Save Griffintown!

Les Bassins: Nice Idea, But Not A Neighborhood by ajkandy
December 25, 2008, 2:53 pm
Filed under: griffintown

By A.J. Kandy

Canada Lands Corporation recently launched its vision for Les Bassins, a development intended to replace the Canada Post Sorting plant at 1500 Ottawa.

A detailed model showed a grouping of large, classically Bauhaus-modern, medium-rise condo buildings with a handful of taller towers. It was stressed that the final designs would be up to private developers, but no doubt this is what they’re seeking to get approved.

The project centers around the now-lost historic working docks, i.e. basins, that existed at this point on the canal. The sorting plant would be ‘dismantled and recycled,’ not simply demolished, and the land decontaminated. A lot of space was given to mentioning inspirational eco-friendly projects such as Victoria’s Dockside Green and the Swedish Hammarby and Malmo BO-01 developments.

From a grid perspective, Basin Street would be reconnected for car traffic east-west; it appears that there’s not a lot of north-south car lanes, but extensive pedestrian areas and lots of green space. Here’s the plan from above:

Canada Lands proposed masterplan for the Canada Post site.

Canada Lands proposed masterplan for the Canada Post site.


And here’s the model that was displayed:

Model of sample buildings, Les Bassins project.

Model of sample buildings, Les Bassins project.

All in all, very interesting, with laudable components — but as a neighborhood, it fails in many respects. Read on for the why.

If the developers can achieve what the people in Sweden did — central trash and recyclables sorting with vacuum pipes, LEED efficiency throughout, and a degree of car-free living — Bravo. I’ll support that.

Knowing Montreal, I think that it’s possible to do so without giving the project the form of a Shenzen iPod factory with attached dormitories and front-office sales division, or, to be uncharitable, American Soviet Worker Housing.

In all seriousness – this is not a small site, and this form is not a residential neighborhood as we know them in Montreal. I personally believe this type of large-buildings-only zoning and land use specification isn’t a good direction for the project to take, and I’d like to propose an alternative.

I have great respect for the obvious amount of craft and thought that went into this design, but I do have a strong initial, gut-instinct reaction that this, like Projet Griffintown, isn’t a natural fit for Montreal’s DNA.

I say this knowing I may offend some people I know who helped plan it. I am not a professional architect or urban planner, but a ‘citizen urbanist,’ an amateur in the best sense of the word. I feel strongly that I understand Montreal and what makes it unique — I want to promote healthy neighborhoods. I dread what happens when well-meaning developers tinker with the delicate pH balances involved in the chemistry of a good city like ours, and I know I’m not alone.

Heights, Lows and In-Betweens

The speculative design for Les Bassins requires very large lots, upon which monolithic apartment-condominium buildings cluster around decorative ponds. These faux-basins, intended purely as a “recreational, contemplative” feature (to use their marketing literature’s euphemisms for ‘pools of water sure to breed mosquitos and shadflies in August’) are unconnected to the canal, devoid of any practical purpose, and take up a hell of a lot of space.

Other than that, the buildings are largely set back from the street by berms and rather pointless plazas. There don’t seem to be any green roofs, greenhouses, community gardens or any real center of local economy in the mix.

These too-wide open spaces are offset, in the name of density, with three 20-storey towers on the east side of the project, adjacent to Projet Griffintown (if that ever gets built). This would make them, outside of Projet Griffintown itself, the tallest buildings in the immediate area, certainly breaking the zoning code which limits buildings near the canal to an 8-storey maximum. The rest of the project, aside from one 14-storey tower, averages 7-8 stories which isn’t terrible, but then we get to the issue of grids and spacing.

The masterplan’s megablock buildings and wide spaces are yet another iteration of the utopian, Corbusian “towers in the park” meme, which seems harder to kill than a cockroach. Time after time, well-meaning planners have built places like this — usually, as corporate or university campuses…or with a bit of fencing and some barbed wire, as minimum-security prisons. What this is not, however, is a Montreal neighborhood.

Neighborhoods imply neighbors. They imply streets — with space allotted to local commerce. They imply building out to the edge of the street — which in turn implies eyes on the street, individual entrances, individual building lots, a finer-grained urban texture. Varied building types, mixed uses, mixed sizes. It implies such bourgeois conceits such as (gasp!) style, proportion and decoration, even though this violates the Secret Code of the Bauhaus which decrees that everything post-1940 shall resemble Girder-and-Panel snap-together ‘Yale boxes.’

