Tag Archives: Montréal City Politics

Cité des Familles

Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal - credit to Mario Faubert, 2012
Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal – credit to Mario Faubert, 2012

Fran̤ois Cardinal asks an important question Рis the city wasting its time trying to prevent the exodus of families to the suburbs?

In the last ten years, during which time the city has ‘officially’ been trying to reverse this trend, annual losses have remained somewhat constant at about 20,000 people leaving the city for elsewhere in Québec, largely outside city limits but within the metropolitan region known as Greater Montreal.

Attracting and retaining families inside the city limits was intended to reverse this trend, but so far the city has come up short. When $300,000 can get you either a detached multi-room suburban home near a train station or, at best, a single room condominium closer to the city, young families in essence have no real choice but to move to the suburbs. Services for families, aside from the daycares increasingly integrated into office towers, are virtually non-existent in the city’s most heavily developed central core.

In response to Mr. Cardinal’s question, I propose a follow-up – has the city really done anything material to secure an influx of new families?

Because if the mandate was nothing more than to advertise the advantages of theoretically living in the city as compared with the suburbs, then I can only wonder what anyone actually expected the city to be able to accomplish. Bringing families back into the city requires a major investment in civic infrastructure and a lot of hyper-precise zoning regulations to make a new urban neighbourhood from scratch, as might be the case in Griffintown or the former parking lot adjacent to the Bell Centre. Branding and marketing is enough of an investment to attract young professionals, but families need a far greater commitment.

There’s been a lot of concern recently that the city’s near-total lack of involvement in Griffintown’s resurrection may have the unintended result of creating a ghetto of single and double occupancy condos and not much else. Similar criticism has been made of the new condo towers destined to occupy nearly every available open plot in the central business district. Montreal’s downtown is not a neighbourhood in and of itself, but seems to have identifiable communities all around it (be it the Plateau, NDG, Mile End etc). Everything inside the core is reduced to a single condo project’s ‘branded lifestyle’ identity of urban chalets and minimalist sophistication; community remains completely elusive.

I would argue the Tremblay and Applebaum administrations have both done the exact same thing – nothing – to actually facilitate family living in the city, or even the actual establishment of the bare services to make the city a place where one lives a more interactive existence. Current city living is capsule living, sanitized and overtly corporate. I would hate to think there are people who may live many years in our great city and believe, based on limited experience, that our downtown is emblematic of the city. It’s anything but.

The question is whether the city can mandate the construction of family-oriented real-estate, and develop schools, clinics and myriad other services without waiting for provincial ministries to green-light the various projects. It’s curious too – provincial authorities have failed to provide adequate public schooling options in both the new suburbs as well as the city centre. Real-estate development can and will occur much faster than the province can react, and the city is all too often excoriated (and rightfully so) for not taking a leadership role in trying to maintain what institutional space we actually have downtown.

So as the city scratches its head on how to encourage people to move into the city, local school boards announce the closure of public schools in urban communities. Library branches shutter. Hospitals are put on the auction block to be re-processed, likely into condominiums, retirement homes or student dormitories. None of this helps re-establish long-term residency in the urban core.

It boggles my mind how no one is seeing the obvious connections, or why the city administration wouldn’t make the argument it’s their responsibility first and foremost to intercede given their stated intentions of downtown densification.

It’s not just the buildings of one variety or another designed with multiple closed rooms, within proximity of the diverse services required by urban families that need to be mandated into being. Schools, community and cultural space, parks, playgrounds, sporting facilities and public pools would all have to be built by the city, putting capital up front to be paid back with the new sources of taxation the city is in the process of creating. If enough new residents can be attracted to a given area based on the services available, the city succeeds in building a new and better kind of revenue generator.

In sum, why can’t the city legislate neighbourhood creation. leaving that up to the private sector and provincial government has so far proven to be ineffective. Quite frankly, it’s well beyond either’s purview.

My argument wouldn’t just be why not, but more – isn’t that what a city administration is supposed to be doing in the first place? Creating and refining the built environment?

And for all the money spent just to study the effects of new private sector densification in the downtown real estate market, and all the rest spent studying how best to expand the public transit system, spent on branding initiatives and marketing campaigns, our elected officials have come no closer to actually implementing anything. What’s spent studying potential future cityscapes could be be answered by any of the urban planners teaching at any of our universities. What’s spent on studies could build the schools or help finance the small businesses real communities desperately need.

