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The broadcaster's massive redevelopment of its desolate east-end property looks to revitalize a long-neglected community

Incredible as it may seem, there was a time in recent memory when cutting-edge urban planning could include replacing a bustling residential neighbourhood with parking lots. If the CBC and two private developers have their way, a notorious result of that kind of raze-and-pave mentality in Montreal's east end may be partly reversed.

The public broadcaster has accepted two purchase-and-development offers for its large and desolate Maison Radio-Canada property, which was expropriated in the 1950s from a working-class community of 5,000 people. The deals are the first step in a plan to build a new headquarters for French-language broadcasting on the site's eastern edge, and a 280,000-square-metre mixed-use development on the rest of what used to be the old francophone neighbourhood of Faubourg à m'lasse.

"We're definitely going to try to make up for what was done," says Vincent Chiara, whose Groupe Mach plans to build about 20 silvery buildings of varying heights on the western portion of the site, including condos, social housing and retail and office space. Chiara also said he would restore some of the road network that criss-crossed the vanished Faubourg, and convert the 24-storey Radio-Canada tower into loft-type offices.

The new broadcast centre would be built by a consortium led by Montreal-based Broccolini, with Béïque Legault Thuot Architectes of Montreal and Quadrangle, a Toronto design firm that developed CHUM/MuchMusic's pioneering broadcast spaces. Computer-generated illustrations and a video of the concept show a luminous, mainly glass-walled complex of buildings linked by a four-storey atrium. Elevated walkways will pass through the wooden-beamed atrium, which will be visible from offices and multiplatform studios, and will have the same versatility as the atrium at the CBC's English-language HQ in Toronto. The aim, CBC president and chief executive officer Hubert T. Lacroix says, is to create a more compact, transparent and publicly accessible HQ than the old tower, where 80 per cent of the usable space was underground.

"We're going to bring everything up to the light," Lacroix says. "We can't be a public broadcaster hiding in a bunker."

The new structure will also allow the CBC to walk away from the $170-million maintenance deficit it has run up in the Maison Radio-Canada, which becomes palpably evident at the end of each winter. "If you think Niagara Falls is something, you should see this building when it thaws in spring," he says, referring to leaks in the building envelope.

The new broadcast centre will have about one-third the space of Maison Radio-Canada, which is in line with current needs, Lacroix said. Some interior spaces will be easily convertible from production to office use or vice versa, and there will be areas inside and out for public events and presentation of live programming on giant screens.

Broccolini will build and manage the broadcast HQ, and lease it back to the CBC for 30 years. The sale of its Montreal property, Lacroix said, is part of a larger CBC strategy to get out of land management and focus exclusively on content creation and distribution.

Jean Langlois, spokesman for Broccolini, notes that the area is undergoing a renaissance, with new development northwest of the site, and a $39.5-million plan to illuminate the Cartier Bridge for the city's 375th anniversary celebrations next year. Molson Coors has also mused publicly about renovating or redeveloping the Molson brewery that has occupied land southeast of the CBC lot since 1786.

Architecturally, neither development seems aimed at creating a novel design profile. The glass-wall orthodoxy of the times will be in effect all over the site, with the outstanding exception of the old Maison Radio-Canada. All parties, however, seem less committed to making bold architectural statements than to creating a lively synergy of functions in an area that for decades has felt like a void surrounding a fortress. Both ends of the site will feature coherent public areas, gathering places and green spaces.

Both development deals await approval by the federal Treasury Board next spring, and both are bound by a development agreement the CBC signed with the city of Montreal. That agreement offers no protection for the old Maison Radio-Canada, in spite of a recent campaign by area representatives to have the Tore Bjornstad building designated a heritage site. Groupe Mach's Chiara has the right to tear it down, and might have been cheered for doing so by those who sneeringly refer to it as the Kleenex Box, but he sees it as the nucleus for a new community.

"I think it's a cool building, and a landmark," Chiara says. He plans to preserve the early-seventies exterior, with its unusual hexagonal shape and curved window masking.

Not much of the original interior will be saved, however: Chiara says he will strip it all back to the concrete floors and ceilings. That should provide room heights of up to 10 feet, he says, and an industrial, loft-like ambience that he thinks will be attractive to young companies in gaming and communications.

Chiara says he isn't worried about the building's $170-maintenance deficit, which pertains mainly to production spaces below the tower and under the bunker-like buildings clustered around it. The leaks in the tower can easily be solved by new glazing systems, he says, and will have done no damage to the concrete structure.

Removal of all the broadcast production facilities underground, however, will leave enormous craters, which may be converted to underground parking, Chiara says. Above-ground parking will be minimal on both the Groupe Mach and Broccolini ends of the site, in stark contrast to the vast and mostly deserted lots that surround and isolate the Maison Radio-Canada.

Twenty per cent of the residential space in the Groupe Mach development will be social housing, which will be sold to a co-op or not-for-profit housing corporation. Chiara says the condos will be priced for the middle of the market, and promoted as homes in a thriving broadcast and communications neighbourhood.

"We want people to feel as if they're living at the CBC site, not like they're living next to Molson's brewery," he says. Above all, he wants them to feel as if they're living in a real neighbourhood, as people in the Faubourg à m'lasse did for a few centuries before the CBC came along.