by A.J. Kandy
Please bear in mind we’re not advocating what Devimco is coming up with, we’re merely reporting what they have stated in press releases and in public meetings. The point of this blog is to share information and get people involved in the process. While we can understand Devimco’s particular design & urban planning decisions and the density requirements of the city, that does not indicate that we endorse them.
Our own preference for the area would be intelligent re-use and sustainable, smaller-scale infill development, but as we don’t have a spare $1.3 Bn lying around, what we can do is try to influence the outcome for the better.
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Upon leaving the public meeting last Wednesday (january 23rd), we were told that the Projet Griffintown website would be up “before the end of the week,” so we decided to let a couple of days pass while we prepared for our Friday presentation at the Indyish City Mess event. Stephanie got word from one of the minute-takers that all the answers from the meeting’s questions would be up at the website, but to date, nothing seems to have surfaced. So, continuing the thread started by Steph in last week’s piece, here’s a summary of the important news about the project with adapted visuals from our most recent presentation.
The high density is driven by requests from the City and other organizations. Originally, the project was only to have 1,500 residential units, but this has been bumped up to over 3,800 units. From the city’s perspective, this attempts to increase residential density near downtown, stem suburban sprawl, and to recover lost tax revenues. From the commercial perspective, it creates a local economic basis for shops and services; from the community perspective, it creates much more space for student residences, assisted living, and affordable / subsidized housing for working families. A representative of POPIR debated at length with Mr. Goulet about whether 400 units of affordable housing represented the proper amount (15% of the total units) as required by the City; Devimco’s position is that they are following the guidelines and subtracted the student and senior housing from the total; POPIR seems to think they should have included them. On the upside, Devimco is taking on board advice from designers that affordable housing should be spread throughout the neighborhood, rather than concentrated in a single block or street.
Mr. Goulet mentioned that the initial target market is “empty nesters” who want to downsize and move back to the city, participate in cultural activities, and/or maintain a pied-à-terre in Montreal while they travel elsewhere. To some extent, this may be seen as reversing previous sprawl trends, or at least preserving outer suburbs at the same size they are now, as our population remains relatively stable.
The project aims to reintegrate the city with the Lachine Canal. The existing bike path will not only be preserved, but possibly also enhanced with canal-side terrasses and cafés. South of Wellington, a pedestrian-only area will link De La Montagne to the Peel Basin with a wide passageway under the elevated railway tracks; this will also lead to the proposed concert hall / hotel and then to Rue de la Commune and Old Montreal.
The aerial view, much derided in comments and the press, is likely just a placeholder image intended to show approximate building heights and massing. That means that the final architectural style of specific buildings is not yet confirmed, nor have we seen proper “street-level” renderings yet. The phrase “the final result won’t be copied and pasted like this” was overheard, which raises hopes for better-looking buildings. Furthermore, the residential condos at the west end of the project are to be designed and built by partner companies sometime in the next 10 years, so those are definitely just placeholder images for now.
One of our biggest concerns was how the two large commercial-retail “superblocks” would face the streets around them – would they be facing residential areas with blank walls, ventilation exhausts and loading docks? Mr. Goulet answered directly: No, the intent is to have living street walls lined with shops on all four sides, along with separate lobby entrances for each superblock’s four towers and for the larger-surface retailers. Deliveries, as well as parking, is to be entirely underground.
Similarly, the interior retail spaces are to be designed after the example of successful pedestrian shopping arcades as seen in London, Melbourne and other cities. Specifically, Mr. Goulet referred to Old Montreal’s Centre de Commerce Mondial and its internal Ruelle des Fortifications as an example. Where the retail superblocks build over existing streets, the north-south axes will be preserved as arcades, intersecting with new east-west paths. It will definitely not be a standard shopping mall maze, and to some extent this preserves the old street grid, though there are issues about the privatization of public space to address here.