As an example, the PQ has announced it will spend $28 million to study the feasibility of including a light-rail system to run on the new Champlain Bridge, which is supposed to cost anywhere between three and five billion dollars and may be completed by 2021, eight years from now if the project ever actually gets off the ground. That money could fund the creation of a public school as well as pay for its staff, something that would most certainly attract the attention of urban dwellers thinking of splitting for the burbs.

And furthermore, what needs to be studied? It’s common sense that a light-rail system, which may be able to haul 100,000 commuters at rush hour in twenty-minute runs from the South Shore to Downtown is a good idea worth implementing. As to how it’s to be built into the bridge, leave that up to the engineers who design it. As to cost, let it be folded into the total. If the Fed is hell-bent on financing such a ludicrously expensive bridge we may as well design it to incorporate a public transit system that can haul so many people so quickly and efficiently. It will doubtless spur a major population increase in the South Shore suburbs, and better still, will likely also serve to improve public transit access in the first-ring suburbs immediately south of the CBD, namely Griffintown, the Pointe, Technoparc, Cité-du-Havre and Nun’s Island areas. It is precisely here where the city should focus services for families, as there is room for growth favourable to urban families. There’s enough open land and low-use industrial areas we could be better off without, and the proximity to the city is really justification enough alone for the civic administration to push for redevelopment to be concentrated in this sector.

There’s no question it would sell, the question is what the city decides to sell.

Do we want condos or communities?

***

Another thought.

If you were to walk around any of the current, established, urban neighbourhoods and first ring suburbs you’d find some common housing types – notably the limestone triplex and its many derivatives, intermixed with modern apartment towers and turn-of-the-century apartment blocks, with duplexes and triplexes being by far the most common type.

In nearly all cases these buildings are comparatively old – the younger ones are approaching their centennials. Many have been renovated extensively throughout the years, some less so but well maintained nonetheless. Either way, through direct civc action to preserve our architectural heritage, coupled with an enduring public attachment (between the progeny of so many generations of working class urbanite locals) we’ve managed to protect, preserve and promote much of existing, heritage, built-environment.

Condo towers are very new in Montreal, especially in the most urban core. Up until about a two decade ago city condos were limited to buildings such as the Port Royal or Westmount Square, and with time development in that sector generally focused on converting old industrial properties into condominiums. About a decade ago buildings such as the Lepine Towers, Roc-Fleury and Crystal de la Montagne went up, leading to today’s boom.

Point is, all this is recent, and despite all the new construction, we can for the moment relax – we’re not going to look much like Vancouver or Toronto anytime too soon.

But to really guarantee against this we can’t redevelop every unused or underused property in the city into a shiny glass tower or a big brown box. We should save some space for new versions of the city’s iconic limestone triplexes.

I don’t think it’s so nutty an idea. It’s a building design that works – it has for a hundred years. Perfect as a flop house for students inasmuch as a three bedroom home for an urban family. I’ve lived in several such buildings over the years, and have spent time in countless more.

Why not build newer versions of a proven design?

You could live your entire life in Montreal duplexes – from your student days in a rented basement room, to starting out in your first full apartment occupying the upper floor, to swallowing up an entire duplex with your family until you eventually live upstairs in your retirement, renting the bottom floor to supplement your income.

There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Montrealers who have done just this over the past few generations.

It occurred to me, walking down Bleury from Boul. de Maisonneuve the other day, that we should maybe try to focus urban residential development to favour a re-introduction of this building type, though perhaps a four or five-floor model complete with a storefront base (designed for independent businesses owned and operated by residents). Bleury is but one example of an unfortunate phenomenon we have here in the city of urban streets that have lost buildings to parking lots, often leaving the tallest building on a given block still standing (in Bleury’s case a monolithic building stands completely abandoned on a prominent public space, but I digress). Rue Guy is still disfigured by the sea of parking spaces lapping at the base of the Tour Guy. Mansfield has the double problem of being largely defined by an open parking lot and the ass ends and loading docs of so many monolithic buildings. And in all these cases more traditional buildings stood not a half century ago.

Convincing real-estate developers to construct such buildings may not be an easy proposition at first, but legislation could make it a requirement. Buildings like these could not only help re-populate the urban core, but further still, offer truly unique examples of multi-functional building design, one that could accommodate much needed families.