The most beloved Montreal neighborhoods follow traditional building patterns — not out of slavish adherence to some unseen orthodoxy, but because these older patterns of urbanism and construction (it must be said, pre-automobile) evolved in parallel with healthy communities where people look out for each other.

The worst places in Montreal — housing projects, monolithic apartment complexes, unfriendly civic plazas —  create wide, empty, unsupervised spaces for mischief to occur, to put it lightly, and I cannot look at this design without thinking of a Kitty Genovese tragedy-in-waiting. Or at least, more tagger graffiti of the kind that patterns the blank walls along the bike path on the south side of the canal.

Gang Aft Agley

The idea of reopening the basins was first proposed by Concordia urban planning students years ago. Their explorations evoked narrow canal basins with Amsterdam-type dense development alongside. It suggested a richness and variety of styles and uses, creating an active street life. The current project’s faux-basins are, to my mind, a waste of land and potential.

As we stagger towards the end of the cheap-oil era, the fact that we have a functioning canal implies an active role for marine transportation, such as docks for shipping barges, attached to centers of (local, sustainable) manufacturing. Already, as this blog has chronicled, waterways in North America are waking from their long slumbers as truck and air shipping becomes too expensive. We must face the idea that the Lachine Canal once again has a working role to play, not merely a recreational one. (McGill professor Robert Mellin’s graduate students have already proposed light industry on the canal as a more appropriate economic center for the area.)

In Canada Lands’…artistic reinterpretation of the basin concept, all we have are presumably shallow moats (you know – for kids) around steel and glass towers…what’s the message here? ‘No Loitering.’ Sorry, but that’s not good enough for Montreal.

International (and Domestic) Space Stations

My colleagues at the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown have a running joke about residents of the Terrasses Windsor project — they’re astronauts. They live aloft in their space station, descend by elevator to the shuttlebay, get in their shuttlepods, navigate to work, return to the station, engage in a docking procedure, and then watch TV before going to bed. While I am grateful that it created a high-density residential project on downtown’s doorstep, which prevents more Quebec hinterland from turning to suburban slop, it hasn’t exactly translated into more shops and services along Notre-Dame, i.e. more people on the streets of the neighborhood. (Does anyone who reads this blog live there, or know someone who does?) It is definitely an odd design, with its enclosed, private parks-atop-parking, and unloved center ‘street’ with mini-townhouses that feel oddly exposed. 

Les Bassins, at least in its current proposed design, portends to be a similarly isolated pod.

Aside from the bike path and new bridge to the other side of the canal — which are quite nice and very welcome — it doesn’t make even an attempt to connect to the existing neighborhood.

Where Guy Street meets it at Ottawa, it shies away with an unwelcoming windswept plaza. Ottawa Street is fronted not with businesses or housing, but rather is flinched away from with set-back berms, which practically guarantees that it’ll remain a dead thoroughfare.

Overall, with a lack of individual houses or multiple entryways, or even much street-level retail, there doesn’t seem to be much provision for ‘eyes on the street.’ WIthout even the perception of security, who would feel safe here?


I live just a block away from this proposed project, on Notre-Dame near Des Seigneurs. It’s why I got interested in Projet Griffintown in the first place; I assumed it’d be landing on the Canada Post site, practically in my back yard.

My block, situated on an axis between Point Saint-Charles, Little Burgundy and Griffintown, is a typical Montreal low-rise mix. Three-storey Second Empire triplexes, infill 1980s condos, 1920s Beaux-Arts Revival and 19th century Gothic Revival bank buildings, 1970s townhouses, SHDM projects and senior retirement apartments jostle together.

Notre-Dame is largely fronted with street-level retail, and everything is built out to the sidewalk. It’s pleasant and welcoming, and attracts pedestrian traffic at all times of the day. Why, if you’re adding to this neighborhood (and bridging the equally dense and established Point St-Charles across the canal) would you not merely connect with, but also borrow from them?

My neighborhood, with its mix of building types.

My neighborhood, with its mix of building types.

We have dozens of good neighborhoods in this city – designs and ensembles that have stood the test of time, that people love, that have appreciated in value, and continue to be highly desirable today. What makes living in Montreal so evidently pleasant are its detailed, thoughtful, human-scaled neighborhoods of leafy, narrow streets, cozy brick and elegant greystone. Montreal remains pleasant not because of, but in spite of the municipal government’s repeated attempts at “improvements.” It remains so because of its citizens, such as Phyllis Lambert and Heritage Montreal and their supporters, who demanded protections and democratic reforms.

