News | Locals and City clash on the Main

Activists feel a plan to revamp the corner of Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent does not respect history

Montreal’s controversial plan to redevelop the strip of St. Laurent between Ste. Catherine and René Lévesque was fast-tracked through the City’s Executive Committee – Montreal’s highest authority on zoning and planning – last week. The contract to revitalize the area, commonly known as the Lower Main, was granted to Angus Development Corp in 2006, and has faced stiff opposition from local business owners and residents.

Founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Phyllis Lambert, said that the plan seems to lack a coherent long-term vision.

“[You] can’t build a city by plopping in projects that don’t fit with the area or what people want…. The question is whether [the project] can be accommodated in the area or not,” she said.

“We shouldn’t be going back to a sort of dark ages, where rich people can come along, plop down buildings, and decide everything.”

After holding public consultations throughout the spring, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) submitted a report in August recommending a number of specific changes to Angus’s plan, and suggested that the firm proceed cautiously while maintaining close contact with the community throughout the process.

On September 18, a letter was released expressing concerns that the OCPM report had been swept aside by the Executive Council. This letter was signed by Lambert, as well as Héritage Montréal, Culture Montréal, and Club Soda.

Locals have also long expressed reservations about the project, and this summer a petition opposing the plan, which had garnered 1,000 signatories, was submitted to the OCPM.

Louis Rastelli, a local writer and artist, emphasized the importance of preserving the cultural milieu of the Lower Main.

“I find the city is being overly dismissive of the corner and some historic businesses like Montreal Poolroom, Main Importations, and Café Cléopatra that figure prominently in countless novels, stories, films and art from the city. I’m a native Montrealer and to me that corner is the ‘real’ downtown,” Rastelli said.

The redevelopment will involve the construction of a 12-storey office building and the establishment of a number of eco-friendly and fair trade boutiques.

Alanah Heffez, who has researched and written on the issue for urban geography blog Spacing Montreal, felt the City’s decision set the wrong precedent.

“This is a big issue. They did a consultation, then ignored it. It tells developers that public consultations aren’t binding.”

The original plan included the demolition of eight buildings, and the use of eco-friendly materials in the construction of their replacements, so it would meet gold-level certification with the Leadership in Energy and Environment program of the Canada Green Building Council. While the new plan will likely prove less exhaustive in its scope, many of the details remain unclear.

Rastelli was especially skeptical that the installation of a high-rise building would benefit the community.

“If you look at the most successful streets for nightlife downtown, Crescent and St. Denis near Ste. Catherine come to mind. There are no skyscrapers, loading and truck docks, or multi-level underground parking lots involved,” he said. “These streets have attracted an endless stream of interesting and popular bars, restaurants, and terraces over the years precisely because they have a human scale and have preserved and renovated their heritage buildings.”

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