Tag Archives: Montréal Urban Planning

Abandoning the Maison Radio-Canada is as unwise as it is unethical

Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973
Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973

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.

The Faubourg à m'lasse, razed. Circa. 1964
The Faubourg à m’lasse, razed. Circa. 1964

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.

Maison Radio-Canada ca. 1973

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?

Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006
Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006

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.

Tempest in a Teapot

New Azur Métro train test run - 2013
New Azur Métro train test run – 2013

Story out today in the Journal de Montréal about how the Azur Métro cars will be ‘too big and too heavy’ to operate in our Métro tunnels and that work had to be done to adjust the infrastructure so as to prevent trains from tipping over is about as good as it gets in terms of local media’s response to a slow news day.

The article is presented in such a fashion that makes it seem the STM only just found out about this and that these renovations may be somehow related to the delay in receiving the new Métro cars, which were initially due last July but now likely won’t be in service until the end of this year.

But according to the STM (and mentioned in the JdeM article), they new about the requirement to modify a 200 metre stretch of the Orange Line to accommodate the new trains from day one, and that the work has already been completed and factored into the overall budget.

If this is indeed the case and the STM isn’t perjuring itself then there isn’t much of a story in the first place. Yes, the new Bombardier-Alstom Azur Métro trains are heavier and bigger and will even consume more electricity than their predecessors but all of this was expected and understood since day one.

After all, these are entirely new vehicles. They are not carbon copies of the existing MR-63 and MR-73 trains. They’re bigger to accommodate more passengers. They utilize new technology. They will have a different layout and, perhaps most importantly, will permit transit users to move between Métro cars while the train is in motion. I think it’s safe to assume that, if you’re building something entirely new, it might not perfectly fit in a system it wasn’t designed for.

But, with all that in mind, the modification to the tunnels only seems to have involved 200 metres out of a total length of 71 kilometres.

In other words, less than half a percent of the Métro system needed to be modified for these vehicles. Peanuts. The STM knew this and made the decision to modify a portion of the tunnel rather than scrap the project and go back to the drawing board.

If we want to have a conversation about how private enterprise can’t ever seem to deliver a government project on time and under budget, this is another conversation (and one I’d say is well worth having). It seems to me that, time and again and at various levels of government, contractors working on government-sponsored mega projects are consistently late and chronically appealing for more money.

This is true about our new Métro cars, about the Train de l’Est project, about double-decker dual-power commuter trains, about fighter jets and maritime helicopters.

Every time government appeals to the private sector to work on public projects, they pitch it against an illogical assumption the alternative is to have the state build a factory and assume all related project costs. Over and over we’re told that appealing to the private sector saves money and will get the job done faster because of ‘the principles that guide the corporate world’ are ostensibly principles that prioritize efficiency and staying true to your word vis-a-vis project cost and delivery.


The private sector’s interest in government contracts big and small is twofold, but neither has anything to do with efficiency and/or cost control. The interest lies chiefly in that a) government typically continues throwing money at the project and extending deadlines to save face and b) there are no repercussions to the provider, regardless of how late or how over-budget the project is, because they typically arrange to be the sole provider for after the fact maintenance, not to mention the fact that they own type certificates and other key pieces of intellectual capital that will keep whatever’s being built working. If a government upsets the private firm, they have very little recourse and will likely pay dearly at the polls. It’s not terribly expedient for a politician to campaign on keeping government contractors in check. People respond much better to hearing how much a politician intends on spending rather than how they plan on saving money.

We want to feel wealthy, not cheap, and we want our politicians to reflect this.

Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things at a reasonable, audited cost on the timeline set by the people.

Pointe-à-Callière Going Underground

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal - photo credit to Derek Smith
Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal – photo credit to Derek Smith

The Pointe-à-Callière historical and archeological museum is going underground and expanding for the city’s 375th anniversary.

Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÉSO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.

What can I say? This is brilliant.

The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.

Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.

The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.

It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.

And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.

The new Pointe-à-Callière will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Éperon, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering
Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).

