Never, in my experience, has a proposed condo development received so much praise.
Suzanne Deschamps presented the Petite Rivière project at UQAM yesterday evening on behalf of Groupe Pacific, a private developer. The most notable thing about this development is that it takes environmental considerations way beyond LEED standards and aims for “real sustainability.” Deschamps described the principles behind one-planet communities, which aim to create a place where residents are able to live with an ecological footprint that does not overstep their fair share of the Earth’s resources (currently, if everyone on earth lived like the average Canadian, it would take more than four planets to sustain us all).
A full 70% of the site would be public space, including a naturalized buffer zone at one edge of the property, a decontaminated Rivière Saint-Pierre, reconstituted wetlands, and a more landscaped public park, as well as a the streets and squares. The development boasts proximity services, a mid-rise form with the density of the Plateau, and affordable housing (by condo standards anyways). The designers have big plans for transit oriented development (as long as the AMT is willing to add a stop along their train line) and the new development will aim for a ratio of 0.8 cars per dwelling, half that of the surrounding Montreal West and Côte-Saint-Luc.
After the presentation, nearly all the questions and comments carried the same message: this project would be welcome just about anywhere except Meadowbrook, the site that it is planned for.
Anywhere but here
Nice project, wrong site, read a flyer produced by “Les Amis de Meadowbrook,” a group of vocal citizens who have been passionately defending this site since 1989. Their mission is to “protect Meadowbrook from development and transform it into a new 57-hectare nature park open and accessible to all Montreal Islanders.” This mission is supported by the CRE, the David Suzuki foundation, Equiterre, Greenpeace, Héritage Laurentien, and Projet Montréal among others. The group declared victory last November when city hall came out agains the developer’s proposal. But of course halting development is just half the battle.
For the past 60 years, the Meadowbrook has been used as a golf course and as such has remained green, at least in colour. Majestic trees line the site and dozens of animals, most famously red foxes, can be spotted there. But, while this is one of the few large undeveloped tracts of land in area, a manicured golf course is hardly an ecological reserve (this video of a golfer feeding the foxes in broad daylight only emphasizes that point) and, as a private club with less than 200 members, it is barely accessible to the human population of Montreal.
Preserving the Meadowbrook as a golf course is not an endpoint.
A Dangerous Enclave?
The ecological value of the site is not the only limiting factor. It is also entirely enclaved and even crisscrossed by train tracks. The development, which includes 1600 condo units, would have exactly one entrance from Côte-Saint-Luc road. It can’t be merged onto the existing street grid because, the adjoining neighbourhood is all winding suburban roads and dead ends. The accessibility to the site depends more or less entirely upon the AMT’s willingness to create a new train station along the Montreal-Hudson line, something they have refused to do in the past. And even if this TOD were to work out, the train only runs a dozen times a day (3 or 4 on weekends): it hardly seems enough to cut car ownership in half.
To make matters worse, this site is surrounded with train yards and industrial areas which pose added nuisances and risks. While plenty of residential development in Montreal rubs up against train tracks, one city councilor at the meeting pointed out that this generates a lot of noise complaints: why repeat old mistakes, she asked.
Perhaps most importantly, the city turned down the project because the cost of hooking up a new community with the existing infrastructure was deemed too high.
This is compromise
Richard Bergeron also took the mic during the conference yesterday to propose that Groupe Pacific trade this property for a piece of the Turcot Yards which will soon be liberated and turned over to the City of Montreal.
But of course the development proposed here seems so great because it was designed within the limitations of the Meadowbrook site. Naturalized buffer zones are almost certainly included because of the proximity of noisy, potentially dangerous rail yards; a park is likely included because the OCPM and the Commmission Labrecque both called for this site to be preserved and converted into an eco-territory. None of the developer’s other projects look quite so awesome. This is a compromise.
Stalling our way to sustainability?
If we had a choice between this development and a public eco-territory then it should be the latter. Right now we don’t: we have a choice between a particularly green development or a golf course.
Groupe Pacific bought the 57ha site for only $3 million in 2006, a price that, according to Les Amis du Meadowbrook, assumes that the land was undevelopable. However, a portion of the site remains zoned for residential development in the 2005 urban plan.
To fully protect the site, the city would have to acquire it from the private owner and turn it into a park. Deschamps says that she has neither approached the city, nor received an offer, and Petite Rivière is probably as close to an accessible park and eco-reserve as we’ll ever get from a private developer.
Alan DeSouza said that the site will likely continue to serve as a private golf course. “I hope it will be there for decades to come,” DeSousa said during a public meeting, reported in the Gazette. Meadowbrook’s future has already been debated for over two decades.
Despite the applause that this proposal received, there are some serious kinks to work out:
- negotiations have to happen with the AMT before the site is built, not after there are 3000 people living on a dead-end road;
- additional access needs to be built, for instance a link with Lachine to the south;
- the infrastructure cost should be shared by the developer and the city who will benefit from increased property tax dollars.
But halting an environmentally conscientious project in order to maintain a golf course and a glimmer of hope is a spineless excuse for sustainable development.
image credits: top Groupe Pacific, Petite Rivière website; bottom, Walking Turcot Yards.