Hello… Brossard? Local media outlets have been abuzz with talk of Quebec City based Devimco Inc.’s plans to rip down the gritty industrial neighbourhood (which also happens to be my home) of Griffintown in favour of a development much like its Quartier Dix30 “lifestyle centre” in the South Shore suburb of Brossard.
A rowhouse without a row on Ottawa Street in Griffintown. A small stable occupies the empty lot to the left, a newer warehouse is to the right.
For those unfamiliar with Griffintown, you can find it just south of Downtown below Notre Dame Ouest between McGill and Guy streets. At first glance, it would appear that not much is left of Griffintown, which, truth be told, is true. The neighbourhood was once one the densest urban areas in Canada with about 8000 people (mostly Irish) crammed inside cold-water flats amongst factories and stables. Due to various forces from the powers that be, only a few scattered tenements are left. Abandoned and active factories and a couple stables remain amongst newer warehouses and garages, parking lots, and the ever-expanding campus of L’École de technologie supérieure. However, a keen eye and some time spent in the neighbourhood will find a small and quirky community of small businesses, musicians, small scale artisans, students, and a scattering of stubborn old-timers who refuse to give up what little is left.
Young Street, Griffintown.
That said, Griffintown is no Plateau and with its proximity to Downtown, there have been numerous plans to redevelop the area. Some development has taken place – a cluster of high-rise condos have been built at the foot of the hill around de la Montagne Street and, as mentioned above, ÉTS has been slowly converting and demolishing buildings to expand their campus. The current proposal for a Dix30 style development has raised a lot of hairs amongst many people in the city so I decided get on my bike and take an afternoon to find out what this Dix30 actually is.
To begin, I quickly realised that the suburbs are no place for bicycles. Although Brossard has a relatively extensive network of bike paths, they tend to be geared more towards recreational cycling and therefore generally do not really go anywhere in particular. Furthermore, their lack of signage and the typically confusing nature of suburbia make them hard to navigate. Motorists are also not used to bicycles on the road; I was almost hit many times and even had a driver throw garbage at me out his car window which ended in me seeking refuge in a blocked off parking lot of an abandoned strip mall after he tried to run me down.
After biking around for about two hours searching for boulevard de Rome, it finally appeared. I asked an older woman which direction I needed to go to find the Dix30. She gave me the directions, adding that she had just visited it for the first time a few days before, and told me that it is huge and I wouldn’t miss it. She described it as being filled with young people and that “it’s like a city…well, no, not like a city, more like a village… but not really”. She commented that she didn’t know what they are going to do in the winter since “it’s all outdoors and there’s no underground, I don’t know if people will want to shop in the cold”. I continued on my way, past newly minted subdivisions and teenagers blasting Limp Bizkit from their Corolas until I saw a big tower surrounded by signless blocks of power centres. The pavement was still black and the outer parking lots abandoned. Only some of the store fronts were occupied, the rest were unfinished and empty, awaiting whatever multi-national chain will take over its pastel coloured box.
An unfinished strip of stores at Quartier Dix30, Brossard.
I was confused, this looked like any other power centre I had ever seen, albeit on a much larger scale. How would they get away with such a typically suburban development like this in the middle of the city? And how would it fit? It all made sense as I rounded a corner of a massive parking lot where I was immediately confronted with “l’Avenue des Lumières”. To the suburban eye, this is the small town Main Street from the movies, to a more critical eye of an urban dweller (or even someone who lives in an older small town or village) it is a ghastly perversion, a travesty, a parody of urbanity. A mall without a roof with some fancy street furniture.
To my surprise, I found a bike rack. I locked up and wandered around. The street is the length of about 5 city blocks. Along it, traffic is calmed by sidewalk abutments, speed bumps, and a large fountain that one must drive around. Streetside parking is provided, but mostly to create the ambiance of a real commercial street as abundant parking is located everywhere around. Sidewalks are generous with café and restaurant terraces spilling out onto them. The storefronts along the street house chain stores and restaurants but look typical of power centre strips. Each is distinct with different colours and designs, however, no building has a second floor for offices or residences, as would be found on a real main street; l’Avenue des Lumières is a street of consumption and entertainment only.
l’Avenue des Lumières.
It is obvious that the developers hired the best designers they could find. The street design and its furniture would make most urban shopping districts jealous. Public art such as a giant sand castle and abstract monuments are scattered around and there is even a small playground where there were a couple children with their parents playing. Sightlines are intelligently designed so you never see empty space, giving the feel of a self-contained place. One end of the street has a large cinema and the other ends with a low-rise office building (still under construction) with a stage for live music in front of it (the tower is to the side so as to not overwhelm the street). Side streets are narrow and distant power centre buildings keep the view from being that of an endless parking lot.
The surrounding power centre breaks the line of sight on a “side street” off l’Avenue des Lumières
Despite the designers’ best intentions, it still feels like a mall. Private security roams in small cars and gave me a strange look while I was taking pictures of the empty stage and the underground parking lot that exits to it. Everything was too clean and polished, and the absence of anyone actually living there could be felt.
Regardless of my contempt for le Quartier Dix30, others seem to like it. There were quite a few people there shopping despite the fact that it isn’t even finished and I’ve heard the various events held there draw a good number of people. While touring one of the new subdivisions sprouting up around the development, I spoke to a man wandering the unfinished streets. When I asked him why he had decided to move to the subdivision, he said that amongst wanting a “maison neuf”, he also wanted to be closer to the Dix30.
So what does this mean for Griffintown? A project of this size and scale will obviously have far reaching effects on the neighbourhood as well as its surrounding areas, especially Downtown. André Poulin, general director of Destination Centre-Ville said to Le Journal de Montréal that he isn’t happy with the idea, saying that the proposed development will have negative effects on downtown businesses, and asks why we need to build such a project so close to Ste-Catherine Street when we have all the businesses we need Downtown. Downtown merchants obviously are not happy either. They say it has taken fifteen years to revitalise Ste-Catherine and such a project will leave the street in its shadow.
Few people would disagree that Griffintown needs some work but this is definitely not the way to go about it. Redevelopment should take the existing fabric of the neighbourhood and build on it, while respecting its history. A development such as this would destroy much of Griffintown’s history and greatly disrupt the urban fabric. A private developer building an entire city district would also bring the issue of public space into question. All public spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, etc. at the Dix30 development is free to use by the general public but its use can be taken away at anytime to anyone at the discretion of the developers. Furthermore, “lifestyle centres” such as this, by their vary nature, cater to the wealthy. Such a development would not benefit the mostly poor and working class residents of the neighbourhood and surrounding neighbourhoods.
Luckily, the project is still in its embryonic stages and would require major revisions to Montreal’s Plan d’Urbanisme before Devimco could proceed. Hopefully, the city will see the inherent problems of such a development and block it. Unfortunately, there may be a great deal of truth in Montreal City Weblog writer Kate McDonnell’s prediction that, despite the development’s problems, “the city may be too hungry for new tax dollars to see [them] clearly”.