This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.

I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.

Under ideal circumstances the underground passageway would be open to the public as a branch of the RÉSO. Under really, really ideal circumstances they’ll continue expanding underground – albeit in the opposite direction – so that you could walk from Place Royal to Place d’Armes by way of Notre Dame Basilica, eventually leading to the Métro station and RÉSO access point at the Palais des Congrès.

(Yes, I think it’s weird that Place d’Armes is not connected to Place-d’Armes; it’s really not that far and the ground underneath the square was partially excavated long ago for the former public toilets. Plus, climbing up the hill from the Métro to the square in winter is a pain in the ass).

Place Royale set up as a kind of 'living history' temporary exhibit - photo credit to McMomo, 2009
Place Royale set up as a kind of ‘living history’ temporary exhibit – photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-à-Callière. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.

But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-à-vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.

Montreal’s Public School Crisis

École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM's many condemned schools.
École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM’s many condemned schools.

This is really disturbing.

A recent Radio-Canada report has shed some light on what might be the greatest case of long-term negligence in our province’s history of neglecting civic infrastructure.

82 public schools administered by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) are in advanced states of decay and degeneration, such that repairs at this time would indeed cost more than simply demolishing the schools outright and building anew.

Of the 226 schools run by the CSDM, another 134 are listed as in a ‘worrisome’ state while only 10 are deemed to have met minimum standards for air quality and general upkeep.

These schools suffer from a wide variety of problems. Mould contamination is the major issue as long-term exposure to mould can cause a host of medical problems. Then there’s asbestos which was used in a lot of public construction as a fire retardant back in the 1950s and 1960s. If I recall correctly there was a big push several years ago to try and clean it all up, but given this province’s predilection for half-assing infrastructure repair, who knows how well that job was done or how effective it was. Then there’s a host of other problems – defective masonry, busted pipes, leaking roofs etc. etc.

The official line is that ‘previous governments’ didn’t set aside enough money for school maintenance and that’s why they’re in as a poor shape as they currently are. This is a convenient enough argument since it’s what we already believe to have caused all the problems related to our bridges and highway overpasses etc. It’s not entirely true, but who cares if it works politically.

Besides which, assigning blame won’t fix the more immediate problem.

The head of the CSDM has indicated that, in addition to the $50 million annual maintenance budget, they got $43 million more this past year specifically to improve air quality in sixteen schools, but also stated that this amount isn’t sufficient and that she’ll ask the current government to double the CSDM’s maintenance budget to $100 million annually. The CSDM apparently has a maintenance budget deficit of approximately $1.5 billion.

Consider that the cost of building an arguably undersized school in Nun’s Island has been pegged at $10.5 million – building 82 additional schools (or however many more is required to handle a growing student population) could easily cost somewhere in the area of a billion dollars.

Now where exactly is that money going to come from?

As a society we feel ourselves over-taxed as is, and we seem to be getting less and less value for our tax dollars, as graft, corruption and broad inefficiencies have handicapped government’s ability to maintain an all too often purposely vague minimum standard for diverse services. Over a century ago populist reform movements established public education as a means towards social improvement. Over time, public education evolved to remove social and class barriers by establishing a more level playing field wherein the general population gained access to a quality education that could in turn provide access to good employment. But more recently political movements have developed that urge governments to cut taxes, often blindly, and this in turn has lead to less money to support the public education system.

Today, some ask whether it’s worth the cost at all, since it seems to be so problematic.

Of course, it’s illogical to expect a broad civic initiative to thrive if it’s poorly financed and ill-maintained from the outset.

The more we cut spending on education, healthcare, social services etc, the more they all suffer.

And remember, the CSDM is the school board with the highest drop out rate on-island. Is it any wonder? Their schools are in piss-poor shape, the board is obviously underfunded and the schools are over-crowded. In some cases, children can’t attend the schools purposely built to serve their own neighbourhood, and instead have to be bussed across town. And all this adds up to a far greater strain on what limited financial resources we have, delivering less and less because we’re paying for poor management, lack of vision, and a culture of civic infrastructural and institutional defunding, popularized by so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’.