Projet Responds to my Query

Perspective on the Archivex Project, conceptual rendering.
Perspective on the Archivex Project, conceptual rendering.

And I should point out they were actually exceptionally fast in their response time. I by contrast have been slow to update el blogo. Whatever.

My original post published December 16, 2012 was entitled “The Exciting World of Montréal Urban Planning and Municipal Politics” and concerned the now-stalled re-development of the old Archivex warehouse in Saint Henri (effectively on the westernmost edge of the grounds around Lionel-Groulx Métro station) into a planned seven-storey office building which, as advertised, would bring some 2,000 employees to the area every day. A Projet Montréal Councillor by the name of Sophie Thiébault led a public campaign against the plan, arguing a lack of transparency and public consultation, among other things.

Here’s a link to the document presented to City Hall by Lemay & Associates Architects for Groupe Mach, the developer. It includes renderings of the new building, perspective photographs of the site from various angles as well as renderings of shadows cast by the new building on the surrounding area at various times of the day and year.

In the first post I asked if Projet had something to say about it, as I was somewhat incredulous PM would object to a new building that could (potentially) bring a major cash infusion into a neighbourhood coming into its own and becoming a new pole of activity.

Below is what Projet Montréal sent me:

Les citoyens réclament une planification pour les environs de la station Lionel-Groulx

Montréal, le 14 décembre 2012 – Projet Montréal souhaite que l’arrondissement du Sud-Ouest fasse un exercice de planification, en impliquant la population, avant de donner le feu vert aux projets à la pièce dans le secteur de la station Lionel-Groulx. Cette demande fait suite à la demande des citoyens de tenir un référendum pour le projet Archivex situé juste à côté de la station de métro Lionel-Groulx. « Il y a beaucoup de projets qui semblent se dessiner autour de la station Lionel-Groulx, dont cet édifice pour 2000 travailleurs. J’ai alerté les élus du conseil d’arrondissement sur la nécessité de procéder, le plus rapidement possible, à un véritable exercice de planification, comme le PPU Griffintown qui est en ce moment devant l’OCPM. Il est important que les citoyens puissent avoir leur mot à dire sur le développement de leur lieu de résidence. C’est la raison que j’ai invoquée en conseil d’arrondissement pour voter contre ce projet. Cela m’a également incité, par la suite, à écrire aux citoyens afin de les informer de l’outil démocratique à leur disposition, le référendum, et sa première phase qui est la tenue d’un registre », a affirmé Sophie Thiébaut, conseillère de Saint-Henri-Petite-Bourgogne-Pointe-Saint-Charles, district qui englobe le secteur des abords de la station Lionel-Groulx.

Au cœur des préoccupations de Projet Montréal, il y l’avenir du terrain gazonné de la station Lionel-Groulx, le long de la rue Saint-Jacques, qui n’est pas zoné parc. Cette bande de terrain, malgré le fait qu’elle appartienne à la Société de Transport de Montréal, pourrait éventuellement être développée. « Nos craintes sont à l’effet que le projet Archivex crée le précédent que tous les propriétaires riverains pourront invoquer pour développer les abords de la station sans se soucier d’un aménagement de qualité et, sans égard aux préoccupation citoyennes. Seul un exercice de planification intégré et transparent pourra nous assurer que le développement à venir se fera de façon ordonnée, et nous évitera d’être à la remorque d’un développement anarchique, comme c’est malheureusement le cas dans Griffintown », a ajouté Richard Bergeron, chef de Projet Montréal.

La venue hypothétique de 2000 travailleurs dans un secteur comme les abords de la station Lionel-Groulx est en soi souhaitable. Cependant, cela doit se faire en prenant en considération les heurts éventuels et les attentes de la population déjà installée dans le secteur. C’est pourquoi il est primordial de faire preuve de transparence dans ce genre de dossier et de consulter en amont les résidents par le moyen d’un plan particulier d’urbanisme. De plus, aucune garantie n’a été fournie par le promoteur sur d’éventuelles entreprises intéressées à s’installer à cet endroit.

« Assisterons-nous à la construction d’une coquille vide? En tant que conseillère d’arrondissement du district dans lequel on projette de faire ce genre de développement, je me questionne et m’inquiète du manque de planification de ce secteur. Mon rôle premier, en tant qu’élue, est de m’assurer que les résidents de mon district soient entendus et consultés », a conclu Sophie Thiébaut.

***

Okay, Thiébault has a point.

