Well here we go again. The Société de développement Angus (SDA) just announced a $160 million, 12 floor development project for the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine, the heart of Montreal’s historic Red Light District and current Quartier de Spéctacles.
They’re calling it Carré Saint-Laurent. There’s supposed to be a market similar to Marché Atwater at street level, cultural organizations on the first floor and the rest of the floors split between residential and commercial space, the latter leased by the Quebec government for 25 years as office space for employees currently working in the Centre de commerce mondial.
If this sound familiar, it’s because just a few years ago, Angus tried to expropriate and demolish almost the whole block and build the Quadrilatère St-Laurent, a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec with a few boutiques and restaurants at street level. They failed.
Café Cléopâtre, a business located in a historic building with a strip club downstairs and an independent burlesque, drag, theatre and fetish performance space upstairs, refused to leave. Artists, heritage experts and people defending the rights of sex workers fought the PR battle while Cleo’s owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court and won.
While the similarities are obvious, there are a few key differences. First, look at the promoters.
Angus and its head Christian Yaccarini were front and centre last time around, joined by then-mayor Gerald Tremblay and his Union Montreal administration, who had given Angus a no-bid contract to complete the project. While Hydro Quebec had agreed to rent out the space, the Charest government largely stayed out of the debate.
This time out, Angus and Yaccarini are again prominent but Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is by his side and was part of the announcement. The city hasn’t said much, aside from new mayor Denis Coderre appearing in the photo op.
As for the opponents, last time everyone, be they history buffs, anti-gentrification activists or ordinary people who felt that the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine needed buildings that were at a more human scale, gravitated to the cause to save Cleo, making Zoumboulakis and the artists he housed their champions. This time, it’s not so simple.
Café Cléopâtre is not in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs, at least not yet. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Yaccarini’s plan is to drastically change the neighbourhood around Cleo so it will stand out like a sore thumb and want to move, that hasn’t happened yet and is not part of the official plan.
That means arguments that Quebec and the SDA want to evict a bunch of artists from an entertainment district can’t be made. Also, Zoumboulakis can’t wage any legal battles over who his neighbours will be.
If the fight to save Cleo the first time out was turned into a movie, it would be emotional and riveting. This would be the sequel where Brad Pitt (I guess Zoumboulakis) has to take a supporting role.
While many of the same artists seem to be on board for the fight (if the Save the Main Facebook page is any indication), it’s not going to be about them or the Cleo. The fight against this development has to focus on heritage and what role that will play in the future of the lower Main. Instead of focusing on what Yaccarini and Marois are proposing, it should focus on what they’re not proposing.
A market with small, independent vendors is a good idea and one that should occupy some of the space. But what about other nightlife to compliment Cleo? Maybe a live music venue or two? Another bar?
This area needs small businesses that are independently owned. Kind of like those that were there before the SDA decided to expropriate everyone.
I’m all for residential space, but not condos as they are proposing for the St-Catherine side. This isn’t an area for condos, it’s an area for nightlife and could be a great place for those who thrive in that nightlife (such as independent artists who may not be able to afford condos) to live.
Above all, this is not an area for government offices or tall buildings. There are other parts of town where such things fit, the lower Main isn’t one of them.
The lower Main was, is and should always be about Montreal. It’s not about the Quebec state or upscale establishments, just look at how the 2-22, Yaccarini’s other project across the street, is failing.
The lower Main needs to be redeveloped based on what the area is and has always been. That was happening on its own organically a few years ago, but then the SDA and the city put a stop to it.
I think the best way to proceed is for someone to expropriate all the properties that the SDA seized a few years ago from the SDA and sell them at affordable rates to a bunch of independent business people who get the street-level, independent nightlife vibe and who can actually get things moving the right way. Clearly Christian Yaccarini and Pauline Marois don’t know what this area needs.