Save Griffintown!

End-of-the-year news update by ajkandy
December 31, 2007, 1:42 am
Filed under: developers, Devimco, Events, news

Welcome Gazette readers, and anyone who’s come from Spacing Montreal or Urbanphoto!

First off, a little background on our “activism.” We’re mostly professionals or students who either live in the area, or are concerned about the impact on the neighborhood for several different reasons. We’re not full-time activists — that term has come to be equated with ‘troublemaker’ in the corporate media so let me de-spin this a little bit.

None of us are opposed to development, per se, whatsoever. We’re not the sort of knee-jerk anti-gentrification types that have made the headlines before; I think all of us recognize the fact that gentrification, done properly, is actually a boon to neighborhoods, particularly in the context of intentionally mixed-income planning.

What are we concerned about? The environmental impact, the urban fabric, the street grid, issues of scale and timing, proper balance of retail and residential space, the long-term future of the project in a potentially low-energy future, protection of existing homeowners’ rights and space, and heritage and architectural issues.

At the meeting Steve Faguy attended, we essentially were trading notes; no one person seemed to have a clear picture of the whole project. Besides what we’ve read in the paper or online, specifics were hard to come by, and everyone had a different piece of the puzzle, therefore it was an opportunity to confirm or debunk rumors.

John Bradley, a local SSSS worker whose job is to coordinate issues between citizens’ groups and developers, and to work on nonprofit housing projects such as the still-projected reuse of the Canada Post sorting plant, was extremely helpful in pointing out who the various stakeholders in the project were and to provide a good deal of clarification. He provided the excellent example of the community organization in the Pointe that came up with its own urbanism plan for the Alstom Yards site, still under discussion at the moment; I’m not sure there’s enough of a critical mass in Griffintown to get something similar together yet.

Representatives of Devimco — namely, Luc Ouimet of “Le centre de consultation et de concertation,” and George Bossé, at one point the former mayor of Verdun among many other things — recently had a meeting with a community group in Pointe Saint Charles to discuss the impact of the Village Griffintown project; Chris Erb, a writer for Spacing Montreal and a Griffintown resident, attended on our behalf. (Apparently, the community group was happy to have us there, but Devimco weren’t entirely pleased, nor aware that anyone lived in Griffintown except for the heritage townhouses on de la Montagne…)

While Devimco maintains there are only 47 homeowners in the footprint of the development, what this fails to take into account is a larger number of people who rent — particularly live/work commercial lofts. We’re still not sure how many, if any, spaces will be dedicated to the rental market or if this will be up to individual property owners to decide.

That said, we were pleased to hear Devimco state the following:

The bulk of the space in the development is aimed at residential use; they claim only 4% will be given over to large-surface retailers, 6% to smaller boutiques and 8% to smaller and mixed-use retail. Wal-Mart is not going to be a tenant in this property; nearly every community group in the area is opposed to it.

The two largest “superblocks” in the current development seem to have big-box stores at their cores, surrounded by medium and small spaces. It remains to be seen how this development will address the streetscape properly, if at all, but the rough diagrams and renderings would seem to have boutiques facing the street, not the interior of a mall-like structure.

The plan aims to bring 3860 housing units to the area (to complement the 1500 other new units that have been added recently with the Terrasses Windsor, ETS student residences, Lowney Lofts and Redpath Lofts), with a split of 585 student residences, 927 senior residences, 472 affordable housing units, 437 subsidized housing units, and 1439 medium-to-high-end condos.

The project aims to meet Canada Green Building Council LEED standards. This is quite a positive aim, as we’re not aware of any LEED buildings or projects in the downtown area. There’s also plans afoot to work closely with the ETS to come up with unique environmental solutions for the project.

There will be 600,000 square feet given to 12 parks and public spaces, but the ownership of these is not entirely clear. (Also, given the city’s penchant for calling a 20-square-foot patch of grass a “park,” I’m not sure how serious that is).

Buildings along the canal will be limited to 6-8 stories, similar to existing condo projects west of the Atwater Market.

Infrastructure costs will be split between the city and Devimco; the developer will split the cost of above-ground, while the city pays for everything underground.

What we haven’t seen addressed so far and we’re keen on seeing developed:

Is there space for children’s playgrounds and sports/recreational facilities? If not, are there adequate facilities nearby? (Some of us think it a desecration of former church grounds to think of the former St. Ann’s site as a mere park.)

