The Lower Main’s Last Stand

Saint-Laurent en bas de Sainte Catherine

This January, the Société de Développement Angus acquired two properties on Saint-Laurent and Ste-Catherine: Main Importing Grocery and building that housed Club Opera. (According to Radio Canada, it was the Montreal Pool Room rather than Club Opera that was sold. However if so it is not yet public and the city told me that this sale is supposed to be finalized in February.)

And so the only lights left on the block are from Café Cleopatra’s signs, advertising danseuses, stip-teaseuses, disco and spectacles continuels. After the owner refused the SDA’s offer, the city handed Café Cleopatra an expropriation order. The owner is contesting expropriation, a matter that could stall this project for months while waiting to be seen in court.

According to Eric Paradis, president of Save the Main, Café Cleo’s owner has accepted that he won’t stop the SDA’s $167 million Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent development. But he does wants his business to be relocated to a venue with similar conditions in a timely way (For more info, see Adam Bemma’s interview with Paradis last December).

A Complete neighbourhood.

Quebec law allows the city to expropriate a private business on behalf on another private developer when the site falls under a “projet programme particulier d’urbanisme” (PPU), in this case the Quartier des Spectacles.

Christian Lalonde, a City of Montreal Urbanist and Architect who is responsible for the Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent  says that the Quartier des Spectacles was developed after public consultations held in 2002 led to a consensus that the neighbourhood needed revitalization.

“On se désolait du fait que les gens, quand ils sortait des sales de spectacles, se filait direct dans leurs voitures… Ils ne se sentaient pas en sécurité,” he said.

But the Quadrilatère plan actually eliminates 4 live shows venues and replaces them with office and retail space, hardly consistent with a purported entertainment district. Lalonde replies that the QDS aims to integrate multiple uses into the same neighbourhood: an influx of office workers will animate the street and support the local businesses. The retail space – which will specialize in “green” and local businesses – will consolidate Saint-Laurent as a commercial street. Meanwhile, the SDA has two other projects on the go which both have a more artistic vocation.

“Ce n’est pas un quartier uni-fonctionnel, c’est un quartier complet,” he says.

The Money

In the case of an expropriation, the city has offered $875,000 in compensation for the building and lot. Lalonde said that an additional amount could be negotiated for the value of the business.

This month, SDA paid $1.1 million for the grocery store. The building on the Corner of Sainte-Catherine, which recently housed Club Opera, Les Saints, Romance and ALCO sold for $10.5 million.

In December 2008, the SDA also spent $6 million purchasing 6 other buildings from Socrates Goulakis. For those who may be curious, that amount breaks down as follows:

1202-1204,Saint-Laurent (vacant) 759 000 $ CAN
1206, Saint-Laurent (Souvlaki George) 646 200 $ CAN
1210-1212, Saint-Laurent (Frites dorés)- 610 800 $ CAN
1214-1220, Saint-Laurent et 1233, rue Clark (Panhelion, Las Vegas) 1 602 000 $ CAN
1222-1228, Saint-Laurent et 1237, rue Clark (Katacombs etc) – 1 279 800 $ CAN
1190-1196, Saint-Laurent (facade/lot next to main grocery) – 1 102 200 $ CAN

Source: registre foncier Quebec.

What now?

Like many people, I have been critical of the Quadrilatère project from the start, and its purported aim to revitalize the Main while expropriating existing businesses. The development has been undemocratic from the start: there was no competition for projects, then the Executive Committee okay-ed the Quadrilatère against recommendations from their own public consultation office.

After doing business for over 30 years on this site, why shouldn’t Café Cleo be included in a revitalization plan for the area? After all, replacing gritty night life with chic boutiques and office workers dosen’t lead to “completeness”, it just imposes a new kind of uniformality. If Café Cleo can’t be accommodated within this particular development, they should be relocated at the developer’s cost. Two cabaret-style stages and a massive dressing room won’t come cheap in the downtown area but if the project refuses to be inclusive, that’s the price they should to have to pay.

I’m sympathetic to Café Cleo’s case but the worst thing we can do now is empty out this strip just to let it rot while fighting lengthy court battles.

This block is about to become unrecognizable. No matter what new life is imposed on the Lower Main, I’ll probably resent this process for the rest of my days. But new life is still better than a sorry graveyard of unremembered glory-days.

FEB 1st Addendum: interview with Cefé Cleo’s owner, John Zoumboulakis.


  1. The city has NO business getting involved with this let alone expropriating the property. This is private development project.

    As far as this project goes: why does revitalizing the area mean tearing down the existing urban fabric. The city NEVER learns. It is because of hare-brained schemes like this that we have such stunning parcels such as Overdale. In fact, much of the Guy-Crescent sector looks the way it does because of hasty demolitions of perfectly good buildings.

  2. As some one who lives in the area – I have been eagerly waiting for the ‘re-development & revitalization’.

    That being said, all I have seen over the last several years has been nothing more than closed and boarded up shops creating an area of town that is quickly loosing what ever vibrancy it has left!

    On top of that, the construction on St. Catherines for the 2nd phase of the QdS does not help the situation.