Union Montréal and the local political establishment haven’t done much in terms of broad city planning, preferring to leave it up to the private sector.

The public wasn’t really that well consulted, but this raises a point I think remains quite unclear – how much is the private sector supposed to consult the public? Should we mandate a far greater degree of conversation?

I find the borough mayor’s assertion that Ms. Thiébault is creating a climate of fear to be a tad ridiculous – to my knowledge that’s not the case, and in any event, what kind of fears could be stoked, I wonder?

While Groupe Mach’s presentation document seems complete and looks good, there’s at least one element I can think of that’s missing: tenants.

Who are these 2,000 people and for whom will they be working?

Is it too much to ask for the name of the people who will occupy this space, or is it a given that they come once it’s built?

I’m a little confused by the relation drawn between this building’s redevelopment and the large green space around the station, which Ms. Thiébault points out is not actually a park (no kidding) but just a green space owned by the STM. If I’m not mistaken, the STM plans on turning part of it into a new bus terminus. While that’s a plus for the STM and public transit users, it doesn’t do much for a neighbourhood low on public green space.

That said, the green isn’t being used as a park (because it isn’t one) and it doesn’t look like the STM has any plans to make it more park-like (what with the new bus terminus), so I suppose the concern that it will just be sold off and developed is within the realm of possibility. But I digress – Projet Montréal’s objection seems more to do with a general lack of planning on the part of the city and in this respect I agree, the city doesn’t plan that well.

But all that said, this is one hell of a gamble for the private development firm. If the building doesn’t work out they way they plan, they stand to lose a lot of money. From this perspective, a lousy proposal could sink Group Mach (a bigger problem for them than an unfinished building is for the residents, though both are quite problematic). Thus, the question is how much do you think they’re likely to be gambling on an uncertain plan. Even if they don’t make prospective tenants public information, I can’t imagine they have no one lined up.

I for one don’t mind the design. It’s not a a major landmark and it’s quirky and oddly shaped as most post-modern architecture is, but it borrows design elements from the area and wouldn’t be too imposing either. If it’s a straight-up office building it may work out quite well, though an obvious question is what will become of the stretch of Saint-Jacques it sits on. The area could use some sprucing up, and I’d personally be opposed to store fronts if they were uniquely intended for chain fast-food joints. We need those like a hole in the head.

From Projet Montréal’s perspective, I can imagine the shadows of the Ilot Voyageur and the stalled condo building at 1750 Cedar Avenue loom large – incomplete buildings aren’t just an eyesore, they’re bad for business, indicative of something rotten in the halls of power and the local real estate market. Richard Bergeron’s point – that we have two too many stalled large residential projects – is doubtless part of the driving force behind his objection to the plan; the head of Group Mach, Vincent Chiara, is also behind the development right next to the General, which has been suspended for four years now. It further doesn’t lend him much credibility that Chiara had dealings with Arthur Porter, currently undergoing treatment for self-diagnosed cancer (no, I’m not making that up).

It’s unfortunate, because I feel if we put real-estate promotion and development any further under the microscope in this city we may not want any redevelopment whatsoever, and this simply is very bad for business indeed.

Perhaps Ms. Thiébault has some plans of her own she’d like to share?

What would constitute a better plan for the area, what elements are missing, and what should Groupe Mach provide to make a better case to the citizens of Saint-Henri?

The Exciting World of Montréal Urban Planning & Municipal Politics

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Fantastic graphic design from the City of Montréal

No, I wasn’t being sarcastic…

Kate McDonnell’s always informative Montreal City Weblog brought these little bits of information to my attention – hats off to you Kate, you do damn good work keeping me and a whole mess of other people well informed about our city and its diverse affairs.

I figured I’d add my two cents while they’re still in circulation.

The first comes from a report in Métro concerning a recent UQAM conference, the URBA 2015 Forum, where organizers advocated that Montréal’s diverse transit services, and indeed everything concerning public transit and transport in our urban area, be folded into a single organization, such as Vancouver’s TransitLink.

TransitLink has a rather broad portfolio, in charge of making key decisions about roadways, bike paths, freight transport, buses, LRTs and commuter rail. It’s comprehensive, including the 20 municipalities comprising Metro Vancouver. Imagine if we could roll the MTQ’s Montreal division, the STM, the AMT, Federal Bridges, the RTL, STL etc all together into a single operating entity?

