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Sale of historic Montreal building challenged

 
 

Sale of historic Montreal building challenged

 

A controversial real-estate deal between the Université de Montréal and developer Groupe Frank Catania & Associates is facing new legal challenges

A plan to transform the Congr&#233;gation des Saints Noms de J&#233;sus et de Marie into a condo project is facing a court challenge.
 

A plan to transform the Congrégation des Saints Noms de Jésus et de Marie into a condo project is facing a court challenge.

Photograph by: Phil Carpenter , Gazette files

A controversial real-estate deal between the Université de Montréal and developer Groupe Frank Catania & Associates is facing new legal challenges, with opponents seeking a court injunction to stop a historic building from being converted into condos.

On Friday, a coalition of professors and residents initiated new legal proceedings in an attempt to stop the Université de Montréal’s planned $28-million sale of the Outremont building that once housed a Catholic mother house, school and well-known music conservatory.

The coalition’s motion contends the university didn’t follow proper legal procedure when it reached a deal in 2008 to sell the Congrégation des Saints Noms de Jésus et de Marie on Mount Royal Blvd. to Catania. It argues Quebec universities must first transfer authority over their unused buildings to the government — which ensures they are not needed by any other public institutions — before permitting a sale to the private sector.

It’s the latest round in a lengthy battle that’s pitting broader concerns over the protection of cultural heritage against fears of overspending by public institutions during a time of fiscal austerity. In recent years, several Quebec educational institutions have spent millions to restore aging heritage buildings, including the former Victoria School downtown.

But last year in New Brunswick, heritage activists and Canadian war veterans were outraged after Mt. Allison University chose to raze a stone library and memorial — deemed too costly by administrators to preserve — to make way for new construction.

In Quebec, the coalition is already appealing a judgment it lost over a municipal zoning change that gave Catania the green light to push ahead with plans to transform the building into the Château Maplewood project

with 135 high-end condos.

“This religious heritage is one of our most precious in Quebec and it must be preserved,” said Daniel Turp, a former MNA and spokesperson for the coalition. “We believe it was understood that the Sisters wanted this building to be used for educational purposes. Otherwise, they could have sold to a developer like Catania.”

In late June, the university approved a six-month extension to its deal with Catania, one of the largest developers in the province. Catania made headlines this spring after the firm’s head, Paolo Catania, was arrested by Quebec’s permanent anti-corruption squad on charges of fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust.

In June, a Catania spokesperson told The Gazette that the developer “respects the judicial process before the courts. Without speculating on the crux of the legal process, Catania remains confident in the success of the (condo) project.” On Monday, a spokesperson for the Université de Montréal said he was not aware of the new motion, but could not comment, anyway, on any legal action before the courts.

In 2003, the university acquired the building for $15 million, and invested about $20 million in renovations to convert it into laboratories for educational purposes. But renovations that were initally expected to cost around $40 million ballooned to $140 million, in part because of delays and other unforeseen discoveries while gutting the building.

Real-estate sources familiar with the deal said the Université de Montréal was especially concerned about cost overruns because of controversy emanating from Îlot Voyageur, the Université du Québec à Montréal’s failed development project to build student residences and offices downtown.

Around 2008, Université de Montréal hired real-estate services firm CBRE Ltd. to run a vast public call for tenders for private and public organizations interested in buying the former mother house. Certain

public bodies did express interest in the building, but they lacked the resources to buy it, university spokesperson Mathieu Filion said. Filion wouldn’t pulge the identity of any of the bidders.

The university decided to go with the highest bidder, which was Catania, Filion said.

alampert@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: @RealDealMtl