Grassroots Movement Facing Big “Urban Developments”
In 2007, the Quebec provincial government, in collaboration with the City of Montreal, chose to shut down and empty out some well-known city hospitals, such as the Hotel Dieu, Children’s Hospital, Royal Victoria, and Notre Dame. Their project was to replace these with two super hospitals; one in the west end of Montreal under the aegis of the faculty of medicine of McGill University, and the other one on the east end under the aegis of the faculty of medicine of the Universite de Montreal. These super hospitals were modelled on similar projects in France and, notwithstanding Montreal’s media critical evaluation and a questioning public opinion, went forward nevertheless in 2015.
Upon the emptying of the hospitals, the future of each was held in limbo. The Children’s fell prey to speculation and, ultimately, a condominium development. Others, like the Royal-Victoria and Hotel-Dieu hospitals, lay vacant while municipal and provincial governments deliberate over their fate. To make matters more complicated, the Hotel Dieu hospital has been separated into two components. Founded in the early 19th century, the 800,000 square meters of land consists of a number of medical pavilions, now largely emptied out. This after having a provincial government investment of some $50 million for new medical equipment, a short period before closing, which was later largely dumped. One pavilion has been reopened to deal with the Covid-19 plague. The entire medical site is scheduled to be completely shut down by 2021. This component is under the Quebec ministry of health.
The second component was until two years ago, the property of a religious order of nuns. It consisted of a small museum, a church, a number of grand buildings beautifully maintained, and a private garden used only by the nuns which is a model of biodiversity. Most of this property was bought by the City of Montreal (VdeM) for $16 million. It is now public property including the wonderful garden, except for a pavilion in which a number of older nuns still live in, and a few ‘sacred’ components which are burial sites, including one for the founder of the hospital, Jeanne Mance. There have been a few truncated ‘public consultations’ as to what to do with some of the buildings, and a few ‘open houses’ but to date, all is veiled in secrecy by the VdeM. Even the local city councilor shrugs his shoulders when asked ‘what’s going on?’ or ‘Can’t you find out as the surrounding community wants to know’.
Meanwhile, the former hospital part of the site stands naked. A few years ago, a civil society coalition of some 25 organisations was brought together under the banner of the Communaute St.-Urbain. We worked out a substantial and detailed architectural plan for the site with an emphasis on social housing (especially non-profit cooperative housing), an urban agricultural plot, and spaces for cultural groups. Even though intense lobbying was engaged with both the provincial and municipal governments, to date there has been no movement to deal with the question of the future use of the site. The ruling provincial party, the CAQ, had a firm electoral promise to work with the CSU to realize its vision of the site, private engagements have been made by the current Mayor of Montreal, Valerie Plante, in the same vein, the borough Mayor Luc Rabouin of the Plateau made public commitments to help realize a social housing project for the city. To date, nothing. We know from inside the ministry of health that for the last year or so there have been discussions between the provincial government and the VdeM to sell the property to Montreal, Again, a firm wall of secrecy with no attempt at any form of transparency.
The Hotel Dieu sits on av des Pins, corner St. Urbain. The Royal Victoria Hospital site sits on av des Pins also, corner University, with a million square meters of land. Part of this site has been assigned to McGill university for a campus expansion, and the provincial government handed over $37 million for a feasibility study. The larger remaining portion of the site is under the SQI, a provincial government agency responsible for provincially controlled land and buildings. The SQI has the mandate to prepare a ‘development plan’ for the site, to be presented to the provincial government in the Fall of 2020. Once that process unfolds, the plan will be submitted for public consultation by the Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal (OCPM). Pending public approval of the zoning changes, the site will be renovated and changed for various uses unfolding over a number of years.
The SQI bureaucrats begrudgingly met with representatives of the Milton-Parc community early on, during which some of their procedural intentions were revealed. This was followed on22 November 2019, with a ‘public forum’ with some 80 persons present who were professionals of various sorts, most unrepresentative of Montreal civil society. Since then there have been a number of SQI online public meetings organized by the Milton-Parc Citizens Committee, the Peter McGill borough association of community organisations, and with the real estate industry. Monitoring the latter event, all sorts of intentions are on the table for the huge site, with their aim to render the area with an international status. Hence hotels, restaurants and other glamorous ideas were proposed by the realtors. All of these are online.
Coming out of the November 22 ‘public forum’ one thing was clear. The stakes were high, and our work was cut out for us. We therefore immediately started to lay the groundwork for a broad coalition which would include the students from McGill (to date excluded from the McGill campus expansion project), the Milton-Parc community land trust and its citizens’ committee, the Peter McGill community council and other affected populations. The first step was to draft and have accepted an open policy paper that clearly stated a set of democratic and ecological values based on the premise that all the land must remain public land – no privatization. Within a few weeks, even in the midst of a pandemic, over 25 broadly based citizens’ organisations have signed on to an open letter enshrining these values. It bears remembering that both the Hotel Dieu site and the RHV site rest at the base of our glorious Parc Mont-Royal.
This coalition now embraces not only the citizen activists around the RVH site, but also the CSU of Hotel Dieu, and further east the Institut des Sourdes (another provincial government set of buildings on av des Pins and St. Denis). The latter site has a standing committee of its own which braces citizen housing groups and Plateau borough council reps. It was the preferred site of the previous borough mayor and is therefore further ahead. It recently received a $20 million provincial grant with which to develop its feasibility study, as did another site in the southeast of the city. The Coalition of Three now faces the challenge of how together it can open the doors and windows of the power structure to have citizens and their associations to actively be part of a democratic decision-making process that promotes a vision and plans in favour of the common good. This goal, in a city that faces a very serious housing crisis for people who need social housing to live in and secure their daily lives.
The grassroots determination is firm. The further build-up will include a second major citizens assembly, “A Nous le Plateau” to be held soon. Last year’s citizen assembly brought together over 250 Plateau citizens reflecting an amazing diversity or ordinary people. The storm clouds are already on the horizon, as we face municipal elections in about 14 months. The urban left has its place in this important drama the outcome of which will determine the shape and purpose of the center of Montreal.