New Life for a Garment District

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Earlier this year, Helen Fotopulos, mayor of the Plateau Mont-Royal borough, stood beaming over a podium as she announced plans to revitalize the old garment district on the eastern edge of Mile End, bounded on the west by St. Laurent, on the east by Henri-Julien, on the south by Maguire and on the north by the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.

“This no man’s land will be transformed,” she declared, outlining $9-million in infrastructural investments that the city hopes will invite new investment and development in the district. Work will start this summer on widening the sidewalks along St. Viateur between St. Laurent and de Gaspé, burying electrical lines and installing new lampposts. New sidewalks will be built on de Gaspé too, which currently has one only on the east side of the street.

Next year, the city will extend St-Viateur east to Henri-Julien, which could involve the expropriation of one building and two vacant lots. In 2010, a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists will be built over the CPR tracks, linking the area to nearby Rosemont metro.

The city estimates that its investments will generate $250-million worth of private real estate development as buildings are renovated and vacant lots developed. The only potential snag is that, as post-apocalyptic as it may sometimes seen, the garment district is far from being a no man’s land: thousands of people live and work there, in textile factories, small businesses, design studios and artists’ workshops. In an atmosphere of citywide dissatisfaction over the city’s handling of such major projects as the renovation of the Main and the redevelopment of Griffintown, some are keeping a close eye on how it proceeds in Mile End.

Mile-End’s industrial area owes its existence to the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s. Large warehouses and factories were built around the turn of the century, like the Van Horne Warehouse on St. Laurent, whose water tower has become a landmark in the city’s north end skyline. In the 1950s and ’60s, the area took on its present form when giant garment factories were built along de Gaspé, towering over the surrounding neighbourhood.

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For decades, de Gaspé was a buzzing hub of textile manufacturing. In recent years, however, the number of companies involved in the garment trade has declined, according to Mayor Gérald Tremblay, by more than 26 per cent, and the number of factory jobs in the area has dropped by more than 47 per cent. Change has been in the air since the mid-1990s, when the French gaming giant Ubisoft moved its studios into an old industrial building at the corner of St. Viateur and St. Laurent, bringing new life to a district that relied on an increasingly moribund industry.

The creative nature of the area goes well beyond Ubisoft, however. After being forced out of cheap downtown lofts by development, dozens of artists sought refuge in the garment district. In just six or seven years, the number of artists, musicians and arts-and-design-related enterprises in the area has risen from virtually zero to nearly 200. In Fashion Plaza, one of the hulking industrial buildings on de Gaspé, about a quarter of its tenants are artists.

Alan DeSousa, the city’s economic development officer who worked on the garment district’s redevelopment plan, says that the city’s goal is to attract new investment to the area—more real estate development and more companies like Ubisoft—without compromising the artistic and economic life that already exists.

“The local borough is working closely with the artists and the people in Mile End to make sure their needs are considered,” he says. “The Plateau is a beehive of activity, it’s home to one of the largest concentrations of artists in Montreal, so with that in mind, the intent is to make sure we can balance that with the ultimate revitalization of the area. The city is taking a calculated risk in investing in the expropriation and new infrastructures, but we think it’s a risk well worth taking because of the new tenants and businesses coming to the area as well as the increased property values.”

For the artists who work in the area, displacement is a constant worry. Many found themselves in Mile End after being evicted from downtown lofts that were the target of ill-fated development proposals, such SLEB (Saint-Laurent-en-bas, at the corner of Ontario and St. Laurent intersection), a luxury loft project that went bankrupt.

“I don’t think there’s as much risk of that happening here,” says Mathieu Beauséjour, coordinator for the Centre d’art et de diffusion Clark, a non-profit artists’ organization on de Gaspé. “It’s still mostly manufacturers around here and even when they leave, these buildings are too big to be converted into condos. But we are still concerned about some of the changes that could occur. Gentrification is already underway—artists and bohemians are here and that’s the first sign of it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a neighbourhood gentrifies, it also diversifies. It’s only when it becomes perverted, like on Mount Royal, where you can’t get a sandwich for less than $15, that it’s a problem.”

Beauséjour says that city officials—including the mayor, who visited artists during the Atelier Portes Ouvertes event in May and on another occasion more recently—appear sensitive to the area’s “artistic and cultural ecosystem.” He wonders, though, whether a more active approach is necessary. He points to Paris, which bought buildings along the once-derelict Canal Saint-Martin and turned them into subsidized space for artists.

“This is a great opportunity to recognize that this is a district with artistic potential,” says Beauséjour. “We want to stay here. We don’t want to end up on Chabanel.”

If Beauséjour is cautiously optimistic, others are worried, if not downright angry. Borys Fridman owns Jeans Jeans Jeans, a discount denim outlet that has stood at the end of St. Viateur, for 35 years. When the city extends St-Viateur to the east, it might need to demolish the building that houses Fridman’s store.

“None of the other people around here could lose their businesses except us, but we haven’t heard anything from [the city]. They don’t deal with us—we have to get a lawyer if we want to talk to them. I’ve called Eleni [Fakotakis], the borough councillor, five times and left messages and nobody has called back. They’re treating us like shit,” he says.

Marc Snyder, aide to Helen Fotopulos, says that the borough has already held a number of meetings with Mile End residents and that it will work closely with members of the community as the redevelopment progresses. In matters of expropriation, he adds, the city tends to deal with property owners and not tenants, but at the moment, no final decision has been made with regards to expropriation.

“The major question that’s being worked on right now is how St-Viateur is going to be extended towards the east,” he says. “If it continues in a straight line, it will require the expropriation [of the building that’s at the end of the street, in which Jeans Jeans Jeans is located]. But we might also choose another path. That’s being determined right now—we’ve hired a company that will be working on that.”

What many are wondering is what shape the garment district will take two years from now, after the city’s investments are completed. To that end, a group of concerned residents, the Mile-End Citizens’ Committee, will organize a citizens’ forum in the fall.

Although members of the committee declined to comment for this article, a post on their blog gives an indication of the issues it hopes the forum will address: “We need to think about the quality of life of its residents, green spaces, neighbourhood transportation, safety, community and commercial spaces, and how art and culture will fit in. Many citizens feel that they do not grasp the changes that are coming. This forum is a first step for citizens and other concerned people to create a common vision of the development.”

This article was originally published in the July 3rd edition of the Montreal Mirror.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday July 04 2008at 09:07 am , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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