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Henry Aubin: City's approach to Griffintown is shameful

Henry Aubin: City's approach to Griffintown is shameful

It took a crown corporation to show the Tremblay administration what it should have done in the vital redevelopment project



If you want to see what's wrong with the Tremblay administration's approach to urban planning, glance at what's happening in Griffintown.

Two events happened there last week. They reflect two diametrically different approaches to land development. One approach, city hall's, is shocking. The other, by a federal Crown corporation, is terrific. It puts the Tremblay administration's approach to shame.

It's important to get the redevelopment of Griffintown right. Location and size give it glorious potential for boosting the city's attractiveness and prosperity. A mere 10-minute walk from Windsor Station will put you in the heart of this former Irish working-class neighbourhood, now a largely bedraggled, light-industrial area consisting of some 50 small city blocks.

One of last week's two events was a public consultation held by a city agency. It was shameful.

Don't get me wrong: The experts, stakeholders and ordinary citizens who took part in the exercise produced useful insights, and the agency that held the hearing, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal, is one of this city government's most credible bodies. No, the problem was that the exercise came astonishingly late.

Investors have jumped into the area in the last several years and have either already built projects or are in the process of doing so. Redevelopment in about a third of Griffintown is a fait accompli.

But don't blame the OCPM for this tardiness. As an advisory body, it needs the city executive committee's green light before holding hearings. Up to now, Tremblay's executive committee has denied it that go-ahead.

Logically, the Tremblay team should have let the OCPM hold hearings in 2008, after a developer, Devimco, announced the most ambitious real-estate plan by a private investor in city history: On a swatch of Griffintown equal to 17 Canadian football fields, it originally sought to construct 10 buildings between 17 and 22 storeys high and some smaller buildings. The project's stores, offices and residences would have enabled it to compete with downtown for business.

The Tremblay administration liked the concept. Most Griffintown residents and downtown merchants did not.

The mayor used technicalities to keep the project from becoming the subject of a neighbourhood referendum.

He also found a way to finesse the rule requiring a public consultation. Normally, the mayor would ask the OCPM to hold such a hearing. But OCPM commissioners are urban-affairs experts (typically academics or retired civil servants); they are also politically unaligned and not city hall's puppets. They only have the power to make recommendations to the executive committee, but those recommendations can cause embarrassment at city hall.

That would explain why Tremblay asked the local borough, Sud-ouest, to hold hearings instead of the OCPM. The borough mayor was a tame member of Tremblay's party and, sure enough, she duly produced a compliant report: It contained zero recommendations. I wrote at the time that it was the "most vacuous municipal report in memory." Still is.

To be sure, city hall did produce an urban plan for the area. Ignoring the city-wide master plan that called for relatively low buildings, it authorized buildings of up to 20 storeys high in some places.

As it happens, difficulties in getting financing would later cause Devimco to shrink its "District Griffin" plan: It has started work on a string of towers (mostly condos, but also with a hotel and offices) on a smaller territory along the Lachine Canal. Elsewhere, other companies are building condos, all of banal design.

This is what Tremblay's improvisation has begat: An emerging area that, with cranes swinging overhead, still has no coherent sense of direction. Who knows if future development will aim to make Griffintown a highrise extension of downtown, a heritage-enhancing extension of adjacent Old Montreal or a family-friendly neighbourhood with a school and plenty of space for recreation. If the OCPM comes up with sensible advice this spring, let's hope that if it is applied it wouldn't be too late to determine the dominant character of the place.

And now for an instructive beam of light.

One part of Griffintown does know what it's doing. It's the only part of Griffintown not under city hall's authority. I refer to an expanse the size of 15 football fields. Canada Post once had a mammoth facility, now demolished, there. Today a federal Crown corporation, Canada Lands Co., owns the tract.

In 2008, Canada Lands distributed 20,000 flyers to Sudouest residents inviting them to hearings on what to build on it. Reflecting public opinion, 1,800 condos are now going up, plus 400 social-housing units. The second phase of this "Bassins du Havre" plan was announced Thurs-day at a ceremony.

To attract families that might otherwise move to the off-island, 40 per cent of the units will have two or more bedrooms; by contrast, the first nine condo towers that Devimco has so far planned are all tailored to single people and couples.

Unlike the Devimco project, Canada Lands buildings will also seek LEED status.

"This is an extremely well thought-out project," says David Hanna, a UQAM urbanplanning prof. "Gee, couldn't we do this all the time?"

It's simple enough.

MUCH OF GRIFFINTOWN'S REDEVELOPMENT HAS PRECEDED THIS MONTH'S PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON REDEVELOPMENT

Area indicates properties where construction is now under way or where the city has either authorized construction or is in the process of authorizing it.

Area indicates buildings constructed since 2005

haubin@montrealgazette.com


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