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Archive for the ‘Urbanisme / Urbanism’ Category

According to an article in The Gazette, Devimco estimates that by November, 2008, it will have bought up the requisite amount of land to go ahead with the project.

Among the many skeptics quoted are Joseph Baker. “They were pushing this through city hall on very sketchy outlines,” he said. “I wonder if anyone at city hall has any idea what they’re proposing to build.”

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Click here to read the McGill Daily’s sobering summary of the “Remember Griffintown” event, which includes interviews with the organizers, artists in the ‘hood, and Chris Gobeil from CSR Griffintown.

The quote that should give all those concerned with Griffintown’s “patrimoine” the shivers is that of Devimco’s Serge Goulet, who is quoted as saying that the area is a “decimated neighbourhood that [Montrealers] have to pass through on their way to the South Shore via the Victoria Bridge.”

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Click here to view several urban design and high-density housing proposals for the Lachine Canal in or adjacent to Griffintown. Professor Robert Mellin’s students were individually responsible for devising a program of living and working spaces that addressed collective housing and urban ecology.

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by Raphaël Fischler, School of Urban Planning, McGill University

“What the Griffintown project shows, is that there is a lack of political leadership in urban planning and development in Montréal. Our elected officials seem to have no sense of priority and to react to development proposals in an ad-hoc manner,” writes Raphaël Fischler in this musing on the City of Montreal’s seeming refusal to listen to its own experts. This talk was presented to the Montreal Citizen’s Forum last Thursday, April 24, the same day that the City released its revised PPU (Plan Particulier d’Urbanisme) for Griffintown.

The Griffintown saga is an example of what has become routine in Montreal. A developer comes up with a project; citizens and planners (civil servants, members of municipal advisory committees, outside experts) believe that the plan is weak in several respects; officials, however, find that the plan is a great investment which will bring good tax-revenue to the city; they disregard the advice given to them and give the developer what he wants.

This is a caricature of what really happens, of course. In most cases, projects do get changed somewhat in response to advice given by residents, planners and others. The new development agreement between the City and Devimco shows that the Tremblay administration has forced the developer to improve his project in several ways, for instance by including more park space and by showing a bit more respect for the existing historic context.

But the improvements come nowhere near to responding to the requests for change that were issued. I don’t know exactly what the planners working for the City and for the South-West borough told officials about the project. I cannot imagine that they found it all good. What I can tell you, and what many of you know, is that both the Comité d’architecture et d’urbanisme and the Conseil du patrimoine, two so-called “expert” panels, issued very negative assessments of the project. Independent experts have expressed similar opinions in the media, and a large number of residents and other stakeholders have stated their reservations in public as well. The weaknesses that these people have highlighted have not really been remedied in the new plan.

The main problems with the plan—if one may restate what has been said repeatedly—is that it is the wrong thing in the wrong place. It contains nothing else than a new destination for commerce and recreation, a new regional node right next to downtown and Old Montréal. It contains “big-box” stores and associated shops with a total floor area of 100,000 square metres (larger than any regional shopping centre on the island of Montréal, barely smaller than Carrefour Laval) and close to 4,000 housing units (at a gross density that is higher than in any Montréal neighbourhood except parts of downtown). And it does all that by means of an urban design that is completely at odds with the morphology of the area and its surroundings.

A related problem is that, due to its size, the project requires major interventions by the City: expropriation (done solely for the benefit of a private developer), infrastructure investment (at least $60 million, plus the $300-million tramway) and plan amendment (of course, current plans and regulations do not allow for such a mega-development). The City is going to use its power and money to do something that contradicts its own policies and endangers existing urban areas. And, to make things even worse, it is doing so by short-circuiting public participation in the process.

All this has raised intense criticism. Rarely has a project met such unanimity of opinion. Rarely have experts issues such a strongly worded opinion as they did in this case. Even the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec, which normally does not intervene in specific cases, has seen fit to add its name to the list of a signatories to a letter addressed to the mayor Montréal. All this must mean something.

