A poor east-end Montreal neighbourhood that became a high-profile victim of postwar “urban renewal” mania is set for yet another sweeping makeover.
Familiarly known as the Faubourg à m’lasse – or Molasses District – the area east of the downtown has experienced major disruptions in its lifetime, including the cruel eviction in 1963-64 of some 5,000 working-class residents and the razing of almost 800 homes to make way for Radio-Canada’s new broadcast centre.
Radio-Canada sold the complex and surrounding area to developer Groupe Mach Inc. three years ago, and the latter has put together an ambitious mixed-use project – the Quartier des lumières – aimed at renewing the area.
Plans outlined by Mach and its partners – including Devimco Immobilier and architectural firm Lemay – call for a sprawling development around Maison de Radio-Canada, the 24-storey hexagonal tower that failed in its mission to become the focal point of a burgeoning second downtown in the predominantly francophone, economically impoverished east end of Montreal.
The Maison is surrounded by desolate parking lots, squeezed in between traffic-heavy René-Lévesque Boulevard and the Ville-Marie Expressway.
Any redevelopment faces the challenge of not only reviving this bleak expanse but also reconnecting it with its surrounding urban landscape.
City of Montreal officials say they are not prepared at this stage to discuss the residential/office/commercial project or provide details about it because of continuing negotiations with the promoters.
For their part, the promoters say they are keen to avoid simply dropping an alien megaproject into the area. They tout their desire to create a “complete neighbourhood” receptive to the needs of the local population, with a focus on social housing, schools, active mobility, parks and public spaces.
“It’s a big challenge, with large neighbourhood developments, to integrate all of the different concerns,” Christopher Sweetnam Holmes, Mach’s vice-president of development, says in a promotional video. "And what we tried to do was really listen. We spent a lot of time meeting groups, meeting individuals.
“People wanted to feel that the neighbourhood was permeable. That there wasn’t a wall of big new buildings. They wanted to feel like they could easily cross through. We created a lot of secondary paths to allow people to cross through the neighbourhood.”
Éric Michaud, of community group Comité logement Ville-Marie, is one of several local activists who were consulted over the years on plans not only for the Quartier but also for other nearby projects that will have a transformative impact on the district, including a condo redevelopment of the historic Molson Brewery site.
So far, there are positive signs that the Quartier des lumières addresses some of the community’s concerns over access to social and affordable housing, Mr. Michaud said. It is critical that new condo developments not only have a strong affordability component but also make room for larger units suited to families, he said.
“There are elements in the plan that are in keeping with what we’re asking for,” he said.
At a public meeting of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal in late September, one resident said he’s worried some of the Quartier’s towers will be too tall and overwhelming for an area comprised mainly of low-rise, red-brick housing.
Bruno Collin, an urbanist with the Ville-Marie borough of Montreal, replied that he’s satisfied the new towers won’t be invasive or fortress-like, with lots of diversity in the façade treatment, thin vertical profiles and close attention to the importance of not dampening street-level activity.
But there is inevitably a tradeoff between the need for generous public spaces and parks and achieving an acceptable level of density, which means higher towers, Mr. Collin said.
By way of bolstering their social and environmental bona fides, the Quartier’s developers point to the certification awarded by Fitwel, operated by the Center for Active Design, a leading international player in the healthy-building movement. The program stresses the positive health impacts resulting from emphasizing pedestrian and bicycle connections, access to quality public spaces and controlled densities.
Gérard Beaudet, an urban planner and professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Montreal, says the damage done to the Faubourg will never be completely repaired. But there seems to be a genuine desire on the part of the Quartier’s developers to create something positive and responsive to the local community, he said.
“The area can be made more liveable, more convivial.”
One aspect to closely monitor as the project evolves is the possibility that the clustering of tall towers will result in blocked sunlight and unwelcome gusts of wind, Mr. Beaudet added.
Ron Rayside, a Montreal architect advocating architecture with a social and humanist bent, has been a consultant to various community groups working to ensure that their concerns regarding the Quartier are addressed.
“The way the project is going so far, both the city and the developers have been taking into account suggestions from community organizations,” he said. But: “The whole impact on the rest of the neighbourhood, some parts of it are still not clear.”
For example, the possibility that some of the towers will be too tall. Or the danger that the influx of more expensive condos will put undue upward pressure on the real estate values of the existing housing stock and ultimately exclude many lower-income residents.
Mr. Rayside also cautions against the danger that the new retail component of the Quartier des lumières will draw business away from vulnerable local businesses on the commercial strip of nearby Sainte-Catherine Street East.
Massive new projects of the size of the Quartier sometimes end up also putting pressure on the price of retail space, resulting in big-box and chain outfits pushing out of small local businesses that can’t afford the higher rents, he said.
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