This is a lesson for me. I usually put my articles through a final fact check and I usually report an event just after it happened. Didn’t do it for this blog post and I misunderstood some of what was said. An asterisk appears at the end of the corrected text. Corrections and clarifications come thanks to Paul Scriver, president of the Empress Cultural Centre, who posted a comment below.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while. On Nov. 8 the board of the Empress Cultural Centre Corporation held an info session about the project. This board is the latest regrouping of citizens trying to revive the old Cinema V/Empress Theatre building in NDG. The first citizen’s group to receive a mandate from the city to transform the building into a cultural centre started in 1999.
Many NDG folks especially remember the Cinema V as a movie theatre that closed in the late 1980s. In 1992 the abandoned building suffered a fire. Later its roof leaked, causing structural damage inside. Right now most of the building is not usable but one section was renovated and opened for office space and meetings.
The building’s facasde has an Egyptian motif and the revitalization project has suffered so many problems it’s as though it’s under a mummy’s curse. No matter how close people get to moving the project forward, it just never seems to happen.
On Aug. 15 this latest group trying to resurrect the building lost its mandate from the city when the CDN-NDG borough council voted to open redevelopment of the building up to tenders.
But even though it lost the mandate, the Empress Cultural Centre plans to bid for the project anyway. Right now there are only two contenders – the Empress Cultural Centre group and the media-shy Cinema NDG. “We don’t have clear guidelines and in fact the city can’t release the guidelines until it takes possession of the building.,” said Empress Cultural Centre board president Paul Scriver, adding that his group is open to working with Cinema NDG on finally reviving the old theatre.
Not surprisingly, after spending over a year trying to get the project off the ground the Empress board is frustrated. But they’re not as angry about the situation as you might expect. Instead, they appear to be embracing the challenge and are not out of the game yet.
Revealed at the meeting:
- The Empress Cultural Centre board has decided to hand the building back to the city.* Clarification: Nov. 20, 2011. “The main point about this is that we are doing it because we see that allowing the process to go forward meets our mandate and that to us, and the community, it does not matter that we develop the building or another party, what matters is that the building is redeveloped so that it can be used by the community,”says Paul Scriver (see comment below). It won’t be taking legal action against the city, even though it says it has an ownership agreement and a legal case. “We’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing in terms of the advantage of the community is to allow the city take the building back,” said Scriver. “This will give us the opportunity to just focus on developing the project, which is the main work we’re doing right now and will take some of the pressures that we have to try to raise funds to fix the building…off of our backs. But we really do think it’s in the interest of the community at large to let the process go forward.” Scriver said he personally feels “if it’s an advantage to Michael Applebaum in the next election so be it, as long as the building just gets done. The Empress board position is “we can’t be fighting the city on one side and working with them on the the other,” explained Scriver.
- No condos on the horizon. According to Peter McQueen, city councillor for Montreal’s NDG district, CDN-NDG borough mayor Michael Applebaum is now demonstrating political will to realize a cultural centre. “I was at the council and at that Aug. 15 meeting Mayor Applebaum was more explicit than ever that he would do it. You heard ‘would’ and ‘will’ do it. He was clear,” said McQueen. “He said several times it will be a cultural project with public money and it will be done.” This is big news considering Applebaum is on record as saying not a drop of public money would be used for the project. “Our understanding from when we came in was there would be zero public money from the borough, there would be no public money from the province and there would be no public money probably from the federal government,” said Scriver.
It will cost more to demolish the building than it would to rebuild it.Scriver said according to Pierre Lemieux of Trizard “the cost of demolishing it would be too expensive and that it made more financial sense to look at ways of redeveloping the site without demolishing the existing structure.”
- The city is earmarking $228,000 in remaining monies for the building’s repair and maintenance *
- The group plans to be out of the space by the first week of December. Instead of leaving artifacts in the building, they have an offer from Meldrum the Mover to keep artifacts such as the Cinema V signs in storage. “We’re not guaranteed they will be preserved. So we’re letting the city know in writing that we’re taking those things.”
- The Chamber Music Festival of Montreal* has its office in the only section of the building that currently is renovated and usable.The board told festival organizers they would not be able to accommodate them once the Empress Cultural Centre vacated the building. Update Nov. 20, 2011: the Chamber of Music Festival of Montreal has found new office space.
- It’s unclear whether the city will ever repay the Empress Cultural Centre Corp., a charitable organization, the $13,000 it spent on repairing the building’s chimney*. Clarification Nov. 20, 2011: Scriver says that “since the city has announced it will be spending the $228,000 earmarked for the Empress to maintain and repair the building once we leave (this is money that we had asked for and were told we would not receive it), we thought it would be fair of the administration to repay the $13,000 we paid to them.”
- Community outreach so far has included surveys of neighbouring residents and the wider community, who, for the most part, appear to support turning the Empress building into a cultural centre.
- The project proposal the Empress Cultural Centre board put together in a little over a year includes a private/public partnership to redevelop the building. “Our feeling on that is we have a good team, we have a good idea and we wanted to move forward,” said Scriver. The board considers the borough’s Aug. 15 decision a setback for developing the building, Scriver said. “We have one of the most effective developers in the city ready to go and we’re ready to do the necessary work to begin and this is going to set us back again.”
- The board made a deal with developers Phil O’Brien and his son Anthony O’Brien to fix up the rest of the building and rent out space to culture and community-minded tenants.
- “We would have kind of a commercial condo, ” said Scriver, not in terms of living space but in terms of ownership in the actual building. A new legal framework would involve business owners buying a partially developed or fully developed space from the developer and then being able in perpetuity to
take that space and use it and profit from it as long as they could, Scriver sad. “The conditions for selling the building would be only to a like-minded entity which supports culture in this building,” he said. “It would have to be something that really did the community a service and which provided real value to the rest of the businesses here.”
- One idea tossed around was to a Robin des bois or
AuO Noir-type community non profit restaurant at the base of the building, something non-profit with a social function that focuses on local food and could work with non-profit food security organizations, said board member Jason Hughes.
- Once the building is redeveloped, someone else would take over running it since the board has no plans to be in the property management business, Scriver said.
A new cultural sector for NDG?
- The city of Montreal is designating different areas in neighbourhoods as quartiers culturels. Hughes says a city commission considers NDG Park a quartier culturel and is suggesting building a performance stage in the park and kiosks serving food and refreshments! Someone else at the meeting wondered if the park chalet would be converted so that refreshments would be served out of the chalet.* The area around the park – located directly across the street from the Empress building – has cafes and restaurants aplenty.
- Hughes is trying to get the Empress, along with nearby cafes designated as part of NDG’s designated quartier culturel.