Save Griffintown!


Why the Swedes are right, and Claude Provencher is wrong by ajkandy
March 11, 2008, 6:51 pm
Filed under: griffintown

Yesterday’s kickoff of the 2nd phase of public consultations on Projet Griffintown was quite well-attended by presenters, the public, and the media, with both CBC and CTV television crews, and reporters from the Mirror, the Gazette and La Presse (among others) in evidence.

Members of the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown (CSRG) staged a press event just beforehand, arriving by horse-drawn carriage in order to underline the area’s Irish heritage and the continuing presence of the urban horse in Montreal.

In their presentations to the borough council, both CSRG and Pro-Point, a group of local architecture and urbanism professionals from Point St-Charles, underlined the fact that models for high residential density already exist in Old Montreal and the Plateau Mont-Royal, and pointed to European and Scandinavian examples of new development along these lines.

CSRG’s Chris Gobeil noted that Dublin, Ireland is denser than Montreal by nearly 1000 residents per square kilometer, without high-rises. Pro-Point spokesperson Juliette Patterson, a landscape architect, pointed to the example of the BO-01 model eco-city development in Malmö, Sweden. Patterson also referred to Dublin, showing examples of infill development that respected the urban fabric.

Last week, architect Dominique Laroche presented more on the Swedish eco-cities at Pecha Kucha. These projects occupy a very similar footprint to the proposed Projet Griffintown, but deal with land use and density very differently, most notably in being low-rise, extremely eco-friendly, family-oriented, and, for the most part, car-free.

Mr. Laroche graciously sent me some images from his slideshow. These first images are from Hammarby Sjostadt in Stockholm:

Hammarby SjostadtHammarby SjostadtHammarby SjostadtHammarby Sjostadt

And these are from Malmö’s BO-01 City of The Future, which is going to be expanded with more affordable housing soon:

Public square with more reed-bed ecosystems for treatment of wastewater at BO-01
indoor heated bike parking at BO-01network of pedestrian alleyways in BO-01Wooden boardwalk and public seating at BO-01Malmö BO-01

Now these are not just random condo developments; they’re designed as completely integrated systems. The plant bed in the last large photo, above, is actually a sediment / reed-bed wastewater filtration system. In the Hammarby project, a special vacuum-tube network sorts recyclables, compostables and waste; sewage is converted to biogas to generate on-site power use. Harbourside walkways provide pleasant destinations. The list goes on. (If I spoke Swedish, I’d move tomorrow.)

I think these are a much better model and they already go well beyond the LEED affectations Devimco has made, and as they group most cars and parking at the edge of the development, rather than allowing them free reign, it seems much more attractive to pedestrians. (Some say, too attractive, as their neighborhood has become a bit of an open-air museum).

The kicker? These were built in 2001. By the time Devimco gets done with Projet Griffintown, in 2019 or so, we would arguably be 18 years behind the Swedes in designing truly sustainable neighborhoods.

Claude Provencher, the eminent architect who contributed to much of the recent development in Old Montreal, such as the Quartier International and Cité Multimedia, expressed a generally positive attitude to the PPU, declaring it “adequate.” His firm had a major role in the Centre de Commerce Mondial, cited by Devimco as an influence on their “shopping arcades” concept for the two megablock developments. (Hmm, am I sensing a pattern here? Is he angling for a job?)

However, Provencher made several comments about how people fought over the height of the hotel, etc. back in the 1990s, but ultimately the CCM was the “engine” that drove the renaissance of the entire area, and thus, to block Devimco’s project would doom Griffintown (and by extension Montreal) for decades.

Now let’s take that argument apart:

The very tall Intercontinental makes sense in its situation, as there are other tall buildings in the immediate vicinity — Place Victoria, aka the Stock Exchange tower, the 1920s-era Royal Bank headquarters, and the 1960s TD headquarters to name just a few.

Griffintown doesn’t have tall buildings at all — the Five Roses and ADM silos are much too far away from the Peel-Wellington sector to be perceived as part of it, but that’s what they’re using to justify the heights. Several residents of the Lowney lofts are now worried their view of the iconic Five Roses sign will now be blocked off, in fact. The idea that towers = density has been disproven time and time again.

The CCM is no doubt a successful project — but to call it the building that keyed the entire renovation of Old Montreal betrays a touch of hubris. It might have been chronologically first, but there was a masterplan, proposals, landscape architects, dozens of different firms, many different commissioning developers and major tenants (CDP, ICAO, etc.) all working together and in parallel.

In short, there was a highly detailed plan and public oversight, and many more stakeholders, which ensured a higher-quality outcome. More top-class talent was brought to bear on the project, and there was a more comprehensive consultation process. None of this is true for Projet Griffintown; in fact, quite the opposite.