Technology, Will, and Desire

My most recent trip took me to New York City, where I managed, through luck, to stay in the Flatiron District, lodged smack-dab between Chelsea and Gramercy Park. This area is a gem, not only because of its signature architectural landmarks like the New York Life building, but because of the ensemble of ‘ordinary’ buildings that surround and complement them. It’s a Beaux-Arts and Art Deco wonderland; even the most modest commercial buildings are built to a standard of craftsmanship unimaginable today.

I had the fortune to spend an evening chatting with an architect working for a highly-regarded residential design firm that does a lot of work in the Hamptons and Colorado. I asked him, “Is there anything — technically speaking — that prevents us from, say, making another Flatiron Building today?”

“No,” came the answer, over the third Negroni of the evening. “Absolutely not. Although a lot of the old manual stonemasonry technique has been lost, you can replicate a lot of the detail work with computer-driven carving machines, but in general — no, no reason why we couldn’t do this today.”

This answer reinforced the idea that, with a bit of one-to-one teaching to resurrect traditional skills, there is no reason why we can’t build ‘new traditional neighborhoods.’ Identical in form to the places we love, but brimming underneath with up-to-date LEED technologies and efficient infrastructure, made more future-friendly with greenhouses, green roofs and an eye towards a re-localised economy.

Photoshoppage: Go!

We could do far worse than to copy and paste fine-grained traditional neighborhoods into the Canada Post site: So that’s exactly what I did, to create a theoretical development called ‘New Griffintown.’

Proposal for a traditional Montreal-style neighborhood

Proposal for a traditional Montreal-style neighborhood

New Griffintown borrows its features and grid from Montreal and, in architectural styles and details, from Dublin, Ireland. It’s a dense, mixed-use area with moderately-scaled apartment buildings and triplexes, a ‘main street’, a formal park with fountain twinned with one “new” ornamental basin, and a local-economy center, here based on a 1.5x-sized Atwater Market-type building at its western end, providing a visual terminus for both Basin and Guy Streets with an elegant clock tower.

Basin Street is patterned after both Bernard Avenue and Dublin’s O’Connell Street, where wider sidewalks flank a narrower street, suitable for a tram line and light car traffic. It’s lined with Beaux-Arts and Georgian mixed residential and retail buildings. Red-brick triplexes sit just behind them on the north side, and Old Montreal-type greystone lofts, offices, and apartments rise on the south side, echoing Rue St-Paul and Rue de la Commune.

Overall, I calculate that by going mid-rise and dense, this can achieve the same residential density as Les Bassins or more, without the need for skyscrapers.

New Griffintown - Proposed heights and land uses

New Griffintown - Proposed heights and land uses

A Model for Basin Street

A Model for Basin Street. Photo by Chris DeWolf

Following patterns in use in Mile-End and the Plateau, there are car-access lanes in the backs of the residences, with all the front streets being pedestrian-only, linking Ottawa to Basin street. It’s possible that underground municipal parking could be created under the commerce center, or at the very foot of Guy Street, linking with a light-rail terminal, for instance.

New Griffintown Rear Car Lanes and Pedestrian Streets

New Griffintown Rear Car Lanes and Pedestrian Streets

I believe a development like this would be better in almost every way — on aesthetic grounds, in efficiency of land use, in human-scaled development, and creating something more historically appropriate. It would create centers of commerce, street life and even tourist attraction that more naturally blend the canal – as both recreational and commercial waterway — with a new ‘main street’ and the existing parts of Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Point St-Charles.


Perfect example of Nimby-ism.
Merry Christmas!

Comment by Pouliot

This is not nimby-ism. A city is much more than just an agglomeration of backyards and other private spaces. Public places, streets, parks and commerces all make up the space that city dwellers occupy – they are PART OF our home, not just adjacent to our dwellings.

AJ , thanks for taking the time to do this analysis and propose an alternative… I also tend to have a bad feeling about every large development project I see around town. I also want the whole city to be like NDG and Verdun and the Plateau. I love the diversity and detail and aesthetic and history of those neighbourhoods (and thats why i chose to live in one).

But in this case we’re talking about a large site that has to be decontaminated and zoned for development in one shot, not infill development, which allows for the kind of architectural era-mixing you appreciate on your block. Canada Lands is only responsible for the decontamination and infrastructure. Unlike in Projet Griffintown, the actual design and buildings is up to individual developers. Your i-pod-factory concerns are issues with current architectural and development trends, not the plan set forth by Canada Lands and approved by the City.

