SDA Backpedals on Lower Main Redevelopments

Breaking News: The three new buildings proposed by Société Dévelopment Angus on Boulevard Saint-Laurent will be smaller and longer in coming than originally planned,  Le Devoir reported yesterday.

2-22 Sainte-Catherine, the anchor building for arts organizations in the Quartier des Spectacles has shrunk from a 12-story flashy glass-fronted design, to a 5-story brick structure which promises to be more in harmony with the local architecture. Unsurprisingly, the artists for whom this project was conceived would not have been able to afford space in the building. Since this redesign actually fits within the area’s urban plan, no further public consultations will be required.

The controversial Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent has also seen its budget cut by more than half.  I have heard rumors from 2 sources that Hydro Quebec has withdrawn from the project. However in an interview with Le Devoir, SDA president Christian Yaccarini said that Hydro Quebec will remain the main tenant in the shrunken Quadrilatère. Rather, he blames Café Cleopatra for retarding the project by refusing to leave the location. The pared-back design will not surpass the Monument National.

The last, and probably best of the SDA’s developments, a cultural centre on the empty lot around metro Saint-Laurent station, is also on hold for “at least a year” (read: indefinitely). The developer has only able to find tenants for a quarter of the space. Once again, few cultural groups are able shell out for the brand new digs, despite municipal subsidies.

Lessons learned?

For people who were involved in the public consultation process, the temptation is to shout out a great big “I told you so.” Architect and author Louis Rastelli, who is involved with the Save the Main recently wrote to me:

“In short, everything everyone warned about these 3 projects has come to pass — rushed forward too soon without confirmed tenants, Hydro not likely willing to wait forever, no plan B from the developer, premature expropriation, questionable idea of putting offices in a concert district etc.”

But money talks and, perhaps ironically, lack of money has ground this project to a halt after citizen opposition was categorically ignored.

There is one contradiction that I hope does not go unnoticed here: during public consultations, we were told that the only way that these projects could be financially viable was through renting many stories of office space. Now, the cash-strapped developer is cutting back the project to something that is actually cohesive with the urban plan in terms of building height. Why was this kind of design initially portrayed as impossible when it is, in fact, not only possible but apparently cheaper? (Keeping in mind that SDA purports to be a non-profit organization).

Unless, of course, this pared-back version of the project actually is impossible, is nothing but a smoke screen to cover a a more complete retreat. Remember when, barely over a year ago, Projet Griffintown’s finances went down the tubes and developer Devimco promised a pared-back project? And then we never heard from them again? A recent writeup in Métro Montréal concludes the project is “practically dead”

We can say good riddance to Projet Griffintown because the developer actually owned very little of the property that they hoped to build upon. That’s not the case with the SDA on the Lower Main: over the past year, they snapped up all the properties they could and crushed the little life that was left on the block below Sainte-Catherine. You can bet that, with the exception of Café Cleopatra and perhaps the Montreal Pool room who have not yet finalized the sale of their property, the strip will be neglected for years to come as this gets sorted out, or doesn’t.

Now, more than ever before, it is time to get a bit more creative and “Save the Main.”

Have we finally learned that confiding a neighbourhood’s revitalization to a single developer (and without even a public bidding process) is too great a risk?

I know that, when they rubberstamp projects of this scale, city officials are not trying to win my vote. Perhaps they are seeking the support from business people, or catering to an older generation wistful for the golden years of bulldoze-and-build-it-better, Expo-style development.

If nothing else, I hope the City be burned enough to learn that bending over backwards to push through a high-profile project is, politically speaking, only a good move if you can actually deliver.

25 comments

  1. I was so happy when I found this out. I definitely agree with you about the risk that that sector is now in. It would be really terrible to see a repeat of the Seville Theatre on the Main.

  2. One constant of the Quartier des Spectacles area over the past few years has been the elimination of historic buildings and niche flavours of entertainment. Ex-centris, Le Spectrum, Parisien, etc etc.

    I guess the QSL and 2-22 projects were supposed to continue the process by munching the remaining niche flavours in the area and replace them with much glossy, bland, green-washed mass-appeal stuff that nobody could possibly be against.

    The philistines in charge of such planning view the old and weird stuff as an impediment to progress and “la réuss’t”. In their vision, there is a fixed thing called tourism, and if you build new and shiny stuff, people will come and spend money in it by sheer virtue of the fact that something something new & shiny has been built.

    But a lot of us who came to Montréal in the first place and became its most ardent partisans did so because it was, among other things, charming, unique, and odd (and old!). It should be aiming to compete and set itself apart from the landscapes of LA, Chicago, Toronto and New York, rather than Brossard and St-Jérôme. Munching all the good buildings and putting accountant-conceived crap isn’t the best way to do this.

    But in any case, it’s probably not the worst idea to put offices in a “concert district”. Offices usually aren’t being used when the concert people are around. So that means stores and restaurants in the area can stay open later, and make their money more evenly over time during the day.

    Downtown Montréal has some time-imbalance issues — everyone tends to use everything at the same time (Ever been to Simons on Sunday at 4:30?) and everything is closed the rest of the time.

    That’s great for factory work but a “creative city” can maybe afford to have some grocery stores downtown, or cafés open after 5pm.

  3. This is catastrophic news… excellent projects being scaled down and stalled. This current mess of a situation is just going to drag on longer.

    As an architect and an urbanist, i’m appalled by some people here that are actually cheering this. For shame.

  4. Great news

    the Cleopatra people especially deserve a round of applause for standing up for their neighborhood.

    and lets hope the prices in the area go down enough that spaces that local artists can actually afford can be built. Especial concert venues, too many have been demolished or gone out of business in recent years.

  5. Excellent comment NEU, you’ve summed a lot of the opposition to much of what is being done to create the QDS quite nicely.

    To add to your list of entertainment casualties in the immediate area: Le Medley (closing in the next couple months to be replaced by condos), Katacombs (still in business but moved up the street on the outskirts of QDS proper), Club Opera (a terrible night club but it put a lot of people on the street at night, even if they were mostly high school kids getting in fights), and Les Saints (a nice medium sized show venue below Opera). How a “quartier” devoted to “spectacles” can be successful without late night venues is beyond me, unless “success” is measured by how many occasional big ticket names play in the new open spaces around Place-des-Arts, leaving it a deserted open space whenever nothing is happening.

  6. CC, I’m not opposed to urban projects – we really need to do something with the shameful empty lot outside the St-Laurent métro station – but many of those proposed did not relate to the buildings and scale of the neighbourhood. 2-22 Ste-Catherine was ludicrous.

    I pretty much agree with NEU about this too, though he does think I’m a “masculinised woman” for not wanting to be a doormat to various phallocratic fundamentalisms… (we had a laugh about that one over a good supper I cooked, that is so not me; I’m rather girly actually).

    I’m very sad about the old Middle East food shop.

    Neu, by the way, some progress has been made on the supermarket front, with the IGA outlets at Complexe Desjardins and Place Dupuis. They have facilitated access to staple groceries for people living and working in those areas.

    I remember a supermarket – a Steinberg? dead centre in downtown – was it under Eatons or Simpsons? Perhaps some other old fart or fartess remembers that.

  7. Club Opera a terrible nightclub?? My god what kind of authority do you have in that domain?

    Opera was the biggest and most glamorous club in town, high school kids? I really don’t think so, unless you are 50, then everyone else looks like a teenager to you.

    Anyways, its a sad news that a great club was closed for not much. Reminds me of the closing of SONA a few years back and also for nothing… 2 great loss for our city.

    Lesson learned? Govt should not mess with real estate, especially in locations that are already occuppied… there’s so many empty lots downtown already, why not focus on them first.

    This is one of many failed involvments in real estate by the govt, actually i think I have only one example of a genuine success with real estate and thats La Grande Bibliothèque, but that’s it, the rest is massive failure.

  8. I agree with CC. Sounds to me like we’ve lost an exciting opportunity for contemporary design for another bland design-by-committee “brick structure which promises to be more in harmony with the local architecture.” Meh.

    What’s with everyone? Do we WANT Montreal to be synonymous with bland, mediocre contemporary design? Because that’s what we’re becoming, it seems to me.

    I cannot fathom why people are cheering this on.

  9. Big, yes, but “glamorous” Club Opera was not. And it was very well known for its very young crowd. My underaged co-workers at my previous job could attest for it as they went there after work almost every Friday and Saturday night, knowing they would have little trouble getting in.

    Perhaps this brick structure that promises to be “more in harmony with the local architecture” will be something that is actually interesting considering the latest design (http://www.montreal2025.com/projet.php?id=52) was pretty much the definition of “bland, mediocre contemporary design”. This (http://www.journalderosemont.com/imgs/dynamique/articles/gros/Red_LightRedukto.jpg) is the design I liked, even though it was kind of ridiculous.

  10. I’m with CC as well. Montreal is not an abundantly wealthy and attractive city that can afford to dictate to investors what should be built where, by whom and for what purpose. I’m not saying we should whore the city out either but it seems to me that a grand project has been strangled (once again).

    By the way, a lot of the “bulldoze and make it better” Expo-style projects did a world of good for Montreal. I believe there is a general, positive, consensus surrounding that initiatives effects on the city’s fabric.

  11. I don’t think it would’ve benefited the city to have a massive glass wall rising up on the west side of the lower Main. A fun building at the corner where 2-22 is supposed to go would be great, but too many of the ideas thrown around in the last few years (and I’ve been tracking them for my blog) have fundamentally come down to office space for arts administrators and fonctionnaires.

    Maybe these folks want to be in the thick of the action, but they forget that the action kind of fizzles out if you’ve built a lot of office space that’s dead after 5 p.m.! There’s a reason René-Lévesque is not a party street and they were risking turning the area into that kind of space.

    SDA was supposed to build these new structures. Anyone who thinks that was a wise choice should go out to the area they developed around the old Angus yards, along Rachel East. There are a few well designed glass boxes, yes, but this is seriously not the kind of thing that leads to a lively street life.

  12. Excellent article. The Tremblay administration needs to upgrade to reality. If all these bullshit projects end up being undoable anyway it is time they start taking a look at ideas that could work. First thing, take a look at the heritage equation. No, not like that, not with one eye on some postpostmodern piece of schlock and the other on the profit line. The preservation of old buildings is Montreal’s future. We are wealthy in heritage, we have heritage coming out of the wazoo, and we have leaders at City Hall and in business who think it’s a great idea to tear it all down and replace it with hopelessly obsolete- as-you-go mega projects…

  13. I agree with historical preservation as much as the next person, but Montreal needs to stop living in the past. We should not be scared of being bold. Especially downtown.

  14. While I can understand the frustration CC is expressing, there does need to be some kind of balance between empty lots and oversized glass walls in the mode-du-jour… I’ll bet all the ugly 1970’s architecture canyonizing much of downtown Toronto looked pretty swank on the architect’s models, too.

    The reason everyone is cheering is that the planned rebuild of the neighbourhood was a travesty of integrated urban planning that would result in another antiseptic field of cement surrounded by glass walls.

    It is absolutely crucial that we have something like the QdeS, the size of the crowds that are attracted require an urban planning overhaul… but we, as Montrealers require an approach that makes the space livable & exists as a viable neighbourhood whether it’s full of 100 000 tourists in the heat of summer or it’s 1 am on a Friday night in the off-season.

    One last thing, to address the comment by William – sure Drapeau had vision, but he also razed neighbourhoods (and anything he considered not quite modern enough) to create poorly conceived infrastructure that neither addressed a long-term view to the city’s growth, nor was built to last. Faubourg à m’lasse, Goose village, the thousands of families expropriated for the Decarie Expressway, destroying the northern swath of Saint Henri & a good chunk of Lower Westmount for the Ville-Marie expressway, closing (almost) all of the city’s farmer’s markets… is that really the kind of progress we want to emulate? Because, to be frank, that is exactly what we’re doing by destroying the Lower Main for the sake of a monolithic office building.

