By BERTRAND MAROTTE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 9, 2018
MONTREAL -- More than 20 years ago, a team led by social activist Christian Yaccarini reclaimed contaminated land from the abandoned Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive works in eastern Montreal as part of an innovative real estate project to create jobs in the economically hard-hit working-class neighbourhood of Rosemont-La PetitePatrie.
The idea was to repurpose many of the hulking industrial buildings on the site - known as the Angus Shops - and create airy, affordable work and office spaces that would be attractive to newtechnology companies, professionals, service providers and other small and medium-sized businesses. Today, the Technopôle Angus, as it's known, is home to about 60 firms employing 2,600 people. The area also hosts a sprawling Provigo supermarket, a provincial liquor store, a medical clinic, a gym, restaurants, cafés and other retail and social venues.
By any measure, the awardwinning business park - LEEDcertified and built on sustainabledevelopment and heritage preservation principles - is a successful model for how to do smart brownfield redevelopment. So Mr. Yaccarini's plans for a Phase 2 extension of the Technopôle on an adjoining vacant lot should be a slam dunk, right?
Not so fast.
The president and chief executive officer of Société de développement Angus - the non-profit responsible for the Technopôle - has run into flak from irate nearby residents who decry what they say is an invasive and inappropriate project that will destroy their sedate, suburban way of life.
The heated controversy is a form of living laboratory of the kinds of public backlashes that sometimes occur when urban planning projects appear to clash with, or even threaten, their neighbouring built environments. The proposed new development, an urban eco-village concept, would include not only office and retail space but social and affordable housing, public plazas, a pedestrian avenue and cutting-edge environmental and energy systems.
The fears voiced by homeowners in the existing townhouses and condos located across from the public park or just up the street from the new project run the gamut from falling property values; a dearth of street parking and dangerous rise in vehicular traffic because of the population influx; excessive noise levels; overcrowding and overuse of the modestly sized park; social tensions; and building heights that will block views of Mount Royal to the west.
"What they're proposing is too big, too high, too dense [in terms of the number of residences]," resident Katarina Kovacevich said in a written submission last year during a series of public hearings and discussion groups about the project, known as L'Îlot central. "We are, after all, a quiet neighbourhood. That has always been a part of the successful brand here where we live."
Indeed, residents and observers describe the small residential subdivision that sprang up next door to the Angus Shops beginning in the late 1990s as "a suburb in the city." Many paid higherthan-average prices for their cookie-cutter homes and in return got lower densities, plentiful parking and tranquil streets, resident Stéphanie Rousseau said at public hearings last year.
"They continue to build up the sector. With all the people, the park will be overrun on Sundays," resident Antoine Tawil said in an interview.
"We're under the impression we're being invaded," said Michel Langlais-Parent, another resident.
Adding to their frustration is the encroachment residents say they have experienced over the past few years with the build-up of condo towers and other residential projects in the surrounding area, resulting in greaterthan-anticipated densities. The large vacant lot on which a major part of the Îlot will be built is - besides the adjacent park - just about the only extensive patch of open land remaining in the neighbourhood.
In its final report following public consultations on the project, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal noted: "One question that stood out for the committee throughout its work: how can such an innovative project, considered to be exemplary by many, be the target of so many complaints by the immediate vicinity?" Mr. Yaccarini, the social activist, says compromises and adjustments have been made over the course of the project's evolution.
The initial proposal called for eight storeys but that was reduced to six, a major concession given how critical it is to contain costs by leveraging as much density as possible, he said.
Of the 320 residential units currently on the drawing board, 65 per cent will be made up of affordable housing, 20 per cent are slated for social housing and 15 per cent are expected to be in a slightly higher price range, Mr. Yaccarini said. The original intent was for 80 per cent affordable housing and no higher-end condos, he added.
A key aim of the Îlot is to make affordable housing available to young families and help reverse the flight to the suburbs resulting from sky-high property values in the city, said Mr. Yaccarini, who refers to the involuntary exodus as "mortgage exile."
Îlot central's density will permit significant savings to the city in terms of municipal services, infrastructure and transportation, and the residential element ensures that the place doesn't just shut down after 5 p.m, he said.
He feels the reaction from local residents is a tad over the top.
"It's not a rational debate. It became an emotional debate.
"When I said, 'Yes, but it's this kind of approach that allows us to have affordable residential units,' they replied, 'but that's not what we want. We want $800,000 houses because that's what will make our property values rise.' We were on two completely different wavelengths."
The borough council of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, where the Angus Shops and surrounding area are located, recently approved the project, with the proviso that Société de développement Angus (SDA) follow through on its promise to negotiate with government authorities for the creation of an elementary school on the site.
"We intend to keep that banner commitment," Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie Mayor François Croteau said about the school element at a recent public council meeting.
The Office de consultation also approved the project but recommended that SDA do a better job of reaching out to and consulting with citizens as it moves forward.
"The Îlot central development is exemplary from an urbanistic point of view," said Rémi Nadeau, a professor of urban planning at Collège de Rosemont.
Citing local residents' opposition in this particular instance, Prof. Nadeau said in an e-mail that a property developer these days can "no longer ignore the 'social acceptability' aspect of their projects and in this case, he will have to make every effort to facilitate, even rethink, traffic in the sector," such as streets, pedestrian links and public transit availability.
The Îlot promoters should also emphasize alternative modes of transportation to residents, including car-sharing, bicycle commuting, walking and buses, he said. It's important that the developer carefully think through how the increased traffic resulting from the inflow of new residents and workers will be managed so as to avoid unpleasant unintended consequences, Prof. Nadeau said.
The project came about as the result of two central concepts: sustainable development and the creation of a harmonious, liveable space, Mr. Yaccarini said.
"To the people who said, 'We moved to Angus because it represented the suburb in the city,' we replied by saying, 'Sorry, you made a mistake.' "We're right in the heart of the city. We're in an urban environment. What we want is to have an urban environment that is pleasant, convivial."
Some residents insist they aren't against the Îlot per se, they simply don't think it's in the right place and is better suited to a location downtown.
The developer wants to build on elements that have made the former CP Rail works a successful model for how to do smart brownfield redevelopment.
SOCIÉTÉ DE DÉVELOPPEMENT ANGUS
The locals have been up in arms over plans for an urban ecovillage that include social and affordable housing. 'What they're proposing is too big, too high, too dense,' one resident said.
SOCIÉTÉ DE DÉVELOPPEMENT ANGUS