Mr. Goulet confirmed: there will definitely not be a Wal-Mart, nor a Canadian Tire. They couldn’t give details on who the “large surface” tenants will be, but they suggested they would be more in the vein of department stores and outlets. Architecturally, these tenants will have a street entrance but will be located inside and above the pedestrian arcades described previously.
A new street, running parallel just south of Wellington, is designated as a “lifestyle / night life” district and will probably house more pedestrian-level retail, restaurants and bars as well as two hotels. As was brought up in discussion, the multiplex cinema, being primarily a nighttime destination, may be moved elsewhere on the site.
A proposed tramway is expected to be built running north-south down Peel street from Sainte-Catherine, passing next to the Central Station towards the Canal, then along the waterfront and north towards Berri-UQAM metro. This is to satisfy the city’s criteria for alternative & green transportation, but this would only be partially funded by Devimco. While news reports have stated that Devimco wants a “sexy” tramway or nothing, they seemed more open to other solutions, mentioning electric trolleybuses for one.
The entire project is to be built in phases, breaking ground in 2009 and designed to be completed by 2019. The reason for doing it in phases is largely traffic-related, as the city cannot simply shut down major axes like Peel, de la Montagne and Wellington for years – at most they intend to have streets half-closed for a few months when necessary.
The first phase, in the lot containing the City Gas Company heritage building, will contain a mixed-use building with offices and affordable housing, a small plaza, and another affordable-housing unit at the south end. The City Gas building is slated for re-use, possibly for retail. Mr. Goulet said that this way, the project would get affordable housing units in right at the beginning as opposed to tacked on at the end. A further three affordable-housing buildings will likely be on the same triangular lot as the existing heritage townhouses on Mountain; in total, 400 affordable units will be included.
When it was brought up that these proposed first buildings are right next to the train tracks – Mr Goulet pointed out that VIA trains run at very low speed along this stretch, and that residential units would start considerably higher-up than track level. (I once worked in the former Artex building which is next to the railway; we could barely feel or hear the trains, which weren’t more than a few times a day, anyway; I expect a more modern building would have better sound and vibration insulation.)
As has been previously disclosed, 12 heritage buildings will be preserved: the four facing Saint-Ann’s Park will remain untouched. Four buildings on Wellington will be demolished and reconstructed using the same material, and two other buildings will be moved.
Other issues that were raised include the accessibility for senior citizens and maximum building heights are still debated: The former were taken onboard as comments; as for the latter, Devimco is insisting that they have clearance for all taller buildings.
Given the neighborhood’s large number of artists and musicians in studios and live/work lofts who will be displaced, some mention was made about including replacements at market rates, possibly as part of the concert hall complex or elsewhere; the idea was further extended to “small business incubators,” possibly in concert with the ETS, and co-working spaces similar to Station C.
Environmental concerns were addressed in two ways; one, the two large commercial buildings are slated to have green roofs, and all construction is aimed at meeting Canadian Green Building Council LEED certification, although it’s unclear which rating system, or systems, they intend to apply here. There was also a strong indication that they would be working closely with the ETS in terms of innovation here.
Coordination with other projects was also a concern: this project will run simultaneously with the proposed demolition and redevelopment of the Bonaventure Expressway / University Street, and the development of the Canada Post site (slated to become a neighborhood of affordable housing built by a nonprofit development company). In theory, a huge, contiguous swath of land may be under construction for a very long time. Mr. Goulet promised that his company would definitely be coordinating to harmonize their efforts with others’.
Finally, the question was raised — in a city that has seen its share of Overdale-style real estate boondoggles — how do we know there will be funding to complete the entire project, and what happens if the political will changes (provincial or municipal)? Mr. Goulet replied that all of the financing for construction was completely private, and therefore immune to such changes, and that once the path was approved, they were committed to completing all phases of construction. (A good point raised by a reader at Stillepost was that the city ought not to issue demolition permits until right before construction was to begin, but the practicality of that remains to be seen.)