As a resident of Sud-Ouest — right where Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Point St-Charles intersect, actually — I was surprised by the scope and scale of the Village Griffintown project announced yesterday for a long-neglected neighbourhood in southwestern Montreal. It’s not at all what we were expecting, and while we welcome redevelopment, and the proposed design has many positive attributes, not least of which is its ability to slow or stop urban sprawl, my neighbours and I have some unanswered questions.
1. Why the megablocks?
The design currently imposes some superblocks onto existing streets, blocking Shannon and Young. The plan view can be misleading, seeming to show through streets in the two large residential-commercial buildings, but these are actually sky terraces for the tower dwellers. Surely the same amount of space could be incorporated with more, smaller buildings, on more intimately scaled streets, and preserving the historic street grid?
2. Why go with Le Corbusier-styled ‘Towers in the park?’
Good retail urban design involves building right to the sidewalk, and lining the streets with shops, windows and displays. The current “superblock” design would seem to impose a lot of blank walls on side streets, and further separates the buildings from the streets with berms and plazas. The same seems to go for some of the smaller apartment buildings to be built canalside – creating isolated, “Habitations Jeanne Mance” dead zones, instead of lively / leafy / intimate streets. The city of Portland in fact discourages new commercial buildings without providing for “living streets” in this fashion, and it’s something we should look at here.
3. Why this ‘campus style’ unified design?
It may seem picayune to quibble about the aesthetics of the project, but viewed as an ensemble, it resembles a university satellite campus or a superhospital, rather than anything village-like. What we actually have here is not that different than the Terrasses Windsor — inexpensive modern boxes clad in different-coloured brick to make them seem more detailed than they actually are. Looking at Place D’Armes and other historical ensembles that evolved organically over time — where you can see three eras of architecture in the Bank of Montreal alone — how difficult would it be to design an ensemble of buildings that all looked different, yet historically appropriate to the neighborhood – red sandstone, limestone, granite, red and yellow brick, mixing historic styles from 1850s to postmodern — something that’ll age a bit better than the current design?
4. Why the secrecy?
Why was this project developed behind closed doors for so long? According to the Sud-Ouest borough mayors’ office there will be public consultations in either December or January, and a decision has to be made by April…a bit rushed for something so important, no?
5. Why the car-centric development when we’re coming to the end of the oil era?
I applaud the fact that they’re planning to make the development transit-centric, and incorporate the proposed tram line — but the economic reasoning for the large-surface retail outlets (and a 2000-seat theatre, and hotels) depends on a good deal of car traffic. Geology and politics are against car-centric development — most oil geologists believe we have reached the peak of oil production right now, and we’re heading down a rather jagged slope towards depletion. Will this project survive 30, 50 years from now when few people, if any, will be driving?
6. What’s the energy and waste footprint of this ensemble?
Similarly to the car question, we wonder about the infrastructure and energy inputs that’ll be needed to support this development. There’ll need to be new sewer mains, electrical substations, etc. Large-surface retail needs a lot of energy to heat and cool. The flat roofs will create urban heat islands. Could the project use passive and active solar, rooftop or roof-edge wind turbines, or even geothermal loops? Will serious attempts be made to ban waste (disposable cups, excess packaging) and encourage recycling and composting on-site?
7. Will there be space for smaller and local non-chain retail?
As Kate from the Montreal City Weblog notes, “I think what makes me saddest about this kind of megadevelopment, even more than the knowledge that it brings more suburban values right into the heart of town, is that such developments are relentlessly corporate. Where’s the space for the used bookshop, the neighbourhood café, the ethnic chicken rotisserie?”
I would add to that list: space for urban gardening / farming, local produce markets, community space, schools, daycares, clinics, soccer fields, indoor recreation, art galleries, and maybe some decent, non-chain pubs and places to play live music?
Furthering on from points 5 and 6, and touching on all the other points, the more self-sustaining the complex is, the better. In an energy-scarce future, even maintaining buildings of this scope and size is going to be a real challenge. Not impossible, but the developers and promoters need to show us that they’re taking this into account.
Tags: Griffintown, Montreal, Redevelopment, Urban Design