It would certainly allow for a drastic reduction in operational waste. Administering a single pension fund wouldn’t just be comparatively cheaper, but potentially better performing too. Security operations could be streamlined and there’d be far better options for career advancement within the larger organization. We’d be much better off this way, I think, and we’d likely have the means, under a single organization, to execute some impressive expansion and renovation projects.

Otherwise I fear we’re going to get bogged down in expensive, disconnected and disorganized mass-transit, more of an inconvenience than municipal revenue generator. I don’t know how much more bickering between the AdM and AMT I can stand.

The second concerns a successful measure by a Projet Montréal councillor in St. Henri which has temporarily stalled the conversion of the old Archivex warehouse (right behind Lionel-Groulx Métro station) into a seven-storey commercial building for 2,000 white-collar jobs.

I’m a little puzzled as to what the manner of the objection is.

If it’s due to a lack of centralized civic planning I can only say, well, what do you expect from Montréal under the direction of Union Montréal? There hasn’t been too much in terms of a cohesive city plan, and less still for neighbourhood redevelopment. Their opinion is – if it’s on private land, hands off, let the market dictate development as it sees fit.

This isn’t the best way to plan a city but it’s what we have at the moment. The developer suggests that the new building would be LEED-certified and, given it’s potentially direct-access to the Métro, naturally progressive and ecologically sound in design.

The point about LEED-certification is a bit laughable since it’s an industry standard, and has in the past been dismissed as the ‘Oscars of Green Washing’, but I digress, I don’t know enough about the particulars.

My view is simply this. It’s a private building – a warehouse without any heritage value – and as it stands it’s a waste of space. There are better places for warehouses than a residential zone. Building a commercial office tower would be breaking new ground for St. Henri, an area without any purpose-built large-scale office space. A seven-storey building isn’t overly large, not imposing when set against the large open space around the station (there are apartment buildings and loft buildings of similar height in the area) and the economic potential of 2,000 some-odd office workers could be a major boon for the area’s small businesses, especially those at the Atwater Market, along Notre-Dame and St. Jacques.

The developer’s estimate is a $2.4 million annual cash infusion for the surrounding area, based on the number of potential employees spending roughly $25 a week at local businesses. And that’s not including municipal taxes on the building itself.

If the public hasn’t been adequately consulted, that’s one thing, but otherwise I don’t see what the issue is at all. Build it and make sure the developer is insured and the tenants ready to sign leases. If the market wants an office tower at Lionel-Groulx, I can imagine it will have beneficial consequence for local businesses and residents alike.

If Councillor Sophie Thiébaut reads this blog I’d like to know what I’m missing, as this seems pretty straightforward to me. Better planning, on a per-quartier basis, will be achieved when and if Projet Montréal is elected, but until then let’s not deny the people of St. Henri the potential economic benefit of 2,000 office workers in the meantime. Plus, why concentrate all office buildings in the downtown core. Let’s open up the real estate market to new speculation, growth etc.

Third, and this time from La Presse, concerns Projet Montréal councillor Josée Duplessis’ understandable vexation at the lack of transparency exhibited by the previous administration concerning municipal contracts. In this case, it concerns the never-ending story and complete disaster that is the renovation of the Hélène-de-Champlain restaurant at Parc Jean-Drapeau.

Apparently, it will now cost more than $16 million to complete structural renovations before another estimated $3-5 million is required to actually make the site a functioning restaurant again.

The restaurant was built in 1937, as were many other such pavilions build in public spaces as make-work projects during the Depression. During Expo 67 it was used as a VIP reception space, and post-Expo as a high-end gourmet restaurant of sorts. The last time I remember seeing it open it seemed to be more family-restaurant than gourmet treat, but that was some time ago. Renovations have been costly and this will invariably lead some to question whether the city ought to try and kick-start another restaurant in the same space.

Perhaps we just keep it was a VIP reception space, i think it would be a shame to tear it down, it worse still, turn it into a food court. Consider for yourself.

I think Parc Jean-Drapeau could use both higher traffic and somewhat of a dress code – it would be nice if we had a massive urban park that was also a kind of perennial exposition, the kind of place where you go to re-create Seurat scenes. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but it would be nice to have a full service, ‘business-casual’ restaurant, especially given the large terrace and unkempt rose garden. Perhaps the building could serve other purposes as well – seems to big to be a single restaurant.

In any event – it all seems like more of the same doesn’t it?