by Joseph Baker, Architect, past president of the Quebec Order of Architects and former director of the School of Architecture, Universite Laval
“Griffintown was destroyed by municipal indifference and technocratic apathy; it is time to make amends and get it right,” writes Joseph Baker in this piece presented to the Montreal Citizen’s Forum last Thursday, April 24. This was the same day that the City released its revised PPU (Plan Particulier d’Urbanisme) for Griffintown.
I have a visceral reaction to grand plans—to words like “urban renewal”. Some years ago I moved my growing family into a quiet unpretentious district that the city fathers slated for renewal—every block, every street south of Dorchester Boulevard from Atwater to the Glen were to be demolished and handed over to a Toronto developer who proposed to erect a dozen high rise slabs in their place. As if that weren’t enough, highway planners would complete the destruction, and incidentally run an access ramp through my living room.
None of this came to pass. The residents rallied, organized and resisted. The developer went belly up and the city administration adopted a more modest approach that included improvements to sidewalks, a low-income housing project and the transformation of a barren lot into an attractive neighbourhood park. The city fathers came up smelling like roses and earned a prestigious award for environmental excellence.
From There to Griffintown
Responding to an appeal for help, along with my students of the McGill Community Design Workshop, I opened an office on Barre Street. We were responding to an appeal for help by residents faced with the gradual loss of their community assets—St Ann’s splendid church and presbytery, the closing of its schools and the deterioration of their homes. We inspected the homes, prepared plans for renovations, explored new uses for the vacated convent and sought the attention of City Hall to lift the zoning regulations that precluded the construction of sorely needed new housing. Our appeals met with little response. The process of decline continued. Griffintown lay suspended in time, its fate ignored.
Curious that great portions of the city can lie neglected for 40 years or more. Buildings are abandoned, schools, churches and other landmarks are demolished, and surviving residents are dispersed as if it is of no concern to those charged with the future of these territories. It’s as if civic administrations are unable or unwilling to explore, beyond the most simple zoning terms, the content, composition and form of the urban landscape and must await the arrival of the self-styled developer. The developer, supposedly backed with unlimited resources, is expected to demonstrate, with the wave of a wand, just how easily and effectively the magic transformation of dross into gold can be accomplished. A bend to the zoning and height limitations here, a public investment in a rapid transit rail line there, and, yes, a nod to heritage sensibilities with a suitable memorial to the vestiges of vanished signs of long-gone communities seem to be enough to snare the collusion of City Hall and whet the appetites of the media.
Genuine urban planning does not merely occupy itself with checking densities, height and floor coverage. It uses vision, imagination, and creativity. It is aware of social as well as economic needs. It seeks to know how the best urban environments have been achieved. It determines the framework in which both public and private investment can play their roles, evaluates the impact on the city centre, and establishes the genuine needs of an in-town urban community. Griffintown was destroyed by municipal indifference and technocratic apathy; it is time to make amends and get it right.
I have devoted a long career to the conservation of buildings and cities. I have taught students of architecture to give equal attention to the conservation of the urban fabric. I have supported community organizations and co-founded three non-profit corporations to rehabilitate run-down housing. I worked with Loge-peuple in Point St Charles, Benny Farm and the Bon Pasteur Convent in Quebec City to recycle buildings to provide homes for people of modest income. I have advocated the improvement of urban space for the enjoyment and activity of our citizens—streets, squares, and parks. A lifelong passion has made me a constant explorer of city form and I have shepherded a generation of students through the finest examples. It has made me a severe critic of the abuse of cities—wastelands, scars of empty lots that disfigure them, and deplore the loss of buildings created by earlier generations, whether mansions or humble homes, or ecclesiastical properties that stand witness to our growth.
I welcome improvement to public space, giving priority to pedestrians, calming traffic, facilitating cycling in the city; urban space that is accessible, active, sociable, clean, and secure. The city should be full of meeting places; outdoor rooms furnished with fountains, stairs to be sat upon, street fairs, sheltering colonnades, and places for play….
I have poured over the dozens of submissions to the so-called public hearings on the Devimco project. I see a need, a hunger, for a vision of a fair and generous city, for family housing offering an attractive alternative to the suburbs, for an urban environment not overwhelmed by towering blocks.