Poorer schools and higher drop-out rates in turn means more crime, less social cohesion and a potentially larger permanent underclass of marginally employed people living on the fringes of society.

In other words – everybody loses.

But as we all know it isn’t exactly politically expedient to demand higher taxation, and the PQ sure as shit isn’t about to propose raising taxes, even if it were for something as noble (and you’d think politically worthwhile) as building a hundred new schools in the Montreal region alone.

Perhaps we could partially solve the growing public education crisis in Montreal by seeking to streamline operations and find some ways of making public education a bit more efficient.

For example, the last time I counted there are seven school boards operating on the island of Montreal and in Laval. Seven. Seven school boards serving a combined population of roughly 2.5 million people.

New York City has a single Department of Education for its 1.1 million students.

Why on Earth do we need seven separate school boards for a student population of less than 300,000 in our city?

I understand where it comes from – Montreal’s public schools were once divided along religious and linguistic lines. Today they’re divided along linguistic and somewhat arbitrary geographic lines. French schools are filled to the brim while English schools close due to lack of students. And no one proposes the space gets shared because the respective boards and their unions are all twisted up in provincial politics.

And as always it’s the children and the people who suffer.

It’s insane that an English school be closed in a neighbourhood where the French school is over-crowded.

The obvious local solution to our growing public education crisis is that the city be granted a degree of control in the matter. It would be advantageous to operate a single local school board simply because it would allow a complete and thorough rationalization of space usage, leading in turn to a better distribution of students generally speaking throughout the island. Moreover, it would permit either a redistribution of linguistic education services to adjust to demographic changes in the last fifty years, or the possibility of integrating French and English language services into a single school should a situation warrant such a development.

Some hardcore Québec nationalists have in the past argued against integration of French and English services into a single building out of fear that ‘English would rule on the playground’ and thus the primacy of the French language would be threatened. I can tell you that’s bunk. Before the changeover to linguistic school boards my anglo-protestant high school rented space on its first floor to a franco-catholic primary school. We were kept separate and that was that – the only interaction was an inter-board ‘big brother/big sister’ type program wherein high school students would practice their French and help tutor the elementary kids downstairs. Hardly assimilation.

Not only that, but streamlining janitorial, food and landscaping services, in addition to book and supply orders, would definitely save us a considerable sum of money. There’s no need for this to be worked out by so many different school boards operating in and immediately around a single city. It’s wasteful, moronic.

Consider this as well – a single board could provide for a larger unified pension plan. We should look upon the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan as our inspiration and seek to get all local teachers into the same retirement pool. The more contributors to a single pool, the stronger the pool gets.

The current system seems to be hopelessly outdated, the residue of an era in which Two Solitudes was a social convention. Are we not more evolved today? The status quo handicaps us, and strength comes through unity.

By maintaining a needlessly divisive system as we currently have it, all the pieces are doomed to fail. We should have learned this lesson long ago – segregation in public schooling doesn’t work.

De-segregating Montreal’s public schools may be the only way to prevent major service disruptions at the CSDM.

Skyline to Change, Condo Ghetto Unlikely

Cadillac-Fairview development proposal rendering

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, but Bill 60 got in the way…

Cadillac Fairview corporation (the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the single best performing pension plan in the entire world) has announced their intention to invest about $2 billion redeveloping a significant portion of downtown Montreal. They’re already building the 50-floor Tour des Canadiens and the new 26-floor Deloitte Tower on either side of the Bell Centre, and as a result of apparently high demand for more condominiums in downtown Montréal, are now proceeding with the next two phases of their overall master plan.

Though Cadillac Fairview is cautious and are indicating, officially, that this is simply a proposal, they nonetheless appear confident the next phases will be realized. Phase II involves the construction of two 37-floor towers, one of which will be exclusively residential (with about 400 units) while the other will be mixed use, including a commercial base, a hotel and about 200 apartments. They’re to be built immediately south of the Bell Centre and will be feature a pedestrian bridge over St-Antoine Street.

Phases III & IV would involve construction of between four and five new towers on two plots of land on either side of St-Jacques between Rue Jean d’Estrées and Peel, in effect linking the downtown core with Griffintown. See the area here. While I would assume these are to be condominium towers, Cadillac Fairview senior vice-president Salvatore Iacono stated that he believes Montreal has a market for new office space in addition to urban residential properties.

I think he has a point too – we are lacking in class-A office space and most of our existing office towers were built in the 1960s, and most of our modern class-A buildings were built over 20 years ago. Aside from the Deloitte Tower currently being built, the Cité du Commerce Electronique and the Cité Multimédia are the last two significant office space developments, and those happened over a decade ago.

In any event, assuming all this works out Montreal’s skyline, and downtown, are going to change irrevocably, and with prudent civic involvement, for the best and for the city’s long term gain.

I find many Montrealers are sceptical of all the new condo projects going up, and there seems to be a somewhat prevalent concern the market is already over-saturated, and that these new towers are going to be half empty.

Perhaps our concern is unnecessary and/or is the result of massive construction in Toronto and Vancouver, two local real-estate markets regularly criticized for being excessively over-valued and unsustainable.

We should remind ourselves that what’s going up in this city pales in comparison to developments in the country’s other major cities. I think we might be proceeding more cautiously and sensibly than many would give this city credit for.

Consider this – most of the new towers that will soon redefine our city’s skyline are being built on unused land or parking lots; unlike a lot of other major downtown developments in our city’s history, nothing architecturally significant is being destroyed to accommodate these new towers.

Consider as well, these buildings don’t get built unless at least 70% of units are sold first.

So while there are many proposals, so far only the Tour des Canadiens, l’Avenue, Rocabella and Icone have past this necessary threshold to proceed with construction, though I’m not 100% certain both Icone buildings have been completely sold.

And consider as well that these buildings are going to concentrate a lot of high value residential property right in the heart of the central business district, assisting in the city’s efforts to repopulate the urban core. As long as people continue working office jobs downtown, there will be a market for these condos. And each of these new condos brings in more tax revenue for the city.

Nearly everyone wins.

From an environmental perspective, these developments may help us breathe a little easier. I think these new condos are going to appeal to new generations of young urban professionals who would rather live within walking distance of their office than spend several hours a day driving to and from the suburbs.

What’s more, these new condos are filling something of a gap in downtown real estate. Up until quite recently downtown real estate consisted almost exclusively of rental apartments of various prices and some of the most expensive homes in the city, without much in between. A lot of new condominiums coming into the market are affordable enough to be competitive with rental rates for similarly sized apartments in the city’s iconic inner-ring urban residential neighbourhoods. So it begs the question, why rent an apartment for $1200 a month when you can get a mortgage for less?

Suffice it to say, I think these new towers are going to appeal to a lot of people and I’m looking forward to seeing how the city evolves around all these new residents.

Now, that said, there are a few things the city can do to help see these projects realized, and to further help guard against the development of a ‘condo ghetto’.

What we want to avoid is too much of the same thing, and the city could implicate itself by mandating a certain number of ‘family-sized’ units be developed (though if you review the plans of a lot of these new towers, many of them incorporate a variety of unit layouts and multiple closed rooms) and can further work to secure the services necessary for so many new urban residents. We don’t just want to populate the downtown core with young professionals, we want families too (because they’re more likely to stay). Ergo, space needs to be allocated for clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, daycares, cultural and green spaces, community space and perhaps even a library and public school.

A large geographic area of this city is being completely redeveloped (basically the area roughly bounded by Bleury, Ste-Catherine, Guy and the Lachine Canal), I think the city would be wise to lead development by working to provide the services necessary to sustain a large and diverse urban population. Free market capitalism will take care of part of this problem, but ultimately the responsibility will rest on the city to make sure a diverse population takes up residence downtown and can be sustained living in an area which, up until quite recently, has been unfortunately underpopulated.