The zoning is mixed use throughout, so there is nothing stopping developers from integrating dépanneurs, cafés, etc into the residential part of the project.

Short of the City requiring that the property be divvied into lots no wider than a single triplex, and then insisting each lot be designed and developed separately, I don’t see how we can force the kind of development that you (and I) would like to see upon this area. I think the best we can do is zone it appropriately (7-8 stories, mixed use seems like just the happy medium you call for) and parcel it to various developers and housing co-ops. At some point, we can only hope that consumer demand for lively, well-integrated neighbourhoods will make itself felt.

As for the tower-in-the-park criticism –
I disagree that a sports field/skating rink and a public pool are a waste of space in a area that wants to attract families. Is there an outdoor pool or sports field elsewhere in your neighbourhood (within walking or biking distance for kids)? This would also serve projet Griffintown(if built), and other developments in the Sud-Ouest. Nor are parks notoriously dangerous in Montreal. The pond in the second basin filters rainwater for the whole site – another sustainable addition, which creates the option for a bit of natural habitat for birds (and yes, inevitably bugs). Basins 3 and 4 are unnecessary, stylistic – as you said style goes a long way to defining a neighbourhood. But despite these “wasted” spaces, we’re still talking about density high enough to support local businesses and public transit which is the important thing.

I agree that the Guy/Ottawa plaza is not ideal (unless it can be used as a farmers market or something). However, the reason for the set-back from the canal is that the land adjacent to the canal belongs to parks Canada, who won’t allow it to be used (the architects already tried to get around this to no avail).

Comment by alanah

It’s less NIMBYism so much as it is “Can I Have Something Slightly Different In My Backyard, Please.” I believe I prefaced my remarks by saying that even if it doesn’t satisfy my own personal preference for traditional lot-based design, or address all my misgivings, if they can achieve the same kind of ambitious goals that Hammarby and Malmo BO-01 did, then it’s successful. I want this to be a success, but I also want it to be integrated into the neighborhood and not a ‘starchitecture’ UFO landing site.

Alanah, you raise some very good points. I’m curious where you see a reference to an outdoor pool and sports field, because there’s none in the literature I got nor on the website. In any case, just a block to the north, is the Little Burgundy pool / sports centre, so creating another one directly in the neighborhood seems a bit odd. A sports field would be a welcome addition, however.

What I worry about with this specific architectural massing is that we will end up with lots of blank walls instead of a proper streetscape — similar to how the ETS buildings at Peel and Notre-Dame face the latter street with nothing except emergency exits — creating a cold and oppressive atmosphere for pedestrians, rather than a lively, permeable street boundary.

There is a real psychological difference, both for residents and for the neighborhoods, between living in a massive, anonymous apartment building, and living in even a smaller apartment building, ‘plex’, rowhouse or townhouse. I’m all for high-density, and to some degree towers are necessary, but I cannot say that a neighborhood can be made of eight or nine buildings alone.

Comment by ajkandy

Resuming old-style development, as you propose, is not a technical concern but a financial and legal one. Particularly as concerns a contaminated site that currently exists as a single parcel with a single owner. It’s a legitimate question to ask for other sites, but the financial burden of remediating this one for residential use puts it out of contention for what you have in mind.

As for the design, you would have something to worry about were the developer the impatient ÉTS or Edmonton-based cheapos True North, which slapped up Cours Windsor. Luckily enough it’s in the hands of Canada Lands. They don’t go in for starchitecture and have a good track record of nicely executed stuff that works well on a pedestrian level. The architects are Cardinal Hardy and l’OEUF, who are some of the most environmentally, historically, aesthetically, socially, and urbanistically sensitive and skilled firms in the country. It’s in very, very good hands.

Most of what you’re worried about, like the plaza on Guy and the street frontage, depends on details and execution, and right now we’re looking at a design that’s still in the site planning stage. I don’t see anything with this plan that gives me significant pause about the safety of the street or exterior spaces, but I don’t have an allergy to modernism or big buildings. Again, a project of this scale succeeds or fails on the details, and the organizations designing and developing this project are known for getting the details right.

All that being said, I agree a light industrial use may be the best thing here. You’re not going to see commercial shipping on the Lachine Canal anytime in the next decade, due to the narrowness of the locks, insufficient depth for heavy loads, and the hellbroth of sediment that would be stirred up if you tried to dredge it. You’re not going to see a business shipping by rail there either, as much as you or I would like it. But an industrial use would minimize cleanup costs, and it’s in a good location for workers and truck access.

Comment by DC

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: