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January 20th, 2011

Notre-Dame and Griffintown: 1930-2010

Posted in Architecture, Canada, History by Daniel Corbeil

Notre Dame St West, circa 1930-2010

What happened here ? This used to be the north end of Griffintown, right next to the business center of Montreal.

À Montréal, au cours des années 1950 et 1960, notamment suite au rapport Dozois, on identifie des dizaines de quartiers qualifiés d’insalubres, vus comme irrécupérables, et où les taudis menacent la santé publique. Puis ont les rase, un par un, pour faire place à des projets d’ensemble, comme les Habitations Jeanne-Mance ou encore la tour de Radio-Canada, dans l’Est.

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February 22nd, 2008

An Elegy for Griffintown

Posted in Uncategorized by Christopher DeWolf
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There’s something remarkably honest about the United Steel Workers of Montreal. Far from being a contrivance, their country and bluegrass music feels earnest and appropriate, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the new video for their song “Émile Bertrand.”

This elegy for the lost working-class life of Montreal’s southwest is named in honour of the Émile Bertrand restaurant, a snack bar at Notre-Dame and Mountain that was famous for its home-brewed spruce beer. It closed in 2006 when its owner, Barbara Strudensky, died of cancer, so the USWM filmed their video in Point St. Charles’ Paul Patates, which has inherited Émile Bertrand’s legacy — and spruce beer. “Dreamin’ just comes easy when work is just too hard to bear,” croon the USWM’s vocalists, Felicity Hamer and Sean Beauchamp, as the video cuts between present-day scenes of the Lachine Canal, St. Henri and Point St. Charles and historical photos of Griffintown.

There’s something about this landscape that invites nostalgia. Maybe it’s the unexpected tranquility of the canal and the brooding ghosts of industry along it. Five years ago, when I lived in St. Henri, I lay awake at night listening to the mysterious clanging of trains in the nearby railyards. Those solitary moments, more than anything, are what I remember about living in the city’s southwest.

November 23rd, 2007

Village Griffintown: We Have Questions

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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.

September 12th, 2007

What Will Become of Griffintown?

Posted in Canada by A.J. Kandy

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Recently, Quebec developer Devimco partnered with Toronto-based RioCan to build the suburban Dix30 “lifestyle centre,” a drive-in power-centre big-box shopping mall located in a greenfield development at the intersections of Highways 10 and 30 on the South Shore.

Devimco is now working with the City of Montreal to push through a similar $1B development right at the foot of Peel Street, on the Peel Basin section of the Lachine Canal, likely occupying the same land that was originally proposed for the now-defunct Cirque du Soleil / Casino complex. Reportedly, Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire are to be anchor tenants.

A suburban mall at the foot of one of Montreal’s central boulevards, in the middle of Griffintown and adjacent to Old Montreal, ignores both the “retail DNA” of Montreal and the history of a proud neighborhood. It’s anti-urban, representing low density and sprawl, and there is serious doubt that it will contribute positively in terms of built space, eyes on the street, and other issues.

Even if there is a residential tower attached, as the current proposal includes, it’s still likely going to be a lot of cheap sheds separated by acres of parking. It’s an odd decision in a neighborhood that is moving towards drastically increased residential density and good urban design, and which is likely to be enhanced by the Harbour Commission’s plans to demolish the elevated portions of the Bonaventure Expressway to create a pedestrian-friendly urban boulevard and tramway links. With Peak Oil on the horizon, are big-box malls of national chain retail even viable, anyway?

We — being Stephanie Troeth and yours truly, AJ Kandy — are proposing an alternative, urbanist vision for the project in a quick six-minute presentation at the upcoming Montreal Pecha Kucha Night, Tuesday, September 18th at the SAT, starting at 8:00pm. We hope to see all of you there, and for those who can’t attend, we’ll be republishing it online with narration, background articles and links, and providing tools for action and discussion.

In the meantime, interested citizens should get in touch with the Sud-Ouest borough mayor’s office about an upcoming series of public consultations on the project.

February 14th, 2007

Take Me Back to Griffintown

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Griffintown is one of my favourite neighbourhoods to explore: the grime of history coats its buildings, past lives lurk in shadowy corners. Its quiet streets contain the treasures of industrial ruins and a community lost; they are the perfect place for a lonely nighttime stroll.

I’m not alone. Long-neglected Griffintown has become the darling of architecture students, historians and artists. Musicians discover new bands at Friendship Cove, an unmarked loft on Ottawa Street; artists have a new home in the Darling Foundry and its Quartier éphémère. The story of Griffintown’s displaced Irish community is now an essential part of Montreal’s folklore.

As much as I love it, though, I don’t feel quite qualified to talk about Griffintown. I feel obliged to defer to those who know more intimately its story.

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October 23rd, 2006

Slated for Demolition: A Block In Griffintown

Posted in Heritage and Preservation by A.J. Kandy

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As part of the École de Technologie Supérieur’s planned Phase III expansion, the college acquired several underused or empty lots in the quadrangle between Notre-Dame, Peel, Mountain and Ottawa streets. Just recently, demolition notices appeared on two buildings on the south side of Notre-Dame; there’d been an UQAM-logoed sign advising people not to park on the empty bit in between for some time before that.

The smaller of the two buildings – in reality a very old house with a storefront – is starting to come down now. I’ve contacted the ETS to find out what, exactly, they’re planning to build there. (Updates as they occur.)

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November 3rd, 2009

Vive la crise!

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Montreal doesn’t seem to have been hit terribly hard by this latest crise économique, maybe because it has spent most of the recent past recovering from a string of much more substantial crises. At the very least, it has given us a break from the excesses of the previous years, a time to reflect on what had been going on. Some of the economic victims of the crisis, like the misguided Griffintown redevelopment project, are better off dead.

In any case, I enjoyed seeing the Berlin-based French artist SP-38‘s “Vive la crise!” posters around town. (He’s also responsible for an earlier spate of posters that read “Vive la bourgeoisie!” and “Vive la poésie!”) It’s a childish, contrarian exclamation, but it rings true to our instincts that the current season of change and contemplation is maybe, in some ways, a bit better than the blind exuberance of before.

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October 4th, 2009

Underneath

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Kate McDonnell

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Railroad viaduct, Griffintown

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Highway 40, Villeray

July 4th, 2008

New Life for a Garment District

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Politics by Christopher DeWolf

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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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April 19th, 2008

Lower Town

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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On a quiet, cold weekend in Griffintown, the looming skyscrapers of downtown can seem like an illusion, so incongruous a backdrop do they make to the empty streets and dormant industry.

April 13th, 2008

An Echo of the Hagia Sophia

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Kate McDonnell

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Over the years I’ve heard people surmise it to be a temple, a mosque, an Orthodox church, even a synagogue. Familiar sight though it is in central Montreal, the first thing the huge domed building at Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur brings to mind is not the Roman Catholic church.

At the turn of the last century there was something of a migration of Irish-Canadian working people from their overcrowded Point St. Charles and Griffintown haunts north into Mile End. In 1902, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Mgr. Paul Bruchési, gave his approval for a new parish to be created. The first mass was said upstairs of a fire hall at Laurier and Saint-Denis that no longer exists. Their first small church building was on rue Boucher near there; it no longer exists either.

By 1914 the growing parish decided it needed something bigger and grander. In July of that year excavations began. Work stopped briefly when war broke out that autumn, but resumed in April 1915, and the church was ready to use by that December. The price tag was $232,000 and the church could hold 1400 people.

p1080234.jpgThis information comes from a booklet published in 1927 when the parish was already 25 years old. The text describes, and images show, that the dome and the cap on the tower were both decorated with patterns, and the massive façade with the words Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaeli and a smaller motto on a banner over the doors. Those flourishes are gone, but carved shamrocks are still part of the façade, a nod to the time when the parish was pretty well a monoculture, with priests called McGinnis, Fahey, McCrory, Walsh, O’Brien, Cooney and O’Conor and church wardens Keegan, Gorman, Dillon, McGee and Flood.

Also, unusually, there’s no mention of bells, and no evidence that the tower ever contained any: unlike most church towers it’s closed all the way to the top.

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April 10th, 2008

Imperial Pedigree

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, History by Christopher DeWolf

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Peel Street, Montreal

I had travelled more than 15,000 kilometres only to stand, once again, at the corner of Peel and Wellington. Of course, it wasn’t the same Peel and Wellington as back home — with a shared colonial past, it shouldn’t be surprising to find some similar street names in both Montreal and Hong Kong.

In Montreal, Peel and Wellington finds itself in the heart of Griffintown, a neighbourhood that was once a centre of industry and working-class Irish life. In Hong Kong, it sits in the middle of a busy market district in Central, an area that was once part of Victoria City, Britain’s nineteenth-century foothold in South China. It seems somehow appropriate that, even halfway across the world from one another, Peel Street and Wellington Street intersect. Peel was named after Robert Peel, a Tory who first elected to Parliament in a “rotten borough” home to just 24 easily-bribed voters, and who served twice as Prime Minister, from 1834-35 and 1841-46. Wellington Street was named after Peel’s longtime ally, the Duke of Wellington, another two-time Prime Minister who served one of his terms immediately after Peel.

There are plenty of other names that will ring familiar to anyone who has spent time in a former outpost of the British Empire: Elgin, Dalhousie, Drake, Drummond, Granville, Argyle. Like shadows left behind by a passing giant, they testify to a kind of globalization that began before the term even existed.

