In late 2007 a major redevelopment project was announced. The plan came as a surprise to the area’s residents and property owners who felt that consultations and negotiations with the developer and the city had been done without full public disclosure. The development plan is being led by a real estate developer corporation named Devimco. Their plan calls for “the construction of towers containing 3,900 units, split between condos, senior, student and affordable housing, as well as big chunks set aside for small businesses and offices. The $1.2-billion project incorporates 10.2 hectares of land…”1 While the developers have acknowledged the historical value of some of the buildings in the community, their plan would not follow historic street grids and would instead level some existing architecture instead of incorporating it into the proposed designs.
The developers proposed this plan as a way of revitalizing the community while existing residents feel as though their voices should be heard through a more transparent public consultation process. A group of roughly one hundred residents formed the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown. They created an online petition and drafted a forty-four page memorandum that outlines the problems they have with the development project. This group does not dispute the fact that the neighbourhood needs redevelopment. Buildings and public utilities are in a state of disrepair, and the physical environment is not conducive to community development. Despite this, the neighbourhood is home to independent art galleries, a popular cultural centre, and photo studios. This nascent cultural scene does not figure in Devimco’s plan, nor do any plans to build more schools or community centres. The Committee is against Devimco’s plans to create one-million square feet of commercial space. They say this will be built over public green space, including a popular dog park. They also cite the plan’s proposed creation of thousands of new parking spots, which they believe will raise traffic levels, especially during rush hour, to levels that are unacceptable to the community. Furthermore they foresee further economic hardship for the community if Devimco’s project fails. Most recently, the $1.2 billion dollar plan has been stalled due to financial issues on the part of Devimco.2
Devimco has been receptive to some of the concerns being expressed by the community. They say they consulted residents, and people who work or own businesses in the area. They changed their initial plan to include more residential units, but did not specify whether they would be designed to be low income family housing or condominiums. They also added plans for more parks and public spaces. Additionally, they “reduced the number of large stores included in the project (they would now make up less than a quarter of retail space) and moved parking underground (there would be 5,000 paid spots).”3 They also cite the city’s proposed tramway linking Griffintown to downtown and Old Montreal to alleviate traffic issues and to increase the usage of public transportation.
Devimco, with the cooperation of the city of Montreal, is proposing a “top down” model of community development whereby they have a planned process and a well-defined goal.4 They seek to revitalize the area for the benefit of commercial interests and have not taken into account the concerns of the residents of the area who will be greatly affected by these changes. Instead of holding hearings at the city’s public consultation office and working with direct community input, the city and Devimco presented the project to the public with the goal of winning their support on the basis that the imposed project would provide them with long-term benefits. For many it came as a surprise. In the wake of this, the community unified to make their voice heard.
Despite the poverty and civic neglect that have typically been characteristic of Griffintown since the mid-twentieth century, there is still community organization and development projects taking place at a grassroots level. Founded by local resident and activist Jody Negley in 2000, the Citizens’ Committee of the Village des Tanneries began as a small group of like minded individuals who organized themselves around the goal of cleaning up the alleyways and sidewalks and providing a safe and clean environment in which their children could play. Their goal was to improve the quality of life for neighbourhood residents and they now have over sixty members and “plenty of projects, ranging from community gardens (on raised garden beds due to contamination of heavy metals in the soil) to art installations on reappropriated government land, to summer activities for kids.”5 Funding for these initiatives comes from a combination of government grants, private foundations, and gifts in kind from local merchants. The CCVT has also established a presence at city council meetings, where residents voice their concerns about proposed development plans for the neighbourhood.
In this case, the community is determining the appropriate goals and objectives for itself. The development taking place in Griffintown by the CCVT began in response to the issue of not having safe and clean streets for the children to play in. Their efforts at community building is having a positive effect on the area. Local Constable Jean-Guy Gagnon, who has worked closely with the CCVT in the past, estimates that “delinquent acts such as graffiti, vandalism and noise disturbances have decreased by 70 percent as a direct result of the group’s work.”6Combined with the efforts of the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown, who organized in response to externally imposed plan for development of the area by Devimco, represent a “bottom-up” approach to community development. These groups aim to restore quality of life, diminish inequities, reinstate democratic functioning, enhance member’s potential, and restore a sense of community among members.7 They are doing it by cleaning up the neighbourhood, demanding more open public consultations with the city and the developers, and getting local residents organized and involved.
