Bad times when city parking lots get priority over heritage, culture, and environmental responsibility, let alone a real consultation process with citizens.
Artists evicted in favour of city vehicles
Paul Machnik, a tenant of Studio PM at 4000 St. Patrick St., says he’s invested at least $50,000 to renovate his studio over the seven years he’s been in the building. The city has evicted him and 15 other tenants.
Photograph by: PIERRE OBENDRAUF THE GAZETTE, The Gazette
Montreal’s pledge to value culture and history should be working to save a landmark industrial building along the Lachine Canal from the city’s plan to expropriate and demolish it so it can relocate a public works yard to park municipal vehicles.
Yet despite the rarity and historical significance of the former Second World War shipbuilding factory at 4000 St. Patrick St. and the cost to taxpayers to expel 15 cultural businesses and artists that have not yet found another place to go, the expropriation process is moving ahead.
The printers, designers, furniture makers, framers, painter, set designer and other cultural entrepreneurs who work out of the building began receiving official notices of expropriation from the city and the Sud-Ouest borough on Monday, part of a bureaucratic chain reaction that was triggered by the Quebec transportation department’s plan to rebuild the Turcot Interchange.
The notice calls for the businesses to vacate the building by Aug. 31.
The building is the former house of the Canadian Power Boat Co., built around 1940 to assemble boats used in the Second World War. The building and neighbouring industrial buildings form an area that Parks Canada calls the Lachine Canal Manufacturing Complex. Parks Canada designated the ensemble a National Historic Site in 1996 to commemorate the phases of the nation’s industrial development along the canal from the mid-19th century to the Second World War.
“They should have thought this through better,” Paul Machnik, one of a handful of tenants The Gazette visited at the building, said of the expropriation. The printer, who said he’s invested at least $50,000 to renovate his studio over the seven years he’s been in the building, charged that the city is breaking up an incubator for artists. He and a number of his neighbours support each other and share equipment, he said.
“It’s not only your moving costs. It’s your time, and what it’ll take to redo what you have here,” Machnik said.
He’s started looking for another studio, but it’s increasingly difficult to find buildings in Montreal with the amount of natural light, ceiling height and floor space that artists and other cultural businesses need.
Moreover, Machnik and his neighbours are competing with other artists who are being forced out of other industrial hubs undergoing gentrification around the city, such as Griffintown and Mile End.
Transport Quebec served official notice to the city last spring that it will expropriate part of the Sud-Ouest borough’s public works yard on nearby Eadie St. as well as the local borough eco-centre for the Turcot project.
As a result, the city and the borough have decided to bump the private owner of 4000 St. Patrick so they can relocate the municipal yard. They’re still looking for a place to move the eco-centre.
“You’ve got 15 businesses doing their thing who are being pushed out,” Machnik’s partner, Bess Muhlstock, said. “And for a public works yard? How could they do this?”
Montreal has named itself a cultural metropolis, and designated the Lachine Canal a cultural corridor, she noted.
The city also supports Agenda 21, the United Nations plan for sustainable development, which names culture the fourth pillar of sustainable development.
“It’s kind of despicable to think that it’s going to be a city lot,” said Victoria Wonnacott, an artist who has been in her studio for eight years. She also has a framing business with her husband in another studio in the building. She said the forced move will be devastating for their business.
Lawyer Dida Berku, who has assisted some of the tenants, said none of the initial reports evaluated the inside of the building. “It was thought of as not being a functional building that’s in operation.”
Tenants, as well as property owners, are entitled to compensation under Quebec’s expropriation law, she noted.
“And that was never properly costed,” said Berku, a city councillor in Côte St. Luc.
“There’s no proper budgeting for this project. Everything is dependent on Transport Quebec, and Transport Quebec drew a line from La Vérendrye Blvd. to the Lachine Canal and St. Patrick and didn’t bother to see who’s in the way. And they said to the city: ‘You go and expropriate.’ ”
The city has budgeted $8 million plus tax for the expropriation of the owner and all of the businesses, including all interest and experts’ costs, a civil service report says. That’s part of the $42.9-million budget to demolish, decontaminate and rebuild on the site, it says. The province is obligated to pay much of that.
Berku scoffed at the city’s estimate for expropriations. She brought in a private assessor who has estimated the city – and ultimately, the province, which has to pay part of the city’s costs – will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to most of the individual businesses in the building as compensation.
“Eight million dollars is not the final number,” Berku said. “In the end, it’s the taxpayers who will pay for an ill-advised scheme.”
However, the city maintains it has the right and need to expropriate.
“It’s an essential municipal service and the city had no choice but to relocate (the public works yard) on another site within the deadline imposed by the Turcot project,” city spokesperson François Goneau said.
The city is prepared to help the tenants try to find a new place, he added.
Meanwhile, the Sud-Ouest borough maintains it was easier to expropriate the building than another site nearby belonging to Esso that was eyed for the relocation.
The city, borough and Transport Quebec, which jointly selected the site, didn’t choose the oil company’s property “because we thought it was much more contaminated (than 4000 St. Patrick),” said Marie Otis, an assistant to borough mayor Benoit Dorais. “The owner contested, too, so we couldn’t take soil samples.”
The city first approached the St. Patrick building owner, Les Industries 4000 St-Patrick Inc., about taking over the property in 2008, and the matter has been in limbo ever since, company president Bernard Goldberg said.
“If they take it, I’ll be angry,” he said. “If they don’t take it, I’ll ask them why they’re not taking it. Does that give you an idea of what I think? I don’t know what I think until I’m expropriated. So far, they’re just pieces of paper flying around, but nothing definite has been given to me.”
Colin Schleeh, a designer and inventor, says he has 11,000 square feet of material and his life’s work to relocate.
“It’s not like you just pick up a machine and put it in another spot,” he said. He has to pack everything from sheets of cement and heavy machinery to fragile veneer sculptures. It took him two years just to build a paint booth in his studio that’s completely dust-free, he said. He started with 900 square feet of space in the building 12 years ago and built up his business.
Meanwhile, the borough plans to relocate its horticulture department to the site as well, which will generate cost savings since it will be grouped with the public works department, Otis said.
The building has heritage value, she added, because it’s representative of an era and everything else from the era has been demolished.
The city has mandated an architecture firm to try to integrate some element of the building into the new site, she said, adding the city and borough acknowledge it has historic value.
Parks Canada says its designation of the area as a National Historic Site doesn’t provide the building legal protection. Parks Canada provided the city with maps, historical information and its recommendations to preserve the area’s “cultural resources” last summer, spokesperson Isabelle Savoie said.
But, she added, “in this case, there is no legal basis upon which Parks Canada could intervene.”