One of the things this means, is that the Tremblay administration is not playing by its own rules and is betraying its own promises. When Tremblay became mayor of Montreal, he and Robert Libman, who was then in charge of urban planning at the Executive Committee, said loud and clear that, from now on, Montréal would demand higher-quality architecture and urban design and would manage urban-planning processes in a more fair and transparent manner. The time of “anything-goes-as-long-as-it-brings-in-property-taxes” was over.

Tremblay had the opportunity to deliver on this promise, because he had a strong real-estate market and because he had political support. When developers are eager to build, it is far easier to demand certain things from them, such as the inclusion of affordable housing, the use of green building technology, or simply good, context-sensitive urban design. The Montreal Summit had given Tremblay a strong consensus in favour of more participatory processes. But Tremblay has squandered this opportunity and André Lavallée, who is now in charge of urban planning, is too isolated to make good on theses promises on his own.

The sad reality is that our elected officials do not really know what to ask for. Too often, they do not know the difference between good and bad urban design, between sustainable and unsustainable urban development. (Not that the differences are radical, but they are real.) The same holds true of their understanding of citizen participation. For Alan DeSousa, public consultation on the Griffintown project was (I quote from the notes for his speech today) “exemplary.” That represents a very modest notion of public consultation at its best…

When we talk about good urban design, good urban development or good urban planning, one may of course ask: who is to say what is good? One person may think that Paris is the greatest city in the world; for another New York City is tops; for a third, Sienna is a dream place. And for every person who loves how Paris looks, there is one who hates how much Paris costs, or one who hates how undemocratically it has been planned. Even within Montréal, some people believe that downtown is the greatest place to be, while other are enamored with Rosemont and yet others feel good only on the West Island. In the same way, some people believe that large-scale projects are important to make a difference and to create a harmonious environment. But others believe that small-scale projects are the way to go, because they are less risky and allow for fine-tuning over time. So who is to say what the right vision or attitude is?

Ultimately, urban development is a collective responsibility. It has to be managed by the community, through the political process. In this process, there must be room for leadership and there must be room for broad participation. Leadership can come from many sides, from private developers as well as from grassroots organizations. But leadership is expected also from our politicians. What the Griffintown project shows, is that there is a lack of political leadership in urban planning and development in Montréal. Our elected officials seem to have no sense of priority and to react to development proposals in an ad-hoc manner.

In truth, many people are afraid of political leadership in urban matters. They recall the terrible things that were done to the city in the past, for example the demolition of neighbourhoods to build highways. Many residents want their representatives to help protect their neighbourhood, to be conservative. Even our dear Plateau progressives can be terrible NIMBYists. For them, exercising leadership often means saying “no.”

But Griffintown is not Milton Park. Griffintown is not a vibrant neighbourhood being threatened by large-scale demolition for the sake of private profit. Griffintown is a more or less derelict, half-abandoned area that can use major reinvestment. Indeed, reinvestment has started there, along Peel Street and along other streets. What it also needs is municipal leadership to guide that reinvestment in ways that are socially, environmentally and economically sound.

Good urban design and good urban planning can take place only if there is political support for these values. Montréal has some champions of good design and planning, such as the CCA and Héritage Montréal. It also has good defenders of democratic decision-making, among them the members of the Montreal Citizens Forum.

What Montréal does not have, not yet at least, is a culture that values urban design and urban planning. Officials and citizens too often accept easy solutions when, for the same money, they could have something better. One should not ask for excellence all the time; excellence is too hard and too expensive for the bulk of urban development. But clearly, Montréal deserves something better for Griffintown than what is being proposed now. Experts and professionals can help, but what is most needed is a better-informed political class and a more proactive population. The organisers of this meeting are to be commended to trying to generate movement in that direction.

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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.

Urban Planning

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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  • Montreal Metblogs links to a great collection of reporter Zura’s pictures.
  • The Gazette and Le Devoir also covered the march
  • Finally, and no surprise, La Presse reports that Marvin Rotrand will be asking for a delay in passing the PPU for the Peel-Wellington region. It is unlikely that the delay will be granted.

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