Place des Arts roundup

Since its original conception in the late 50’s, Place des Arts has served as the focal point of a whole range of redevelopment schemes — some demolition-heavy attempts to remake entire blocks at a time, others attempts to retrofit more ambitious programs to a more incremental building process and to improve their interface with the street. Now, along with the new OSM hall slouching towards whatever secret public-private Bethlehem they’re cooking up in Quebec City, plans for the Balmoral block due in February, and a new office tower due on Sainte-Catherine, there’s a flock of projects and prospects large and small that promise to consolidate the eastern flank of downtown.

Big map (slicker this time, don’t you know?) and then the rundown.

1. UQAM

The new science complex (the “Coeur des sciences”) is already finished, but it’s included in this list because of the impact its financial failure will have on nearby development. $40 million of cost overruns in this project — which includes some highly speculative office and laboratory space to be occupied by private firms — not only cost UQAM rector Roch Denis his job, but cast a pall over the ambitious and underfinanced expansion dreams that ran rampant over the university in the past several years. Now the speculative office component of the Voyageur project is being reevaluated, and UQAM’s interest in the former Jewish Museum site (#17 on the list) is presumably diminished.

The new complex, specificially the part behind the meaningless bright-yellow glass wall on Sherbrooke, also houses the TELUQ, the distance-learning arm of the Université du Québec. This opened up space in the giant flashcube at Villeneuve and Henri-Julien, which will become home to the music and drama conservatories originally destined for the Balmoral block (see #7).

2. place Eugène-Lapierre

Along with #6 and #9, this site has been put forth as a way to shoehorn new green space into a very dense corner of the city, reinforcing proposed and ongoing condominium development with aesthetic flourishes. The idea was to replace the parking lot with some kind of high-design park designed by McGill and UdeM urban design students. After a flurry of excited announcements between 2002 and 2004, the project seems to have fallen off of the map entirely.

3. 400 Sherbrooke West

Montrealers have become used to ephemeral “coming soon! under construction!” signs on this site, where developers’ desires to make extend the wall of high-rises along the south side of Sherbrooke seemingly crested and fell. Now there’s shovels in the ground for a 37-storey residential high-rise that will rise from the bottom of Hutchison.

4. Le Concorde

Sure, a lot of people say they’re going to develop a residential high-rise around Place des Arts, but as it nears completion Le Concorde is the only one that’s actually gone through.

5. de Maisonneuve/Bleury/Mayor
Rising from a 14-storey podium that aligns well with the nearby fur district buildings along de Maisonnueve, the full 28-storey tower will be a ponderable slab, much higher than its neighbors. 287 residential units (condo or apartment?) are planned, but the idea doesn’t please everybody. Various festival-related interests have been speaking out against such a concentration of complaint-happy local residents so close to the summer festivals.

6. Gardens around St. James Church

Though the plaza on Sainte-Catherine has been completed — it can seem a little stark, and would be greatly enhanced by throngs of teenagers socializing and smoking hash on the steps on warm summer evenings, à l’italien — vauger and more uncertain plans to dig up the unceremonious horseshoe-shaped parking lot that wraps around the variegated sandstone of the church, in order to give the fur district its own proper park, have gone unfulfilled.

7. Balmoral block

Ah, the Balmoral block, where different administrations can project their dreams. Confronted with a soft market for commercial office space, Bernard Landry naturally pursued multiple projects to water things down further. One of them was for an enormous blob of provincial-government office space on the north end of the Balmoral block, closer to project #6 above. The site naturally needed a cultural component, so the existing buildings — home to at least one dance school, studios and cultural businesses, the original home of the SAT, and a fair number of dotcoms, and hence needed to be removed for cultural purposes — were expropriated (except for the bank on the corner, which was a nice touch) to make way for a culturedrome housing the OSM along with the conservatories of music and drama. Jean Charest apparently has another set of development-industry interests to prop up, so he quickly cancelled the project. Neither administration saw anything wrong with leaving perfectly useful publicly-owned buildings empty and unmaintained, and rumor has it that the ensuing years have made them pretty much uninhabitable and ready for demolition.

Pictured is a rendering from the Quartier des spectacles vision plan, which is still (given the current state of the preexisting structures depicted in it) possible but unlikely. In Feburary, we’ll learn what kind of “cultural facility” will be going there next. Neither the OSM nor the conservatories will be on the site, but most involved keep dropping hints that some kind of place des festivals will be incorporated.

