Condo Conversion Done Right?

Storm brewing over the Atwater Market, St. Henri, Montreal

There was a bit of a local controversy last spring over plans to convert Montreal’s former Imperial Tobacco factory and headquarters into condos. The complex, which has stood in the working-class neighbourhood of St. Henri for more than a century, has been empty since 2003 when Imperial shut down the last of its operations, putting several hundred neighbourhood residents out of work. Then, much to the surprise of approximately zero Montrealers, in stepped a developer with ambitious plans to convert the former cancer factory into condos.

One evil replaced by another, right? That was certainly the line of thought propagated by local housing activists, who took an all-or-nothing approach and demanded that the city buy the factory and convert it entirely into social housing. Otherwise, they threatened, they would shut the project down by forcing a local referendum on the issue. (Last May I wrote a Maisonneuve column on the issue, which you can read here.) They failed. The project is going ahead as planned and, soon, St. Henri will be home to nearly a thousand new condo-dwelling residents. Huzzah for gentrification!

But that’s a bit of a simplification. Okay, make that massive oversimplication. Because the Imperial Tobacco project is actually a model of how old brownfield sites should be converted into residential use.

Yesterday, the real estate section of the Montreal Gazette gushed, “The massive redevelopment of the Imperial Tobacco property in St. Henri opens a new chapter in the history of the city’s working-class southwest neighbourhood. For once, it won’t be titled Goodbye Longtime Residents, Hello Yuppie Hordes.” For once, the real estate section of the Montreal Gazette might have a point. Here’s why:

  • — The bulk of the project’s 480 units will be priced below market-rate, starting as low as $130,000, in an effort to attract first-time homebuyers. In exchange, the developer receives a tax credit from the city.
  • — Montreal now requires all new residential developments containing more than 200 units to dedicate 15% of their units to social housing. As a result, the Imperial project will include 60 units of cooperative housing built by the developer and managed by a local non-profit affordable-housing group.
  • — Substainability! All buildings will have a green roof, reducing the summer heat in St. Henri and making the complex more energy-efficient. Each unit will also have low-flow plumbing fixtures and energy-efficient windows. Not only that, but the development will include 200 bicycle parking spaces and several permanent spots for Communauto, one of the world’s largest car-sharing services.
  • — Back in the 1970s, the 19th century façade of the Imperial Tobacco factory was covered by hideous, windowless concrete walls, some of them covered by aluminum siding. Whenever I walk past it, my eyes start to bleed. Within a couple of years, however, the concrete will be stripped off and the original façade exposed.

    It’s easy to see why housing activists in St. Henri are so angry. Ever since the Lachine Canal was cleaned up and reopened in 2001, its banks have been filled with chintzy luxury condo developments that are filled with people who wouldn’t be caught dead walking two blocks to Notre-Dame, the neighbourhood’s trashy-fabulous main street. Instead, they head to the Atwater Market, a gorgeous 1930 Art Deco public market that has gone upscale in recent years. It’s a far cry from the greasy-spoon diners and thift stores of Notre-Dame Street. Meanwhile, landlords have been illegally evicting poor residents from St. Henri’s aging stock of triplexes, duplexes and apartment buildings, renovating their apartments and then selling them as condos.

    But the Imperial project is different. Since its entry prices are so low, it won’t attract your typical yuppie crowd. If anything, the combination of cheap units and social housing will ensure a nice balance of residents. It will take some of the pressure off of the neighbourhood’s existing housing stock, too, helping to curb condo conversions. The emphasis on bicycle parking and car-sharing, combined with the project’s proximity to Lionel-Groulx metro, a major transfer station, mean it will encourage pedestrian activity in what until now has been a particularly forlorn part of St. Henri.

    St. Henri has a lot of problems. This is where, in the 1940s, fresh off a train from her native Winnipeg, Gabrielle Roy set her iconic novel The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion in the original French). It was a realist portrait of dire poverty, downward mobility and a sick, marginal neighbourhood. Today’s St. Henri is a lot cleaner but still very poor; the descendants of the working-class French-Canadians described by Roy now live alongside new immigrants from India and the Carribbean and poor anglophone blacks who have long been the victims of racism and discrimination. Encouraging new condo construction while problems with unemployment, undereducation and poverty remain is pretty silly.

    That doesn’t change the fact that St. Henri’s location, architecture and historical ambiance make it a very desirable neighbourhood, however. That’s why, if the demand for new condos is to be accommodated, it should take the form of the Imperial Tobacco project: affordable, respectful of its neighbourhood and ecologically sound.

    This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday October 04 2006at 02:10 pm , filed under Demographics, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

    2 Responses to “Condo Conversion Done Right?”

    • Observer Walt says:

      From someone in Toronto who finds Montreal fascinating: thanks for this article. It raises important issues about both the physical and social structure of a city. Change in the city is inevitable; the challenge is to manage it with sensitivity to the contexts, not to simplistically wish that it would somehow go away.

    • Chris says:

      Great Article. I currently live in the suburbia of Montreal and am getting separated. I’m currently looking at my options and am considering a condo. Your article opened my eyes to some serious social implications that I would not have necessarily been sensible about. Thank you for shedding some light on the real issues – this will help me in making a socially responsible choice.