  15. Hopefully something with human scale and lots of setback willl replace the nightmare that was the QSL project.

    The Spectrum site is still a giant hole in the ground and a disgrace and a black eye to downtown life. Who, I wonder, approved the whole “we don’t need the spectrum” project? Someone with financial links to the lacklustre corporate-sponsored and named club across the street? Not everything needs corporate branding, in fact, nothing needs corporate branding, let things live on their own with their own name.

    If developers tear something down and it’s still an empty hole a year later, the ownership needs to revert back to the city – at no charge to the city.

    The QSL project was a disgrace and the developers knew it, not that a sense of shame is something in developer dna, anyone with money can do anything they want to line their pockets with gold in this town.

    The entire developer-city incest in this city has to stop and stop now.

  16. I agree, grey, we are stuck with an outdated model and nothing new and exciting emerges but more of the same,often more of the same that was not all that inspiring the first time around. If you plan a whole section of Downtown around basically one 10 day festival, you might have huge issues most of the rest of the year. The CBC building and it s parking lot only serve as a reminder that a whole neighborhood was razed. There was nothing about the plans for the Main that suggested any kind of a positive new beginning was taking place and I think we do ourselves a supreme injustice when we insist that the tourists will love it – What about us that live here all year round?

  17. “Yaccarini… blames Café Cleopatra”
    Yaccarini always blames someone (else). Representing a “non-profit” community organization (sic) in Rosemont, there he tried to bypass public consultation on the Angus project when it was not to his liking. Why is this Rosemont group developing imperial connections to the rest of the city? And why is the city granting him favors?

  18. CC & pals have my sympathy but not my agreement. I didn’t find the original 2-22 proposal all that bad, but the Hydro stuff on the west side of the street was always horribly dull. It didn’t do anything for anybody, least of all the people who had to go to the bank and try to get money to build such a uselessly pricey thing, for some imagined “cultural” or “sustainable” clientele that turned out not to exist.

    Architecture isn’t reducible to visual audacity. It’s about reconciling ways and means on a particular site and within a given set of constraints. “World-class” design, particularly in this debased age, usually means someone’s silly proposal to slap up some big swoopy hunk of wow that photographs well. That’s not only boring, it’s not really architecture.

    There’s plenty of ways that some five-storey brick structures on St-Laurent could look smart and interesting while meeting the actual needs of realistic tenants. The previous proposals simply didn’t do that, and that’s why they stumbled. That’s how it works. Their failure isn’t a tribute to our good sense as a city, nor to the political success of the good people who opposed it. It just means that nobody wanted a set of dumb glassy stumps badly enough to pay a premium for them.

  19. A big glass box is not “bold” and the Metropolitan has not done a “world of good” for Montreal.

  20. Walkerup (and others), I’m assuming you’re quoting me there – I think we have a different interpretation of what “Expo-style” projects are. I don’t lump all the initiatives taken at that time together and I don’t really see what value there is in doing so. Some were great (the Metro), others less so (Maison Radio-Canada).

    I think DC’s comment is interesting. It’s great to see ambition, but I question the amount of square footage that the city is proposing to put on the market (likewise re: apartments for the redevelopment of the Maison Radio-Canada).

    DC notes that the project seems to point to a commercial failure, and this is why I believe the private sector should be guiding and informing the city with regards to projects of this scale (that includes me and you, Mr. & Ms. Consumer), not the other way around.

  21. “What’s with everyone? Do we WANT Montreal to be synonymous with bland, mediocre contemporary design? Because that’s what we’re becoming, it seems to me.”

    “I agree with historical preservation as much as the next person, but Montreal needs to stop living in the past. We should not be scared of being bold. Especially downtown.”

    Effective urban design needs to ground itself, and a plan based in “the spectacular” is often a failure in the making. The scaling down of the designs doesn’t mean they won’t be wonderful – rather they will make more sense with the area, a connect the city, as opposed to creating islands of development, as the current downtown looks.

  22. I am looking forward to seeing the QDs be as bland as Toronto’s . T shirts vendors and tchotches on the square. yeah ! that is what we need as ‘artists’ and entertainment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *