The Museum of Fine Arts’ (MBAM) newest pavilion, which is to open next September, is topped with a glass-walled lookout over Mount Royal. But a proposed condo development, which is nearly double the building height limit for this area, would obscure a good chunk of the view.
This is not a debate about density, aesthetics or heritage preservation; it is a breach of contract.
In designing the new pavilion, the museum’s architects worked within city’s zoning regulations, which limited the volume of the new structure. The “Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion” will give a second life to the Eskrine and American church, built in 1894 and closed in 2004, and will include a new 5-storey annex behind the church.
But if the museum took it for granted that the same rules would apply to others, they were sorely mistaken. The urban plan should limit any structure on the Redpath site to three stories or 16m, yet Ville Marie gave the go-ahead to demolish the historic Redpath Mansion and build a 7-story, 25-m structure in its place.
«Le Musée s’est astreint à concevoir son projet d’annexe en fonction du règlement de zonage. La Ville nous a obligés à en limiter le volume,” the MBAM’s administrative director Paul Lavallée told La Presse. “Et puis arrive ce projet d’un promoteur privé qui, lui, obtient une dérogation. C’est majeur.»
I don’t believe that Lavallée is overstating the importance of this matter: It is just the latest example of the negative repercussions of an ad-hoc application of the urban plan.
The urban plan is a social contract among Montrealers, meant to be applied by those elected to govern, that shapes our shared living space. In Montreal, this contract has been bent and broken so often that developers seem to regard it as a hurdle rather than a law, and citizens feel powerless to defend their vision of the city. From building heights to festival permits, the application of urban regulations is fickle and favouritist and those players like the MBAM who follow the rules tend to lose out.
I can see why a city that earns it’s bread in property taxes is tempted to pile three extra floors of condos into a new project. But what is lost with the uncertainty that plagues Montreal’s urban landscape? The MBAM would lose value with the new condo construction, and surely they’re not alone. Who wants to invest in such uncertain conditions? Only the people who pull the strings.
I’m not saying that the city should be bound by an unchanging vision concocted in 2005. The urban plan is meant to be updated regularly – actually it was actually supposed to be done in 2010. But for a policy that should have a hand in shaping every single square metre of Montreal, even the City doesn’t seem to take it very seriously.
Last July, when Richard Bergeron was in charge of urbanism on the Executive Committee, he announced the creation of a Planning Bureau that would knit together priorities in zoning, transportation, culture, heritage, the projection of Mount Royal, accessible housing, and regional planning by 2013. Now that he’s off the executive committee, it’s not clear to me where the dossier stands.
Sammy Forcillo, one of the city councillors who voted in favour of the project last November, told La Presse that he was surprised to learn that a 7-story building located on the slopes of the mountain would affect the view of the mountain. In November, Forcillo told Le Devor that they had okay-ed the development so that they could not be criticized of “immobilisme,” but that he encouraged residents to express their concerns in a public consultation that is to open in March.
Once again citizens are left with the uphill battle of critiquing a development that the city has already voted in favour of, and defending the values that the urban plan exists to preserve in the first place.