UdeM crosses the tracks

Erin Hudson on the university’s expansion into Park Ex

On the afternoon of October 2 in Parc Athéna, the Comité d’Action de Parc Extension (CAPE) served 660 ears of corn to hundreds of Parc Ex residents, and informed neighbours about an upcoming development project that will alter the face of their community.

Years in the making and set to break ground next year, the expansion of the Université de Montréal campus into the Outremont rail yards will feature enough new buildings to hold 2,000 students and professors as well as 1,300 new housing units – some of them private – to be built over the next ten years.

UdeM’s new campus is being publicly funded to the tune of $120 million, to be split between the city and provincial governments, and will occupy the abandoned rail yard that separates Parc-Extension from Outremont to the south.

The development is projected to draw 11,000 new students into the area according to CAPE community organizer André Trepanier. Critics say the new students could drive rents up, and current residents out.

The densely-packed neighbourhood is home to over 35,000 residents, and is the centre of Montreal’s Greek and South Asian communities.

Neighbourhood organizers like Trepanier are hoping to use the visibility of the new development to get more attention for other issues facing the neighbourhood, like affordable social housing.

“Less than five per cent of apartment here that are social housing,” Trepanier continued. “So that means that more than 95 per cent of the apartments here are private apartments.”

“On the one hand we need [more kinds of social housing] and on the other hand we need an action plan to solve the problem of the sanitation of the apartments,” he said.

“We’re not against the campus. We won’t stop the new campus, but we want to stop the gentrification which can occur from [it].”

Raphaël Fischler, a professor in the McGill School of Urban Planning, explained, “There are really two consitutencies here. The first is Outremont, and the second is Parc Ex. The people in Outremont have accepted this campus development,” Fischler said. “Gentrification is not an issue for Outremont. Not really. But it is for Parc Ex.”

Fischler notes that the process of gentrification in Parc Ex, though not very strong yet, has already begun.

“Look at all these older neighbourhoods that are not far from downtown, that have good access to the metro and…a public market and things like that – they are gentrifying,” he said. “They have an influx of students and professionals. They have growth of condominium buildings and so on. It’s much less in Parc Ex than in other places but it’s starting.”

Fischler argued, however, that gentrification might have some positive effects. “There can be aesthetic, functional, and economic improvements in the neighbourhood,” he said.

“It depends sometimes [on] the good will and the enlightenment of the developers in the hospital or in the university,” he added. “The outcomes are far from clear but you can try and push in the right direction.”

UdeM, for its part, sees itself as a saviour for the neighbourhood. “The campus itself is a starting point for redeveloping this no man’s land,” said Sophie Langlois, director of media relations at UdeM. “[It] is an opportunity for the City to revitalize the entire area.”

Trepanier sees the university’s role differently. “[The new campus] would be a signal for investors to build condos or for landlords to kick out their tenants and to do some renovation and [charge] higher rent to newcomers richer than the people of Parc Ex,” he said.

“What is affordable for one is not necessarily affordable for another,” Fischler pointed out. “Affordable units in a condominium building are still totally out of reach for the tenants who are there [currently],” he said.

Langlois dismissed these concerns, saying they were not in UdeM’s purview. “These issues are really the City’s responsibility in their planning around the campus,” she argued, pointing out that the city mandates 15 per cent of new residential development be devoted to “affordable” housing, and a further 15 per cent to “social” housing.

According to the last census taken by the City of Montreal, 2,000 families were spending over fifty per cent of their income on rent and 1,000 families were waiting for social housing in the neighbourhood.

For all his ambivalence about the project, Trepanier said that he hoped the “pressure” of the new campus would spur investment in the neighbourhood and provide employment for Parc Ex residents.

Langlois explained UdeM’s priorities in this regard: “The university itself has unions, so we have to see about that when we hire people to follow the rules.”

Langlois maintains that while UdeM is the space’s new landlord, residents will still have to address their concerns to the City.

“It’s the City of Montreal that will develop roads and infrastructures, sewers…lighting and all of that. And the residential part of it will be the responsibility of the City,” she said.

The latest design for UdeM’s development is excellent, Fischler said, and received an award in 2005 from L’institut canadien des urbanistes.

“It was done by thoughtful people who do their best obviously to meet various interests and requirements that always come into a complex urban design,” he said.

Fischler explained that there is a trend among communities facing similar pressures toward creating “community benefits agreements” between the potential developer and the community.

McGill’s purchase of Solin Hall in St. Henri saw the creation of this kind of agreement.

“There was…very strong protest on the part of the local population. What McGill did was actually sign a ‘community benefits agreement’ with the local community,” Fischler said.

“Our students [from the McGill School of Urban Planning]…were involved in doing the right thing in St. Henri,” he said.

In urban planning, the expansions of university campuses into surrounding poorer areas has traditionally followed one of two paths, according to Fischler.

“In some cases [there are] very interesting community benefits agreements and joint partnerships. But in other cases [the result is] the removal of poor people to make way for rich kids and their professors,” he said.

The difference, Fischler says, lies in the amount of pressure within the institution to do the “right thing.”

“I think that is where students can play a role and tell their administration… ‘We want a sustainable camp