8. Spectrum block

A few years ago, Équipe Spectra was flying high. They were awarded the license for Montreal’s only shitty-jazz station, were part of the consortium formed to wrest film-festival funding away from Serge Losique, and announced that they were going to turn their storied performance venue into the hub of a cultural complex on the south side of Sainte-Catherine. Nearly every cultural business in the city was considered for the site, including the first version of the place des festivals on the Jeanne-Mance side, along with (at various times) a branch of the French electronics and music retailer Fnac, an Archambault (the fourth in a two-kilometre stretch!), an exCentris (or at least Famous Players) movie theater, and so on.

Faced with a whole raft of people to buy out and cajole into partnering with them, the unwieldy project never got off the ground. Now they can’t muster the cash to exercise their right of first refusal on their own hall, and the Spectrum will be demolished, along with the rest of the storefronts on Sainte-Catherine, to make way for a “15-to-17-storey” office tower including a Best Buy. With Best Buy and Future Shop within a block of each other, these two retail titans will make it easier than ever to find a buying experience that will make you want to stab dullard salespeople in the face. And a stubby, superfluous office “tower” should have no problem finding tenants in a market with a 10% vacancy rate. Cultural metropolis, here we come!

9. Jardins du Gésu

Announced as a done deal in 2004, it’s still a parking lot today. What gives?

10. Le Square Dorchester

What would appear to be 24 stories of residential units on René-Lévesque, with a six-storey component farther south on the block.

11. Notman hotel

The gas station next door does, admittedly, take away from the cute factor. The former house of photographer and businessman William Notman, at Clark and Sherbrooke, is one of the few mid-19th-century Italianate mansions to survive, and is in a charming ensemble with a wooded garden, a brick hospital building from later in the 19th century, and undistinguished garages along Milton. Given a well-preserved structure, renovated within living memory to serve as the Just for Laughs offices, and located next to other similarly renovated mansions that house consular and airline offices, any property owner willing to take good care of a unique asset would work hard to find an appropriate and appreciative tenant. Which appears to not be the case, as it’s remained vacant for ten years. Happily, a succession of outsize hotel schemes has failed to gain heritage approval from various municipal and provincial bodies.

12. SLEB

This one isn’t going away anytime soon. After years of slow work on the phase 1 building, an imposing industrial loft structure that formerly housed a warren of studios, workshops, and craftspeople’s ateliers (in short, critical infrastructure for cultural production, which is always the first thing to disappear when new development comes into a city’s key cultural zone), the developers seemed ready to push forward with the new-build phase 2 of the project and even start dropping hints about phase 3 — all before work on the first building was anywhere near finished. The only visible sign of renewed progress was the demolition of the row of older buildings to the south two years ago, after which the developer announced that the project was bankrupt and announced that most work on phase 1 had been so bad it would have to be jackhammered out. The SLEB site will now remain a charming waterlogged pit, complete with a snake’s nest of rusting rebar and crumbling rubble, until everyone (developers, banks, contractors, purchasers) involved has had their fill of litigation. Ah, the efficiency and transparency of the private sector.

13. Diverting Maisonneuve/consolidating the parks

While it’s important not to take these kinds of exercises too literally, Nomade Architecture’s “vision plan” for the Quartier des spectacles contained several good ideas that risk getting lost in the shuffle. Among them was a reconfiguration of de Maisonneuve as it runs through Fred-Barry and Albert-Duquesne parks; instead of cutting through and leaving two rarely-used half-parks, they proposed continuing de Maisonneuve in parallel with Ontario along the north side of the park and then turning it south, along Clark, on the park’s east side.

14. OSM hall

While other observers might take the regular spectacle of the province, the city and (often) some set of developers scrambling around as they fail to build a concert hall for the Montreal Symphony as a sign of civic failure, we here at Assertions take it as grand civic entertainment. The institutionalization and reenactment of European high culture is a way in which elites assert their refinement, and the grave seriousness of building a venue in which this mysterious ceremony can take place has been used to lend a dignified air to shopping malls, “revitalized downtowns” and other plans to demolish the homes of the poor in nearly every North American city over the past fifty years. Now Charest is lining up private partners to build and maintain a concert hall (lots of private companies making a killing in that large and lucrative sector, one imagines), holding yet another “essential” project to an unproven and risky method of financing while our public debt is used to flood Cree land. Somehow this is going to be shoehorned into the northwestern part of the complex, where a lonely asphalt plaza currently roofs a parking garage. Are there at least going to be cheap seats?

15. Police headquarters parking lot

This would seem to be a tempting site for some kind of new development, if only the expansion of the police headquarters next door. The union building and the Screamin’ Eagle parking lot next door are similar interesting sites. For now, they just end up penciled into speculative plans and visions, but that may well change.

16. LADMMI

Enclosed in a chain-link fence and home to a smooth field of fine gravel — a touch of zen on your way to get blurry tatoos and cheap dildos in the neighboring stores, perhaps — this city-owned site has always looked like it was groomed for a better fate. Just add $6 million, and it transforms into a dance school. Cool.

17. Saint-Laurent metro

This city-owned site was touted as the location for a museum celebrating Jewish Montreal, until Jewish Montreal lost interest in the project. Before the abrupt setbacks to their building program, UQAM was expressing interest in the site as well, and a plan to put their urban planning department in a shared facility with the Ville-Marie borough offices has been mooted. Very, ah, very cultural plan there guys. Planners and boroughcrats.

18. Redlight

The feather in the Quartier des spectacles’ cap, so far, would be the construction of this eight-storey building for community groups, cultural organizations, and a centralized ticket window (consciously modeled, in concept if not in physical form, on the famous Times square TKTS booth in New York). The rendering at left was apparently intended to depict both the proposed building, at St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine, and the darkening of the skies that will accompany the return of Cthulu. Conveniently located at the intersection of boulevard des Pimps and avenue des Hoes, because nothing says a night on the town quite like “hey Strawberry, where’s my money?”

19. Hydro-Québec parking lot

The Hydro parking lot, running from the mechanical systems of the office tower north to Dan Hanganu’s goofy Théatre du Nouveau Monde renovation (Dan man, we love you dog, but you swung for the fences and the ball went foul on this one yo), would seem to be prime territory for the kind of uninspiring office development that is apparently more attractive on the Spectrum block, which is an actually vital (if shabby) urban landscape. The site is plunged into shadow and faces other challenges as well: mechanical systems for the existing Hydro building, the bulky Complexe Desjardins podium to the west, a sketchy segment of Clark is to the east, and the theatre obstructing a real presence on Sainte-Catherine to the north. Let’s get this sucker in play and see if we have any real rugged architects in the spot.

20. SAT expansion

One cannot accuse SAT’s Monqiue Savoie of the slightest reluctance to remain in the middle of the action, or of showing any signs of curatorial reticence. After being kicked out of its original digs (see #7) the SAT relocated to the block that remains the sole remnant of a once-thriving (and, not accidentally, far livelier and less sad in its prime) red-light district. Plans to gussy up the SATplex have been drawn up, again with Nomade, but it’s hard to tell where the meat of the plan is given renderings that focus on gestural exuberance.

21. Aquilini phase 3

It’s an unlikely neighborhood in which to build a whack of condos, and an even more unlikely one in which to bulid a fuckload of condos. But a fuckload is indeed what we have recieved, with phases 1 and 2 bringing hundreds of units to the blocks east of Saint-Dominique and south of rue Charlotte.

22. Habitations Jeanne-Mance

HJM, where the contentment and pride of the hundreds of working-class families that live there come forth every several years to smack the fuck out of any architect or urban planner who tries to convince the residents of the necessity of mucking about with their well-loved homes. The only 1950’s British-style housing project ever built on this continent (the world’s most dubious distinction), it shows that ugly public housing can succeed if you don’t let it fall apart. Contrast this with Toronto’s Regent Park, where jacobsite “urban space” fuckwads are engaging in yet another bout of orgiastic self-congratulation over plans to sharply cut the number of public housing units in a “new” scheme featuring lots of market-rate apartments.

The latest idea, which was floating around a few years ago, involved minimal demolition and the straightening of rue de Boisbriand — currently that weird alley-like street with all the graffiti just north of Ste-Catherine, where you go to smoke a joint when you’re spending warm summer nights drinking Hoegaarten out on the terrasse of bar Sainte-Elizabeth — to open up more space to development and provide a more rational street frontage. Being cautious, well-thought-out, and surprisingly affordable, the idea fell flat and hasn’t been heard from since.

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