News  Economic downturn spares Griffintown

Devimco scales down its $1.3- billion plan to demolish historic neighbourhood

Economic pressures have brought the controversial redevelopment of Montreal’s historic Griffintown neighbourhood to a standstill.

The $1.3-billion redevelopment project, entrusted to Devimco Inc. last year by the municipal government, has already been scaled back 70 per cent due to economic woes. In February, Devimco President Serge Goulet told La Presse that without substantial municipal funding it could not go forward.

“If the City is not involved in one way or another, nothing will be finished before 2013…and the City needs these projects,” Goulet said in French.

The local government has so far steadfastly refused to either publicly accede to Devimco’s demand or announce that the project’s status is anything but full steam ahead. However, City Hall voted in mid-February to cancel over two dozen expropriation orders and land reserves set aside for the development, suggesting that the project has indeed been terminated.

In the two years since its introduction, critics ranging from bloggers to city councillors have decried the development plan – to raze most of the neighbourhood, and replace it with a cinema complex, shopping centre, and concert venue – as a heartless makeover for a neighbourhood that was one of Montreal’s vibrant industrial hubs barely a century ago.

“What they attempted to do did not respect the historical context of the place,” said Avi Friedman, professor of architecture and cofounder and director of McGill’s Affordable Homes Program. Friedman condemned Devimco’s “big-box” design as yielding a community of blank walls that would not be livable or walkable.

“[The project] was a mix of suburbia and shopping centre that really doesn’t belong in Montreal…or if it does, we have enough of it.”

The city government also drew fire for entrusting an entire neighbourhood’s redevelopment to just one company. In a scathing press release last month, opposition city councillor Benoit Labonté castigated the current administration for relying too heavily on mega-projects.

Professor Raphael Fischler of McGill’s School of Urban Planning, an outspoken critic of the project since its conception in 2007, agreed that putting all of Griffintown’s eggs in one basket was dangerous and unhealthy.

“One single large project like Devimco’s… tends to create homogenous environments, and we know that diversity and spontaneity are what creates great neighbourhoods,” Fischler said.

According to Fischler, a city can redevelop a neighbourhood in one of two ways: from the top down, by entrusting the project to one developer and following one blueprint from the start, or from the bottom up, by allowing individual property owners to pursue their own projects over time. Fischler thought the latter method was neglected with the Griffintown development.

“We went too far to the one pole of single-handed redevelopment and too far from other pole of spontaneous development with more actors and diversity. You always need a little of both,” Fischler said.

He emphasized that while the organic bottom-up approach creates a sturdy blend of residences and activities, the City needs to set developmental guidelines to ensure progress and block undesirable elements like high-rises.

“I’ve seen a lot of small changes in the past three years,” said Mathieu Ouellette, a third-year student at the École de téchnologie supérieure located in Griffintown’s outskirts. While Ouellette expects to finish school before any major changes take place, he commented, “In five years, I think the neighbourhood will look very different.”

Friedman agreed that the neighbourhood’s proximity to downtown makes the land so precious that the City should not have trouble finding more sensible developers.

“It’s better to wait a little bit and get a good project than to get an eyesore that will last for decades.”

with files from Braden Goyette