Marché Saint-Jacques seen from the corner of Ontario and Amherst.
After years of serving as a city office building, the Marché Saint-Jacques is finally being returned to its original vocation: a public market. Previously owned by the Ville-Marie borough, the market was sold for $2.3 million to private developer Rosdev in 2007 on the condition that it remain a market. This year, after extensive renovations and restoration, new shops are opening up inside the historic market building. There is currently a bakery (Première Moisson), a cheese shop, a greengrocer, a fresh pasta shop, an olive product store, a crêperie, and a coffee and tea shop. Other stores will be opening later this year.
In terms of protecting our city’s heritage buildings, this is good news. The restoration work was well executed and this beautiful Art Deco market will be preserved. Moreover, it will continue to remain accessible to the public, which wouldn’t be the case if it were converted to residential units as has happened to other old public buildings.
Art Deco details on the façade of the market.
But the new market is also a terrible missed opportunity. Public markets can have a great social value. Many low-income neighbourhoods are poorly served by grocery stores, and public markets are a way to provide access to affordable, healthy food. Markets can also provide consumers the opportunity to buy directly from small, local producers, many of whom have to struggle to survive in Quebec’s increasing industrialised and centralised food production and distribution systems.
Unfortunately, the new Marché Saint-Jacques won’t accomplish any of these functions. The new Marché Saint-Jacques isn’t a true public market, but rather a gourmet foods mall. All the shops within it are retailers. Unlike true markets, there are no small producers present. While it might be possible to add additional kiosks outside during the summer, there are currently no plans to do so.
Moreover, few of the neighbourhood’s many low income residents will benefit from the new stores in the market, which sell mainly luxury products. The Centre-Sud has historically been a working class neighbourhood, and to this day 42% of the residents of the Saint-Jacques district are low income. It also has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city, after Pointe-Saint-Charles and Sainte-Marie. No fewer than 680 subsidized public housing units can be found within a 250 metre radius of the market, not to mention the fact that les Habitations Jeanne-Mance, one of the largest public housing complexes in Canada, is a only a fifteen minute walk away.
Currently a number of the shops in the market have yet to open.
The way in which the market was redeveloped with thus mainly benefit financially comfortable, relative newcomers to the neighbourhood. It didn’t have to be this way. Economic revitalisation and social inclusion are not a zero sum game. Marché Jean-Talon, for instance, offers something for everybody. Gourmet retailers set up shop next door to discount merchants and local producers selling staple crops at affordable prices.
There are many ways that a social element could have been incorporated into this project, while still making it a revenue generating venture. There is no legitimate reason why the Ville-Marie borough couldn’t have incorporated space for a few local producers, a social enterprise, or a store selling cheap staples, while still leaving space for a few higher-end specialty retailers. Unfortunately, such an option would have meant extra work for the borough and less profits for the private developers. As a result the Ville-Marie borough took the easier route by deciding against these possibilities and simply throwing the entire project to the private sector. What’s worse, in selling the building the borough definitively closed the door to revisiting the market’s set-up.
We are now left with a market which is an improvement over an under-utilised office building, but far less than what it potentially could have been. And it’s one that leaves the neighbourhood’s traditionally working class residents out in the cold instead of building an inclusive community space for all residents.