Further, the city could involve itself by developing new public green spaces, renovating the existing ones, and connecting as many of these new buildings directly to the Underground City. Being able to walk from your home to your office and back again without having to put on boots and a coat is going to appeal to a lot of people in this city.

And who knows, maybe all the sudden availability of thousands of new condominiums in the next few years will serve to lower rents (the logic being that thousands of people will choose to own downtown property, vacating thousands of otherwise desirable apartments).

My most immediate concern is that, despite all this new living space, there’s no cohesive affordable housing plan. Low-income earners have the right to quality, affordable housing, and this city seems to be lacking it. Now while none of these new condo towers are forcing anyone out of a home, to my knowledge they’re not providing any affordable housing space. If I recall correctly, there’s a provision in the local building code that stipulates new construction reserve a certain number of units to be classified as ‘affordable housing’ but there’s also a means by which developers can get around this, though the specifics escape me at the moment. From the looks of things, none of these impressive new buildings will feature subsidized housing, and affordable is an obviously subjective term.

In addition, 1180 St-Antoine will be demolished to make way for the next phase of Cadillac Fairview’s Bell Centre project. While the building is quite ugly, in my opinion, and I have no earthly idea what it was originally designed for, it has become a vital focal point for many Montreal musicians. There’s quite a bit of rehearsal and recording space in the building, and it’s well used mostly because it’s quite cheap. It’s also a decent enough DIY venue for small concerts, a means by which a lot of bands support themselves.

And as you might imagine, no plan to replace this lost space once the condominiums are built. It would be nice if someone stepped in and made the case that, whatever form this new mega-project takes, it include jam space at rock bottom rates. If for no other reason, it would be nice that the tradition of making music near the intersection of St-Antoine and Rue de la Montagne continue (back in the day this is where all the major jazz clubs were located, including the famous Café Saint Martin and Rockhead’s Paradise).

All this to say, the mayor’s been demonstrating a heightened level of civic engagement (surprisingly high for a Montreal mayor in my opinion) – hopefully he won’t leave major real estate development projects to market forces alone.

Deurbanization in Montreal’s City Centre

Peel looking South towards the CN Stockyards - late 1970s. Photo credit to La Presse
Peel looking south towards the CN Stockyards – late 1970s. Photo credit to La Presse

I came across the above photograph browsing Flickr a while back and was struck what an excellent representation it is of the deurbanization of Montreal’s city centre – there was once a rather vibrant community south of Saint Antoine Street. The photo above is taken about halfway down Peel Street south of Boul. de la Gauchetiere. Just out of frame along the sidewalk at left is Place du Canada. On the right, Windsor Station, which at the time was still being used as a train station. On the other side of the intersection, the Le Coloniale tavern, and further down the block at the corner of Saint Jacques, the Queens Hotel, just before its abandonment. It would be demolished in 1988 as it was infamously judged to be on the verge of total structural collapse. Richard Bergeron often remarks how he watched demolition crews slam the wrecking ball into the walls three or four times before it would even start to give. The Queens Hotel had a capacity of 400 rooms, was a heritage site and anchored an entire city block of myriad smaller buildings of diverse styles, as you can plainly see in the photo above. Further down the block the CN Stockyards, also nearing the end of its utility and presence in the urban environment. Further still, one of the areas once numerous industrial operations. This photograph was taken just over thirty years ago, at a time in which many Montrealers were only just beginning to bemoan the loss of economic status as a consequence of the deindustrialization of the area colloquially referred to as Griffintown.