The future of community development for Griffintown remains to be seen. There is a demonstrated local capacity for problem solving, yet there is also a very powerful economic interest that has support from the Mayor’s office. The Griffintown community has various strengths and weaknesses that will either help or hinder the residents desire for self-determination. Firstly, the Griffintown community suffers from a negative stigma. It is perceived as run-down, dangerous, and polluted. Toxic soil levels in some areas are a legacy of the industrial activity that took place there in the last century and may prevent certain types of development such as schools or residential housing.8 This factor has prevented many former residents from making a long term commitment to the community. Secondly, there are a lack of services in the area. There are few locally owned businesses, and access to public transportation is limited. This factor has caused people to move away which causes “an overall deterioration in the quality of life for those who remain behind.”9 These factors combined have historically created conditions that led to high mobility and transience. This was a contributing reason for the closure of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in 1970, which had been a focal point for the community. Once people began moving away, the quality of life for the remaining residents suffered and the neighbourhood was neglected.
Devimco’s development plans failed to satisfy the community’s desire for full public consultation, and as a result, major decisions that affect the community have been taking place elsewhere. In November of 2007, many residents felt as they were merely being informed of decisions that had already been made instead of being engaged in open and constructive dialogue. The community is not necessarily opposed to development. They would like to see a certain degree of revitalization in the area. Had all parties been involved in the planning, then it is likely that more people would be committed to ensuring the success of the project. If Devimco and the city continue to impose their plans on the community without consultation, local residents may become demoralized and apathetic.
Despite this, Griffintown has several key strengths that may enhance its ability to reach a plan for long term community development that is equitable and beneficial to all parties involved. As seen, there are active voluntary organizations in the area. There are also connections to extensive networks of Irish community leagues. The fact that the Citizens’ Committee of the Village des Tanneries and the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown exist and are working towards a well defined goal suggests that this community has not “surrendered all of their functions to distant bureaucracies.”10
The history of Griffintown is well documented, if not well known. One of the most important tasks for this community will be to establish a greater sense collective pride for the community, both internally and externally. If more people were aware of the important role that Griffintown and its residents played in the history of Montreal, largely through the construction of the Victoria Bridge and the Lachine Canal, then it is possible that more people would take an active interest in preserving the cultural legacy of the area and encouraging development that meets residents needs. Griffintown is also a historically important community because it was the place where many first generations of new Canadians established themselves.
The arrival of a common “enemy” in Devimco has galvanized this community and encouraged collaboration amongst neighbourhood residents to a degree that did not exist before. People are reaching out and forming organizations to engage the developers and the city and this has contributed to a greater sense of community spirit. Residents are calling for a more balanced land-use plan. They don’t want to see the area turned into a major shopping complex that covers existing green spaces with parking spaces. Sustainable development is a major priority for the the community and this is forcing the developers to reevaluate their initial proposed plans.
Lastly, Griffintown is relatively isolated from other surrounding boroughs because of the Bonaventure Expressway. There is little access to buses and metro stations in the area and this prevents the ease of transportation to and from the community. If the city goes through with their proposed tramway, Griffintown would be linked to the central business district of downtown and the major cultural and tourist destination of Old Montreal. This would provide a strong incentive for more businesses and residents to move to the area.
With Devimco stalling the develpment project, there remains time for the community to continue to coordinate their efforts and work towards balanced development. The media has been devoting a considerable amount of attention to this issue and will continue to play a role in encouraging public discourse. This neighbourhood has the potential to be revitalized in a way that will benefit the economy and not at the expense of Griffintown residents. What ultimately happens remains to be seen but will undoubtedly serve as a model for community development for future generations.
1Patrick Letjenyi, “The siege of Griffintown,” Montreal Mirror, March 20, 2008, 39.
2Patrick Letjenyi, “The siege of Griffintown,” Montreal Mirror, March 20, 2008, 39.
3“Huge Griffintown plan unveiled,” The Montreal Gazette, November 27, 2007, A1.
4Jason D.Brown& David Hannis, Community development in Canada (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2008), 11.
5 Dominique Jarry-Shore, “A beautiful day in the neighbourhood: Citizens’ Committee cleans up in Montreal,” This Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2008: 6.
7Jason D.Brown& David Hannis, Community development in Canada (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2008), 10.
8“Kristian Gravenor, “Last Irishman Standing,” Montreal Mirror, March 11, 2004, 27.
9Jason D.Brown& David Hannis, Community development in Canada (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2008), 12.
10Jason D.Brown& David Hannis, Community development in Canada (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2008), 13.