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Martin Laplante

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Wed, 30 Apr 2008

The Delicate Balancing Act of Downtowns and the Death of Griffintown

Lots of major cities are trying to find the correct balance of uses for their downtown areas. A recent story in the Toronto Globe & Mail compares the failures of Calgary with what the author seems to believe to be successes elsewhere.RIP Griffintown

There is a lot to be said for high-rise office buildings downtown (just try to stop them and see how far you get). As I have said before, high-rise office buildings are good for public transit but in order for that formula to work, you need to have families with children and incomes - the ones most likely to create sprawl problems - living either in walking/cycling distance or on transit lines. Other types of population simply don't move the transit use needle since their automobile use is less influenced by where they live, and large concentrations of them have the unfortunate effect of driving families away, again fueling sprawl.

But the unfortunate effect of high-rise offices is the unfortunate themselves. Who wants to live there if they have a choice? There remain the people with few choices and a few adults who don't mind the noise, often for their own nefarious reasons. Concentration of poverty and misery is great for land consolidation. It is easy to buy out the unfortunate who have not yet been dispossessed, or more likely their slum landlord - who may very well be a government.

The unfortunate effect of downtown planning is a ring of poverty circling the economic engine of the city, with the occasional wealthy enclave. Planners to this day choose to demolish the homes of the poor, no matter how historic, and leave the rich areas alone. If you look at the path of destruction where urban highways and soulless bunkers were put 40-50 years ago, they detoured around rich areas and tore a path through the poor areas. The voice of those residents is simply not as loud at city council.

So what is the proper balance to put some life and vitality into downtown and its surrounding areas? Tear down the heritage buildings and build multi-storey condos? Preserve the buildings and put in trendy bars and nightspots so the streets won't be deserted at night? Although the second is better than the first, it is because it has the benefit of being reversible. It's simple, if you want to avoid having your entire urban strategy collapse upon itself, what you need right downtown is a tricky transition between the daytime commercial bustle and the quiet family-oriented neighbourhoods immediately around it in walking distance. Don't put anything there, particularly toward the edge, that you wouldn't put a block from your own house.

Condos? Apartment buildings? Condos are a form of housing that should be spread throughout the city, not concentrated near downtown. They are a great way to achieve transit-supporting density and social variety in those areas that would have difficulty otherwise. But if you consciously populate the area surrounding your downtown with mostly childless households, you are killing the social fabric of your prime sprawl and GHG reducing opportunity. Families won't want to live near there and that will bring a spiral of school closures and social disadvantage - even if the condo dwellers are rich. Griffintown devitalization

In that context, I was saddened and angered to hear that Montreal City Council voted yesterday to approve the plans of a developer for a massive project to devitalize Griffintown, to demolish large parts of the existing historic neighbourhood of Griffintown, near Montreal's downtown, and to replace it with huge blocks of condos and big stores. The city is also handing over expropriated land to the developer. This is over the objections of l'Ordre des urbanistes du Québec, the professional association of urban planners, among others. Let me be clear about my opinion of this - the plan, the process, and the very idea are completely wrong, not just for the interests of the neighbourhood or for the historic importance of the existing buildings, but for the entire city plan and for the reputation of the city as a whole. I was quite a fan of the City of Montreal until this point.

It's not just the smell of using municipal powers to hand over land to a private developer, and it's not just barreling through over the objections of reasonable, moderate groups like architects and urban planners and even the relatively mild and constructive community groups. Montreal has done even worse in the past, believe me. It's the fact that despite all that it had lost, the heart and soul of Griffintown was still there, and rather than taking that as a base to build upon, it is being destroyed and replaced with something foreign. This is particularly a tragedy because the good parts of Griffintown that could be built upon are precisely what Montreal needs - a community of families with heritage and pride, deeply rooted in Montreal and what makes it great, and willing to live in walking distance from work when they could be moving away instead to some place where life is easier and driving in. As the poster for the mock funeral of Griffintown said - families, dogs, and horses were welcome. That is the real tragedy.

It is particularly tragic because this is Montreal, a city that achieved miracles of urban planning, sometimes through sheer neglect, and that can be an example to the rest of the continent. The success of the subway and transformation of urban transportation was probably a downright accident that came from seeking status. But it was mostly sheer inattention that gave Montreal the Plateau Mont-Royal, the country's highest sustained population density area, virtually without high-rises, and a great example of integration of young and old, rich and poor, and with bustling local commercial streets that make a virtue out of the lack of transportation planning. I will give the city credit - the retrofit of Mont-Royal for parking and reinforcement of smaller businesses was a brilliant bit of minimalist planning. They mostly left well enough alone and didn't think big, or at least when they did think big they were shot down and lost their nerve.

Disclaimer: I have relatives who have been living in Plateau Mont-Royal long before it became trendy, and some in Pointe Saint-Charles, right across from Griffintown, hoping it never becomes trendy.

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