    Cafe Cleo – please step aside for the better of the Quartier.

  3. It is utterly ridiculous and counterintuitive to tear down these fine old buildings. The area was getting rather cruddy and does need some kind of boost, but it sounds like horse medecine.

    It would be nice to have more “neighbourhood businesses” – one of the best was Main Grocery, the pioneer Middle Eastern grocery in Mtl. At least the IGA over at Place Dupuis has made it possible to get grocery/household staples (obviously Chinatown just to the south has lots of good greens etc). But some of the “green” businesses sound like greenwashing for tourists, not needs for people living and/or working in the neighbourhood. Which can also make it a more pleasant part of the city centre to visit.

    Entertainment venues do come and go. Le Medley was another important venue, once Le Vieux Munich, which closed down just recently – one I’d actually been to.

    How can Parc de la Paix be made more welcoming?

  4. The worst disaster in the area is the destruction of this little oasis that was the park with all those magnificent crab apple trees to make way for another concrete desert. The one on the west side of PDA is really a dreadful place. Now that they reopened De Maisonneuve, I discovered that the street is much narrower than it was and that the bike path has disappeared. The concrete bricks on the sidewalk are different shades of gray, I think are supposed to be it, but it’s the sidewalk and pedestrians use it, so the bikes are on this too narrow street. The whole thing is a mess, sacrificed to the showbiz industry.

  5. A consultation done in 2002 is hardly justification for blather today.

  6. Maria, I agree, it seems wrong to tear down “these fine old buildings”. Do we know who built them, in what year, who was the architect, etc? Do they have objective architectural merit? Anyone done such a diagnostic? I have a few of the City’s inventory (+/- 1980) of heritage buildings and will have a quick gander. Heritage Montreal spoken out on this? Ackk!

  7. Alain, I cried about the felling of this little stand of crabapple trees. If some were ill they should have been replaced. Decades before la piste Claire Morrissette, the actual Claire and others of us would gasp out in joy seeing these pretty pink trees as we cycled by. It is a concrete wasteland now.

  8. I ve been a big follower of the Jazz Festival since it began but all this tearing down and replacing it with something neither all that great or just out and out pointless leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It’s the Disneyization of Montreal no doubt about it. Our developers seem hell bent on making Montreal indistinguishable from other North American cities as quickly as they can.

    And I hate those pictures of various jazz legends on the side of the building at Jeanne Mannce and Ste Catherine. It seems to be well intentioned but it looks horrible.

  9. Jason, in response to your question about the specific heritage value of these to-be demolished buildings, the best answer I’ve read is from Louis Rastelli’s recent ‘zine about the Lower Main.

    These buildings rounding the southwest corner are architecturally significant because they stand there in a continuous line. There are few places where a stretch of turn-of-the-century commercial buildings still exist in a row like that. (Parts of Crescent, Sherbrooke near Concordia come to find, for instance. Of course, these buildings have been turned into high-end clothing boutiques and private art galleries.)

  10. ===
    Without wanting to go on a tangent, if that’s an actual correctly cited quote, then that’s an appalling level of French for a senior civil servant.

  11. William, the quote is due me quickly typing his answer during a rather informal phone conversation. I just fixed the grammatical error (my fault).

  12. « an influx of office workers will animate the street and support the local businesses »

    Christian Lalonde should be ashamed of himself, as a City of Montreal Urbanist and Architect purporting that office workers animate a street.

    First – the street is already animated – AT ALL TIMES OF THE DAY. So from the get-go Mr. Lalonde’s comment is a sophism.

    Second – I invite Mr. Lalonde to take a stroll down Réné-Levesque or around métro Square Victoria. Sure, during the day, these areas are packed full of people, but come 6 pm they are completely dead. Is this the kind of animation brought by office workers that Mr. Lalonde is seeking?

    I would not be surprised that, in a couple of years, we hear about how someone, somewhere, has illicitly made money off this redevelopment scheme.

  13. Thanks for this article, Alanah. I was wondering what the current status of this dossier was.

  14. The current state of affairs as of Feb 1st is that Café Cleo has sought an injunction against expropriation. This will halt the expropriation process until they are seen by a judge. According to Lalonde, there is no set court date yet.

    Mtl Pool Room is still active but is expected to sell in Feb (again, according to Lalonde). The rest of the buildings are owned by SDA and vacant.

    In short, the project is on hold and most of the block is in a state of neglect.

  15. This demolition – like so many others – is part of the Culture Wars between the rich, controlling classes, and the poor who have no way of defending themselves.

    A few wealthy people find the lower Main “gross” (just like they found Overdale, or the Quartier de Melasse gross) so they tear it down, and a whole bunch of poor people have nowhere to go anymore.

    The Spectrum was also demolished towards the same end: eradicate the poor like bacteria.

    In the meantime, our Financial Predators at the banks and in government continue to manufacture more poverty with their rich-o-centric policies.

  16. in the ocpm report
    the city or developer (brain is a tad foggy at moment)
    there is a mention of LIMITING the ‘animation’ or nightlife where this monstrosity would be built.
    it would only be allowed till 7 or 8pm.

    gee thats going to kill club soda and others.

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