fenced-off condo development at the site of the former Marianopolis College, and the still as-yet unfinished saga concerning the redevelopment of the former Outremont convent. That being said, if there’s an earnest will from the populace to increase the total protected space of the mountain-park, then the parkway will have to be the first to go, since it acts more as a boundary then bisecting scenic drive.

c) As a result of the parkway, there are several large parking lots on the mountain – land that had once been raw natural forest. Given that the mountain has, traditionally, been frequented overwhelmingly by locals, and not tourists, the necessity of so many parking lots near the summits can be called into question. Especially because, once upon a time, a tram ran the length of the parkway. Reclaiming the parking spaces could be done by investing in a new tram, one which would ideally run from the bottom of Guy (placing a terminus at the corner of William in Griffintown) up to Cote-des-Neiges, dropping people off at a mountain terminus near the pavilion at Lac aux Castors (you’ll notice, a loop already exists here). This could effectively allow the rest of the parkway and the parking lost to be reclaimed as parkland.

d) The photo above demonstrates another problem – there used to be a tunnel at that exact spot. The tunnel allowed people to get from the Mount-Royal side to the Outremont side over-top, not to mention offering considerably more room for the variety of animal species native to the mountain park. Even if the parkway remains, at the very least, a new tunnel ought to be built here, to allow for the maximum level of freedom of movement.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Mount Royal Chalet, 1960s - not the work of the author.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the summit, though I think I was up there earlier this Summer. The improvements to the Peel Staircase and the access to the Olmstead Trail are excellent additions, welcoming urbanites with elegant and naturalistic entrances that fit into the idea of the sacred, leafy refuge. I remember the last time I was up there a temporary fence had been put up to divide the belvedere into two parts, though no work was being done at the time.

Still, as the city grows and the last remaining scraps of undeveloped land in the CBD is gobbled up as it will be over the next couple of decades, protecting our green spaces is going to become an even greater priority.

We should remind ourselves that, while Mount-Royal Park is indeed exceptionally large and, in essence, our own little playground, it serves a very large geographic area and further supports an inordinately large population. This is a major issue for any urban citizens of Montréal, as the city and real-estate developers frequently point out our major parks when attempting to justify the destruction of smaller green-spaces. Such as it was with regards to Parc Oxygene, a small green-space developed by community members on a piece of otherwise unusable land. The apparent ‘owner’ of the plot has told residents they can just as easily go to Mount Royal Park, Fletcher’s Field or Parc Jeanne Mance, all of which are about a block away. However, much like theatres, concert halls and bars, parks have a capacity, and overloading our parks will inevitably lead to their ruin.

Don’t believe me? Consider the 1976 St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations, which saw tens of thousands of people descend on Mount-Royal. The damage to the park and pollution from one day’s worth of festivities was more traumatic and required a more extensive clean-up than did the Ice Storm of 1998!