I know some borough politicos see the Empress building as a white elephant. But I was unprepared for the cynicism and hostility I witnessed at last night’s Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough council meeting.
Last August the borough announced it was reclaiming management of the old Empress/Cinema V building from the Empress Cultural Centre Corporation board and announced that a “contest” of sorts would be held to determine who should redevelop the building, which, with the exception of one small section (and the part that used to house Head & Hands), has sat empty for many years even though a succession of community group volunteers has tried since 1999 to resurrect the building.
Two borough councillors – Côte-des-Neiges city councillor Helen Fotopulos and Darlington district’s Lionel Perez were absent yesterday. Mayor Michael Applebaum, Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand, Loyola City councillor Susan Clarke and NDG district’s Peter McQueen, the only non-Union Montréal city councillor (he represents Projet Montréal and the Empress building is in his district) were on hand when borough director Stéphane Plante explained the criteria for the borough’s “public call for proposals” process.
- On January 19 ads for the borough’s call for proposals (tenders) will appear in La Presse, Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette. (Details may also be found on the borough’s Web site )
- Non-profit groups will have until May 11 to prepare their bids.
- For $50 non-profit groups can buy a booklet explaining the process.
- A seven-member jury will evaluate the projects and make recommendations to the borough. Borough councillors will choose one project – that is if they are convinced there’s a project out there that will be financially viabile (i.e. no money from the city, ever) in the long term.
- The borough’s sports, recreation and culture director chose the jury members who include three representatives from the borough, one from City Centre and three citizens (two of whom live in NDG).
- Evaluation criteria include: the project’s environment sustainability features, viability in terms of financing, viability in terms of cultural use of the building and understanding of the milieu.
- Proposals are welcome from non-profit groups of any size from anywhere in the city and they are welcome to partner with developers/ the private sector.
- A very detailed market research study is required.
- There appear to be strict rules regarding communication with borough officials or with jury members.
- Those proposing projects will be encouraged to visit the building to see its condition for themselves.
Just before the vote took place on a motion to approve the criteria, Peter McQueen voiced concerns about the wording and said he couldn’t vote for it.
In response Mayor Applebaum said he would withdraw the motion entirely and leave it up to McQueen to find a group with a viable project (I thought he said by June 2012 but maybe he said June 2013. Within a limited time frame in any case). “If you can’t find one then the building is going up for sale,” Applebaum said.
McQueen was also subjected to verbal attacks by Marvin Rotrand, including a suggestion that McQueen “not lobby for one group or proposed plan from his district.”
Both Applebaum and Rotrand made it clear they’ve never been big fans of revitalizing the building but nonetheless they didn’t kill the project. “We did not believe in this project and when we were elected, we didn’t end it,” said Applebaum. “The borough hasn’t pulled the plug,” said Rotrand. “There was a great hope that somebody would prove the city wrong. I hope somebody will prove me wrong,” said Rotrand, adding that he doubts this will happen.
In the end McQueen voted for the motion but he wasn’t able to get any changes to the supposedly “boilerplate” wording of the bid criteria.
I have mixed feelings I think if any group can convince Applebaum et al of the worthiness of a project they won’t have too much trouble.
Some citizens and activists voiced a number of valid concerns about this “contest.”( * CLARIFICATION: Two representatives from the Empress Cultural Centre Corp., Pascal Beaudoin and Sharon Leslie, did get an opportunity to ask questions during the question period.) It’s hard to know how groups will find financing when they don’t own the building and they’re looking for money for a project that has no guarantee of being approved. How many non-profit groups can take on the renovation of a building that has suffered water and fire damage? The market study required is allegedly a lot more detailed than what’s typically asked for in the city’s call for tender process. How many non-profit groups have the budget or the connections to take on such a project? The city hired SNC-Lavalin to prepare an engineering study (“analyse” in French. The term used in engineering is “building condition assessment” ) on the building’s condition but will not release the study to the public or groups bidding on the project. Yesterday Applebaum stated that the study is only available for use by the City of Montreal and non-profits will have to arrange their own property evaluations. This is disturbing, especially considering Mayor Applebaum backed the city’s open data project. Public money funded that SNC-Lavalin study. It should be made available to the public.
NDG is a community known for its commitment to citizen participation. The Benny Farm Task Force was one example. By not including the NDG community in this process of choosing a project, the borough is alienating many people who put hours of their lives into revitalizing the Empress. It’s as though this human capital of hundreds of volunteers is being dismissed as worthless, simply because of politics. Some politicians would give their eye teeth to see such citizen engagement in their own borough. But it’s not appreciated here.
I feel that by not renovating the building first the borough is setting up non-profit groups for failure. I wonder about the jury selection, since at least one citizen member, Marie-Claude Savard, appears to have close ties with the borough already (she recently hosted a borough-sponsored gala). I wonder if this “contest” is smoke and mirrors. I will be very surprised if any project gets a green light.
I was disgusted by what I heard last night. I feel there is a lack of genuine political goodwill.