Is this proposed Griffintown museum, to be placed on land adjacent to the St. Ann’s site, actually the former Art Deco comfort station, now on Wellington near the bottom of Mountain? I.e. do they really want to reuse a former public bathroom for this? The drawing certainly makes it look like the building in question.

How realistic is this tramway idea? If it doesn’t come to fruition, can a proper bus terminus be integrated into the design?

What rights do renting residents have?

Right now, Devimco have stated they’re leaving the development of the residential buildings up to other condo builders. In short, that means the designs seen in the renderings could be completely meaningless. As they look a good deal like generic Vancouver condo towers and nothing at all like Montreal residential neighborhoods — isn’t this an opportunity for firms to compete with better designs than skeletal towers clad in differently-coloured brick to provide the illusion that the building is not, in fact, a simple box? (More than one person who’s seen the existing renderings has noted its similarity to both Vancouver and Denver, which doesn’t bode well.)

Gazette’s Peter Hadekel: Griffintown project ‘a big gulp’ by ajkandy
December 6, 2007, 1:59 pm
Filed under: developers, griffintown, media

In the Nov. 28 Gazette, business writer Peter Hadekel reiterated some of the Village Griffintown news, but also added this interesting tidbit from co-developer Jean-François Breton, discussing the Dix30 shopping centre:

In 2002, they acquired 9 million square feet of land at the junction of Highways 10 and 30, with the idea of building “something nicer” than the typical suburban mall.

“We decided to tour Europe and the U.S. to see what was being done there,” he recalled. “We had read that the trend in the U.S. was to develop a new type of project – a lifestyle centre in a suburban market.”

But the village-centre concept, featuring sidewalk access to retail shops rather than an enclosed mall, was an admitted gamble in Quebec, where the climate is a lot harsher than Georgia or North Carolina.

Would customers be prepared to walk outdoors in January?

Breton says Canadian retailers didn’t know the concept and needed some convincing.

“We rented some planes and toured projects with retailers,” including northern cities like Cleveland, Minneapolis and Chicago. “And we convinced them in the end.”

It’s too bad that Breton didn’t take them on a tour of any of the succesful New Urbanist mixed retail-residential developments, which would have been even nicer than Dix30 – in fact providing more vertical retail, residential and office space in the same amount of land — but more on that in another post. I’m interested that he seems to see “pedestrian shopping streets” as important — we haven’t seen any evidence of them in Village Griffintown so far, which is why we fear an enclosed box with blank street walls — but he then goes on to drop this very interesting tidbit:

Breton says while the company doesn’t currently control all the land it requires, it is “confident” it can reach a deal with remaining landowners.

“It’s a very different project,” he acknowledges. But Devimco has done a lot of homework, held regular meetings with community groups and made a number of changes to its plans, he said.

I’m sure Mr. Breton has done some homework — we’ll need more information before we can give them a D- or a B+. But regular meetings with community groups? When? Where? I think we who live in the neighborhood would have liked to know about them. I certainly got no invitation…It seems more that all these meetings happened behind closed doors, giving the impression that all these various groups’ concerns were bought off.

I think the residents of the area deserve a little more, don’t you?

McGill’s Raphael Fischler: Village Griffintown too big, hurts downtown by ajkandy

Raphael Fischler writes in today’s Gazette:

This is no way to build cities, megaproject by megaproject. There is no reason, except for developers’ hubris, to develop such a huge swath of land in one swoop. This is not a railyard that is lying fallow; it is a working piece of the city. It is in bad shape and definitely needs upgrading. But that process must take place gradually, in medium-sized (or even small) increments that complete the area and complement each other, rather than in a large-scale project that obliterates what exists.

Fischler, a professor at McGill’s School of Urban Planning, suggests instead a new Plan d’urbanisme that doesn’t favour a single developer so strongly, that would forbid the consolidation of entire blocks (as the current design does), exclude the possibility of expropriations, move the proposed concert hall and international student housing to downtown, and sign developers to binding contracts that mandate mixed-use development.

He notes:

Disappointed and hurt by the loss of the Casino de Montréal- Cirque du Soleil project near Point St. Charles, Tremblay urges us not to let this project slip by. My guess is Montrealers won’t let good projects slip by – but they will fight bad ones.