Some late breaking good news.
It appears the now homeless former residents of the Saint Anne housing co-op in Griffintown have caught a break after several days of devastating news.
To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.
The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the co-op’s insurer has insisted the incident was a ‘landslide’ and thus an act of god. They refused to compensate for the demolition. The condo developer has also indicated they’re not responsible either.
So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.
Today’s news is that three levels of government are going to collaborate in re-building the demolished homes, and that the nearby Bassins du Havre will provide temporary housing for the displaced, though details have yet to be worked out.
I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed faÃ§ade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.
Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?
Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage MontrÃ©al re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”
He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.
So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.
Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.
There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.
Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.
That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.
Maybe it will become a restaurant…
Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.
The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.
Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.
While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.
I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.
Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.
What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.
Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.