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Peel Street, Hong Kong

April 3rd, 2008

Less is More: New Public Spaces

Posted in Canada, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Movable tables and chairs in a plaza at Broadway and 66th, New York

Montreal is in the midst of a great public space building boom. Plenty of new squares, plazas and open spaces have been created over the past six or seven years, most notably in the Quartier international, but also throughout the city. With the redevelopment of Griffintown, Viger Square and the area around Rosemont metro, along with the construction of the CHUM superhospital and the reconstruction of Place d’Armes and the Pine/Park interchange, ensuring that our new public spaces are well-designed is particularly important.

So how have we been doing until now? In the latest issue of Canadian Architect, Gavin Affleck offers a review of some of our newest public spaces. “In many ways the story of recent public space design in Montreal has been a story of moving from more to less,” he writes. “The city core boasts an impressive inventory of public spaces ranging in age from colonial squares to contemporary corporate plazas. During the last 20 years, the design of both historic refurbishment schemes and contemporary projects has been marked by a gradual shift towards a more minimal expression. The most successful of recent projects are evidence that well designed urban space is simple, flexible and free of physical encumbrances.”

By that standard, many of the spaces built in the 60s and 70s are abject failures, with Viger Square a particularly apt example. Designed by a team of highway engineers and visual artists, the resulting square is a “seemingly endless plethora of concrete park pavilions, pergolas, retaining walls, fountains, planters and outdoor sculpture” that is too crowded with architectural objects to be of any practical use. Many newer projects stand in contrast to this unsuccessful approach, including the early 1990s redevelopment of the Old Port, the renovation of Place des Arts and, most recently, the Quartier International, which is produced a revamped Victoria Square and the new Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, two of Montreal’s most interesting squares.

The key lesson that Montreal’s designers have applied in recent years is that simplicity and flexibility make the best public spaces. Beyond those two attributes, though, they also need activity, which is something that good design cannot create, but only facilitate. Affleck recognizes this: “What public space is about is human activity; what it is not about is architectural objects. The great urban spaces of European cities are precisely that: spaces. What fills them is the ebb and flow of life–events, experiences, activities. Rather than aesthetic, formal or visual concerns, the measure of success of a public space is the degree of vitality it achieves as a support for human activity,” he writes.

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November 22nd, 2007

Montreal and its Suburbs… in 1843

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher DeWolf

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Way back in 1843, Montreal, population 50,000, was big enough to have six whole suburbs to its name. On the west, there was the Recollet Suburb, St. Ann’s Suburb, St. Joseph’s Suburb and the St. Antoine Suburb. On the north, the St. Lawrence Suburb followed the path of St. Lawrence Street, already the city’s main north-south axis. To the east, finally, was the Quebec Suburb, strung along St. Mary Street, the eastern extension of Notre Dame and the main road down river to Quebec City.

Traces of these old extra-muros neighbourhoods are still visible — to an extent. In the early 1970s, nearly all of the Faubourg Québec, commonly known as the Faubourg à m’lasse, thanks to the pervasive odour of molasses from one of its sugar refineries, was demolished for the Maison Radio-Canada, a vast complex home to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Around the same time, most of the rest of it was razed for the east end of the Ville-Marie Expressway. Since the late 1990s, what was left has been redeveloped as a residential area known, naturally enough, as the Faubourg Québec. Wholly uninspired in its architecture and design, one of the only remarkable aspects is a reconstructed viaduct and a small plaza that retraces the old rail line that once ran through the area.

Now, a large part of the old Quebec Suburb is set to be transformed into a high-density, mixed-used neighbourhood centered around the old Viger Station, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s first railroad station/hotel combo. Nearby, the giant CHUM hospital complex is set to be built on the remains of the old neighbourhood that emerged on lower St. Denis after a fire devastated most of the Quebec and St. Lawrence suburbs in 1852. Among the buildings slated to be demolished is the St. Sauveur Church, one of the first buildings to emerge after the fire.

Across town, meanwhile, in the remains of the old St. Ann’s Suburb, better known as Griffintown, the stage is being set for an even more massive redevelopment. Today, details were announced for a $1.3 billion retail, residential, office and entertainment district that will contain at least 3,800 housing units, a theatre, a cinema, office space, two hotels, plenty of retail, a tramway connection to downtown, new parks and plenty of parking.

This area was already decimated in the 1960s and 70s, when much of its old industry and housing stock was demolished, as well as St. Ann’s Church, the focus of its large Irish community, so this redevelopment is almost working with a blank slate. At least it will respect the area’s existing street pattern and incorporate many of its surviving historic structures. It looks like, in both east and west, Montreal’s first suburbs are being remade once again — hopefully this time with a bit more sensitivity than before.

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