Google Street View of Peel Street looking south towards ETS
Google Street View of Peel Street looking south towards ETS

Fast forward to today and you see how deindustrialization has led quite directly to a kind of strange deurbanization. The block where the Queens Hotel, La Coloniale tavern and numerous other buildings once stood is now a parking lot. The lot where the Bonaventure train station (and later CN Stockyards) once stood is also empty, while the industrial concern has been converted into the ETS engineering school. The former Planetarium in Chaboillez Square is abandoned, as is the behemoth former Dow Brewery just out of frame of the screenshot above. Everything beyond is being prepared for an assumed mass of condo and loft dwellers, and in this respect Notre Dame West seems considerably renewed, but the space allocation given to the planned amalgam of single and dual occupancy residential living in the Griffintown sector is so high that it will be impossible to regenerate a viable sense of community. Consider what the area you see above is supposed to become a doorway of sorts to a vast neighbourhood in the very centre of our city. It neither looks nor feels anything like the identifiable neighbourhoods of our city; it’s been deurbanized to be repopulated with branded living ‘urban chalets’ or some such nonsense, with commerce limited largely to corporate chains. I have my doubts a condo ghetto of such a massive size as is being proposed for Griffintown, with no planning input from the city whatsoever, could possibly become a real neighbourhood in any tangible sense. Suffice it to say I think the city should be heavily involved in every step of the area’s redevelopment, specifically mandating the limitation of block-sized projects, while promoting more small-scale residential and commercial developments.

The yellow boxes represent some of the most heavily depopulated areas of the city.
The yellow boxes represent some of the most heavily depopulated areas of the city.

Consider this vantage point on the same area of the city from 1947. I’ve pointed out the Sun Life Building, Windsor Station and Gare Central for reference.

The area is it stands today.
The area is it stands today.

And how it looks today – many, many more parking lots, far fewer small and medium sized buildings. Too many empty lots and comparatively large empty buildings. Wasted space. Highways and viaducts joining together as a massive wall neatly slicing Griffintown and the Sud-Ouest off from the downtown. There’s a lot of potential here, but any desire amongst the citizenry to use this space responsibly (so as to develop a cohesive and sustainable community) will necessarily require direct city involvement. Someone needs to develop a master plan; this area could support thousands of new residents if developed properly.

Portlands in Montreal - 1947

Here we get a better idea of what drove the urban scheme back in the 1940s, when this area immediately south of the current downtown supported a far, far larger population. As you can see there was once a considerable port function located west of the Bonaventure Viaduct, where the Lachine Canal joins the Saint Lawrence River. Top left you can see the passenger platform at Windsor Station and the stockyards further south. In the centre of the photograph, where the short-lived Canada Post mail-sorting facility once stood, you can see the collection of docks and piers that supported the grain trade. Bottom centre and towards the bottom right corner, the vast CN yards in Pointe-St-Charles. This was the epicentre of the nation’s trade in bulk resources, where rail met steamship, a twenty minute walk south from Place du Canada. A disproportionate amount of heavy industry was concentrated here, as was a considerable working class population, and enough diverse office space to manage the whole affair.

For a very long time this space was closely associated with the economic strength of an entire nation. Such common psychogeographic associations can have a profound social effect; when this area began its transformation in the 1960s it was interpreted by the public almost as though the city’s economic guts were being torn out. The reality was that maritime transport, port facilities and rail infrastructure was undergoing their own transformation, and the large-scale projects favoured by the Drapeau administration made the change all the more dramatic. The photo at top shows the area when it had already large been depopulated; within ten years it would be largely deindustrialized as well.

Screen Shot 2013-06-01 at 11.06.18 PM

And here it is again as things stand today (actually, I think this flyover took place in two parts, one in 2004 and another in 2007, but it’s close enough). There’s still a lot to play around with – a diverse quantity of existing buildings (which if older than fifty years ought to be considered for preservation) and myriad different sized lots. If necessary some should be purchased by the city and divided up to encourage more human scale developments, as I fear far too much of this space will be allocated to condominium projects that all too often become self-contained urban gated communities. I wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t be wise to knock down most of the large-surface area light-industrial buildings to give the area a ‘clean look’ for redevelopment. In any event, I digress, just some food for thought. I’d like to see more before and after shots of the city where empty streets and mega-block constructions get replaced with something that actually looks and feels like a balanced urban environment.