Devimco’s Press Conference
An email from Devimco this morning advised that there would be a press conference at 10h30, with documents available at 9h45. I immediately hiked to the city hall annexe on the 6th floor. Not a member of the press, I was not entitled to the press kit but to the 68-page PPU document. I managed to secure a copy of the release and perused it in the time available, Before M. de Sousa and Mme Montpetit, spoke I was quietly advised that though my presence was welcome that I should observe the protocol of the session—in other words don’t attempt to intervene.
Questions from the journalists seemed quite modest and the project as presented by M. de Sousa seemed the best of all possible worlds. He praised those who had participated at the public hearings and obviously felt that all concerns had been adequately addressed. One would need time to verify this assertion, but between now and April, when the proposition is placed before City Council, there is scarce time to do so. More worrying is the further deadline in May when approval of the Devimco project will be concluded.
In view of the serious attention given by the several hundred persons who submitted their thoughts on the project and who awaited the report of the Borough, these final steps seem to be concluded in indecent haste. A first reading would indicate improvement in a number of areas but must be examined more closely. On first glance, we glean the following:
- Residential development and inclusion of social housing and affordable housing 579 of each out of 3860 units, including 192 for seniors over commercial space.
- New parks and public spaces at a cost of $15 million by the developer
- An opening on the Mountain Street axis to create an opening to the Lachine canal, a fountain, a monument, and a plan lumiere by the developer
- Restriction on commercial shopping space total of 100,000square meters with a servitude of restriction for 15 years
- Durable development, $1 million to ETS for research
- LEEDS certification, superior insulation, central system of air conditioning, Energy Star, natural lighting, reusing rainwater, green roofs, no herbicides
- Noise reduction, quality of air, reutilization of demolition material (there will be a great deal of that)
- $15 million contribution for tramway – call for tenders June 2011 in operation by June 2014 ($5 million more than first offered)
- Public transport subsidized, cyclo station, bicycle parking ,community development, a CLSC, ateliers d’artiste
So, Why Worry?
- On page 47 of the revised PPU, not much remains of Ottawa, St Ann, Shannon, Peel, Young, and Murray streets.
- In Annex 6, a cross-section shows the heights of buildings, including a seven-story basilliaire and commercial space covered by an 11 to 16 story building.
- Floor area ratios of 3 to a high of 10; coverage from 35–100%.
The objectives read reassuringly but the devil is in the details:
- Who is going to be responsible for reassuring the quality of design?
- Will a big star architect lend his name?
- Should one architect or team be responsible?
- What the promoter displayed at his initial presentation is far from reassuring.
- The Commission d’urbanisme, formerly the Viger commission, made up of architects and planners unanimously voted against acceptance of the project submitted by the promoter, which was not surprising.
- The developer stated that what was shown in his presentation was not necessarily what would be built. On what basis, then, should the diagrams indicated in Annex 6 be judged?
- First-rate designers would reject the densities indicated (the developer’s nephew might not).
- Judging by the developers previous realizations, the Dix30 and the images that architectural critic Odile Henault presented at the hearings, one is not inspired with confidence
The idea of high rise buildings set on a medium rise base is a dated concept. On the other hand, the “horizontal skyscraper” of seven-story buildings is a concept that makes streets a secure and well-monitored environment of “coming and goings”’ of many meeting places–accessible, active, and sociable. These streets, full of doors and windows, are what Jane Jacobs–the passionara of good city form–called the “eyes on the street”. We cannot replace this activity with the activity on green roofs and terraces 25 meters above the street.
We know that the City of Montreal deprived itself of Service d’urbanisme with the professional expertise needed to guide the project. Architect Jean Claude Marsan in his opposition to the project, pointed to the success of Britain’s South Bank, the renaissance of Manchester industrial areas, Toronto’s distillery district, and he could have pointed to Barcelona’s astonishing city plan. We have many good architectural firms and they should be involved in a varied range of projects working in a co-ordinated well-planned structure. And we desperately need a competent well-staffed, well-led planning department that will co-ordinate the work of individual developers and architects. Until then, time must be allowed for a full and adequate examination of this unguided project.
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