In the Quartier International, truly urban public squares are the focal points — not glorified driveways or gas station forecourts — and motor traffic is greatly reduced and controlled. Place Jean-Riopelle and the renovated Square Victoria are the unsung heroes here, providing attractors for pedestrians and providing a formal articulation of the public realm. They elegantly modulate the space that sets off the surrounding buildings, and the effect is superb. (Daniel Arbour & Associates previous claim to fame in Montreal are the “nature band-aids” in front of the Park Avenue Metro Loblaws; I don’t have much faith in their abilities to do classical public square design.)

In the context of QIM as an entirety — the CCM could have come afterwards rather than first; it doesn’t seem obvious to me that it would really have made a difference, compared to the renovation of the public realm. One could argue the 1990s creation of the Old Port as a public park, or ongoing redevelopment down McGill Street, had as much to do with it as anything; we are perhaps mistaking cause for effect here, or seeing a correlation when there is merely coincidence.

The multitude of private developments adjacent to the project – like the Unity Lofts, for instance — are there because Old Montreal in general is a more active place today, but to attribute it all to one retail/office building isn’t really supportable.

In fact, if the CCM were to be done today, with the sensibilities of today’s generation of architects, we likely wouldn’t have such a flagrant example of architectural taxidermy setting the stage for the “demolition and partial reconstruction” of several recently renovated buildings on Wellington, such as the Henderson-Barwick office lofts and others. I think we’d see something much more innovative.

Seeing the nearly polarized views coming from professionals, I can’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing is a generational divide, or another, maybe class-based divide in sensibility.

One side is pro-growth at any cost; They fervently believe in a world of robust, infinite economic growth and resource capacity, far too trusting in the ability of technology to fix its own problems, and obsessed with short-term rewards. I get the feeling that many of them have an inherently suburban worldview — that is to say, they have been conditioned to perceive the illusory as real (the cartoon of the little cabin in the woods, vs. actual country living), and possess that vaguely libertarian viewpoint of not wanting to have to depend on, or conversely, support, anyone else. Which really makes it anti-communitarian, if you ask me.

The other side has a much greener, Slow-er and longer-term sensibility — or at least a very highly tuned set of BS detectors. Seeing the litany of destruction, failure and unanticipated consquences that Montreal’s megaprojects have often left in their wake, this group is much more doubtful about grandiose claims that just one more will solve all our problems. They’re more likely to pursue more low-key, local interventions. They understand that real cities emerge from communities; groups of shared value, interdependence and mutual support. They know that we need to stop urban sprawl, not by bringing the suburbs into the city, but by building classically urban forms to create density at a human scale.

That reminds me of something Claude Provencher’s firm has already worked on, which, reworked Hammarby-style, might be entirely “adequate” for Griffintown: their section of the Faubourg Québec development at the end of the Old Port, with its industrial-style low-rise condos and family-scaled row houses. That’s something I could cheer for without reservations.

Faubourg-Quebec development in Old Montreal, buildings by Provencher Roy + AssociésFaubourg-Quebec development in Old Montreal with row houses, buildings by Provencher Roy + Associés


4 Comments

I attended tonight’s (Tuesday) session and thereafter was motivated enough to write a little something in the snow in front of the Lowney Phase II (my residence) on William Street:

Full size photo available here

I hope this will motivate others to step it up a notch. I’m not sure that the little remaining local community will be enough to force a thorough rethink of the project. A little media support is definitely in order. 😉

Comment by nerdboy

AJ you nailed it with that article. I was wondering why another architect with an apparent influence with the developer was so won over. Listening to David Hanna (UQAM) speak a few weeks ago I couldn’t fathom why he felt all hope of major change was lost and we should all give in and let Devimco ruin this area. He spoke of half-heartedly attempting to modify their plans, but with nothing concrete to show for it. He needs a reboot of his BS detector. Stay strong you guys, the word is spreading.

@nerdboy…i was expecting a yellow sign in the snow.🙂

Comment by Bryan

Jeff, that’s great (re: photo). It is true that not having the numbers that, say, Point St-Charles has, is a factor against us, but at the same time, they are this project’s immediate neighbor.

Bryan – thanks. Yes, David Hanna is not very optimistic, but I’m not sure why…

We do need to spread the word further. Unlike the Park Avenue name change, there’s some effort and education involved which makes it less of an instant “sign it” issue, but I am optimistic about it. We’re going to be on the cover of the Mirror next week, so that should boost the visibility of our issue a great deal.

Comment by ajkandy

[…] Why The Swedes Are Right, And Claude Provencher Is Wrong. Background on two Swedish eco-friendly developments roughly the same size as Griffintown, which further proves the kind of thinking the Gazette article discussed. Also calls into question architect Provencher’s unquestioning support for the project, compared to much better-thought-out projects he’s worked on such as the Quartier International and condos at the east end of the Old Port.  […]

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