Griffintown: The limits of loss

By P.A. Sévigny on April 23, 2010

Decades after there will be nothing left of Montreal’s Griffintown except for the name and Mary Gallagher’s headless ghost, more than a few urban planners will continue to wonder why so little was done with such a magnificent opportunity for truly sustained and  modern urban development.

“This is such an incredible opportunity to build a real 21st century city,” said Montreal urban activist Judith Bauer. “Why can’t these people think of empty urban space as something more than just another opportunity to build another pile of condos?”

horse-palace-2.jpgBauer was talking about the city’s recently revised plans to help developer Devimco, go ahead and begin to build the first phase of their new scaled down Griffintown condominium complex. While many, including city executive committee member Richard Bergeron, consider the new plan to be nothing less than a “night and day” improvement over Devimco’s original $1.3 Billion proposal, the new Griffintown ‘Lite’ proposal still includes 1 375 new high rise housing units piled high in a series of multi-floor urban condominium buildings with just enough retail and commercial space for the new stores required to service the community. To be fair, the new plan also includes up to 20% of available green space for parks along with six parking spots for every 10 units. Although this is only the first of a four- phased construction schedule, the original plan’s critics will be relieved as none of the district’s streets will be swallowed up by the new construction, there will be no expropriations and there will be no elevated passageways over Peel Street. 

Compared to the developer’s original proposal, Devimco’s new project will probably face little opposition because, apart from the fact the condominium’s seem to cater to city’s confirmed singles population, it’s nothing but small beer compared to what both Devimco and the Tremblay administration had in mind when they first began to talk about Griffintown’s future development. Among other details, their old plan included two massive big-box stores à la Wal-Mart, massive parking lots for passing trade, a concert hall, and two hotels. The old proposal also included a number of high rise apartment buildings of varying height (up to 20 floors!) which would include 3680 condominiums along with designated homes for both seniors and students along with some social housing and enough retail space to service the entire community. 

After seeing the original Devimco plan for the first time, McGill University Urban Planning Professor Rafael Fischler said it had “…all the charm of a post-war Soviet housing development.”

 As one of the city’s more vociferous opponents to the Tremblay administration’s real estate initiatives during Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s previous administration, Projet Montréal’s Richard Bergeron often accused the mayor of being far more concerned about what he could do for the city’s various real estate promoters than he was about the city’s overtaxed citizens who were often forced to pay for some promoter’s latest fantasy . As one of the three city councilors who voted against Mayor Tremblay’s motion to alter the city’s urban plan, Bergeron continued to carry on his singular fight against the Griffintown plan even after the city’s opposition rolled over and accepted the mayor’s motion without a single comment against the project. Following last year’s election and his nomination to the city’s executive committee, Bergeron has now become one of the mayor’s biggest allies. As of last week’s announcement of the new Griffintown ‘Lite’ project, Bergeron is now one of the plan’s core supporters even if members of his own party say it doesn’t do enough to attract families to the area.

“The original project was horrible-it’s true,” he said, “…but with other housing projects we’ve got planned for the district, we’re going to create a very beautiful urban neighborhood.”

Local activists and urban planning specialists don’t agree. As Bauer put it, one of the key elements of sustainable development is to know how the promotion of growth must always include the implicit limits of loss. And as far as Griffintown is concerned, Bauer believes profit margins will push the new development’s vertical architecture high into the sky which will destroy what’s left of Griffintown as we know it. 

“More towers, she said. “More people walking their dogs in a tiny park the size of a postage stamp alongside soaring concrete walls, tiny balconies and wind-swept streets... That’s no way to build a community.”

Referring back to Montreal’s ill-fated ‘Corrid’Art’ project which earned the city a lot of attention from the globe’s contemporary art community before former Mayor Jean Drapeau ordered it torn down because he was of the “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like “ school of art appreciation, Bauer said city planners could build another world famous Corrid’Art stretching from Old Montreal right up to the city’s Sherbrooke Street museums. 

“Keep the six floor limit on new construction because that will create an environment where people aren’t alienated by the scale and size of their own environment. After citing Paris as a good example of what happens when cities  spread out on a horizontal axis instead of a vertical axis, she described Baron Hausmann’s Paris as an urban environment where museums, parks, shopping areas and plazas provide the common experience which begins to define a community and its people.

“ If the city is serious about culture,” she said, “… you can find all the culture you want in a line stretching from Old Montreal right up to the Sherbrooke Street museums. 

In a city where so many mistakes have been made because of its leaders lack of political courage and imagination, Bauer hopes the city will use its head and have the courage and imagination to do what’s right in Griffintown because if it doesn’t, Mary Gallagher won’t be the only one wandering the streets looking for her lost head while trying to figure out what happened to Griffintown.


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