Another Griffintown Commentator

Latest installment in my series of essays that shows who was criticizing the Griffintown proposal and why. My point, of course, is that if there was an ounce of compassion or reason at City Hall the project would have been completely grounded, heck, it would never have been accepted under such conditions, but I digress to dream a little……. It is about greed, folks, plain and in your face simple greed. Do not let anyone tell you that the current City administration is trying to build a better Montreal, because it isn’t. Let me put it this way, if you start feeling sick you don’t go to a baker, you go to a doctor. Well, when some of the most highly regarded people in local architecture, experts if you will, find something wrong with a project and no one is listening, it can only mean that the baker is doing very well indeed.

by Raphaël Fischler, School of Urban Planning, McGill University

The Griffintown saga is an example of what has become routine in Montreal. A developer comes up with a project; citizens and planners (civil servants, members of municipal advisory committees, outside experts) believe that the plan is weak in several respects; officials, however, find that the plan is a great investment which will bring good tax-revenue to the city; they disregard the advice given to them and give the developer what he wants.

This is a caricature of what really happens, of course. In most cases, projects do get changed somewhat in response to advice given by residents, planners and others. The new development agreement between the City and Devimco shows that the Tremblay administration has forced the developer to improve his project in several ways, for instance by including more park space and by showing a bit more respect for the existing historic context.

But the improvements come nowhere near to responding to the requests for change that were issued. I don’t know exactly what the planners working for the City and for the South-West borough told officials about the project. I cannot imagine that they found it all good. What I can tell you, and what many of you know, is that both the Comité d’architecture et d’urbanisme and the Conseil du patrimoine, two so-called “expert” panels, issued very negative assessments of the project. Independent experts have expressed similar opinions in the media, and a large number of residents and other stakeholders have stated their reservations in public as well. The weaknesses that these people have highlighted have not really been remedied in the new plan.

The main problems with the plan—if one may restate what has been said repeatedly—is that it is the wrong thing in the wrong place. It contains nothing else than a new destination for commerce and recreation, a new regional node right next to downtown and Old Montréal. It contains “big-box” stores and associated shops with a total floor area of 100,000 square metres (larger than any regional shopping centre on the island of Montréal, barely smaller than Carrefour Laval) and close to 4,000 housing units (at a gross density that is higher than in any Montréal neighbourhood except parts of downtown). And it does all that by means of an urban design that is completely at odds with the morphology of the area and its surroundings.

A related problem is that, due to its size, the project requires major interventions by the City: expropriation (done solely for the benefit of a private developer), infrastructure investment (at least $60 million, plus the $300-million tramway) and plan amendment (of course, current plans and regulations do not allow for such a mega-development). The City is going to use its power and money to do something that contradicts its own policies and endangers existing urban areas. And, to make things even worse, it is doing so by short-circuiting public participation in the process.

All this has raised intense criticism. Rarely has a project met such unanimity of opinion. Rarely have experts issues such a strongly worded opinion as they did in this case. Even the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec, which normally does not intervene in specific cases, has seen fit to add its name to the list of a signatories to a letter addressed to the mayor Montréal. All this must mean something.

One of the things this means, is that the Tremblay administration is not playing by its own rules and is betraying its own promises. When Tremblay became mayor of Montreal, he and Robert Libman, who was then in charge of urban planning at the Executive Committee, said loud and clear that, from now on, Montréal would demand higher-quality architecture and urban design and would manage urban-planning processes in a more fair and transparent manner. The time of “anything-goes-as-long-as-it-brings-in-property-taxes” was over.

Tremblay had the opportunity to deliver on this promise, because he had a strong real-estate market and because he had political support. When developers are eager to build, it is far easier to demand certain things from them, such as the inclusion of affordable housing, the use of green building technology, or simply good, context-sensitive urban design. The Montreal Summit had given Tremblay a strong consensus in favour of more participatory processes. But Tremblay has squandered this opportunity and André Lavallée, who is now in charge of urban planning, is too isolated to make good on theses promises on his own.

The sad reality is that our elected officials do not really know what to ask for. Too often, they do not know the difference between good and bad urban design, between sustainable and unsustainable urban development. (Not that the differences are radical, but they are real.) The same holds true of their understanding of citizen participation. For Alan DeSousa, public consultation on the Griffintown project was (I quote from the notes for his speech today) “exemplary.” That represents a very modest notion of public consultation at its best…

When we talk about good urban design, good urban development or good urban planning, one may of course ask: who is to say what is good? One person may think that Paris is the greatest city in the world; for another New York City is tops; for a third, Sienna is a dream place. And for every person who loves how Paris looks, there is one who hates how much Paris costs, or one who hates how undemocratically it has been planned. Even within Montréal, some people believe that downtown is the greatest place to be, while other are enamored with Rosemont and yet others feel good only on the West Island. In the same way, some people believe that large-scale projects are important to make a difference and to create a harmonious environment. But others believe that small-scale projects are the way to go, because they are less risky and allow for fine-tuning over time. So who is to say what the right vision or attitude is?

Ultimately, urban development is a collective responsibility. It has to be managed by the community, through the political process. In this process, there must be room for leadership and there must be room for broad participation. Leadership can come from many sides, from private developers as well as from grassroots organizations. But leadership is expected also from our politicians. What the Griffintown project shows, is that there is a lack of political leadership in urban planning and development in Montréal. Our elected officials seem to have no sense of priority and to react to development proposals in an ad-hoc manner.

In truth, many people are afraid of political leadership in urban matters. They recall the terrible things that were done to the city in the past, for example the demolition of neighbourhoods to build highways. Many residents want their representatives to help protect their neighbourhood, to be conservative. Even our dear Plateau progressives can be terrible NIMBYists. For them, exercising leadership often means saying “no.”

But Griffintown is not Milton Park. Griffintown is not a vibrant neighbourhood being threatened by large-scale demolition for the sake of private profit. Griffintown is a more or less derelict, half-abandoned area that can use major reinvestment. Indeed, reinvestment has started there, along Peel Street and along other streets. What it also needs is municipal leadership to guide that reinvestment in ways that are socially, environmentally and economically sound.

Good urban design and good urban planning can take place only if there is political support for these values. Montréal has some champions of good design and planning, such as the CCA and Héritage Montréal. It also has good defenders of democratic decision-making, among them the members of the Montreal Citizens Forum.

What Montréal does not have, not yet at least, is a culture that values urban design and urban planning. Officials and citizens too often accept easy solutions when, for the same money, they could have something better. One should not ask for excellence all the time; excellence is too hard and too expensive for the bulk of urban development. But clearly, Montréal deserves something better for Griffintown than what is being proposed now. Experts and professionals can help, but what is most needed is a better-informed political class and a more proactive population. The organisers of this meeting are to be commended to trying to generate movement in that direction.

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