Empress “contest” – smoke and mirrors?

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.

My take:

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.

but…

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.

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Empress “contest” – smoke and mirrors?

10 thoughts on “Empress “contest” – smoke and mirrors?

    1. I don’t know if Marvin Rotrand was more agitated or less than usual. I hadn’t seen him in years. I did notice that Rotrand calmed Applebaum down when Applebaum attempted to take the motion off the table.

  1. pafmurray says:

    This is disgusting: “The city hired SNC Lavalin to prepare an engineering study 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.”

  2. dwgs says:

    It sounds like a smokescreen that’s set up to fail. My money says we see them sell it to a developer at well below market rates, the building is deemed unsafe and levelled. Expensive condos (Park view!) soon follow.

  3. Bogdan Karasek says:

    I do not trust Applebaum and his cohorts one iota. I have been involved, as a volunteer with the Empress project, since 2005, been to borough meetings regarding the Empress, delivered the citizens petition to save the Empress at City Central, applied, through the “Access to Information” for the SNC Lavalin report and was refused for idiotic bureaucratic reasons….. Applebaum is dismissive of any citizens group in the borough. Any elected official, Applebaum, Rotrand, who berates citizens who ask questions at borough meetings, deserves our utter contempt. Who do they think they are, dictators in a banana republic? We pay their salaries. They are supposed to serve the people and the community. Instead, we get bullshit and lies from these so-called representatives. I’ve said it publicly before and I’ll say it again. Applebaum is not to be trusted. Don’t forget that he is a former real estate agent. Draw your conclusions as to who is going to get the building..

    1. pafmurray says:

      How refreshing to hear such comments from another! :o) Politicians in QC swear an oath to do “fully what is in the best interest of the public”. What they swear to do, and what they actually do, are generally unrelated. Upon the blog in my first comment above are two articles that appeared in Psychology Today, regarding political leaders. The articles fully explain the behaviour of Marvin Rotrand. (For now I am being “nice” to Applebaum, and will leave him alone.) At the last borough council meeting, Rotrand alluded to not allowing me to ask questions at the borough meetings in the future. Late last night I sent an email to the President of the Montreal City Council advising Montreal that if I am refused my legal right to ask questions at either Hotel de Ville or any borough meeting in the future, that I will sue Montreal. It is my deepest pleasure to go to these meetings and embarrass those who have sworn to do what is “fully in the best interest of the public” and then fail to live up to what they swore.

      “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

      -Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1950

  4. Bogdan Karasek says:

    If Rotrand doesn’t allow you to ask questions at a borough meeting, then yes, please, do me the pleasure and do sue the pants off that idiot. Get Olson and Marie Cicchini on the case. Makes for good copy. These elected representatives ceased being our representatives a long time ago. They have forgotten that they are “elected” and as you point out quite rightly, that they are there to serve the interests of the public (us) and not their own private little interests. Keep up the good work and show up these politicos for what they have really become, namely self serving and self aggrandizing buffoons. Maybe Rotrand and Co. should be sent a copy of the Canadian “Charter of Rights and Liberties”. We live in country that values free speech which includes the right to question our elected representatives in a public forum. I’ll be at the next borough meeting and be asking who the “contest” jury for the Empress is composed of. I want names.

  5. pafmurray says:

    I will be at the city council meeting on Monday If Harout Chitilian does not allow me to ask questions I will have an employee of Montreal sign for the mise en demeur to save the cost of registered mail. Please contact both of the above reporters and ask them why there is never mention of my questions in their newspapers. I have contacted both editors numerous times to no avail, though I am in the Free Press in Roger H_____’s column Page 18 bottom right “Murray’s good idea” http://www.ndgfreepress.com/pdf/FP-Jan-17-2012.pdf It is long overdue that everyone knew about the garbage that goes between Mayor Tremblay and Velo QC, with public funds.

    In 2012 $35 million was raised for charity in 2 NYC events while in Montreal, close to the same number of participants did not even raise $35,000.

    We live in a country where 10% of the time I am hassled by the police for exercising my fundamental rights guaranteed by both charters. I have been threatened with arrest and with a ticket for my volunteer efforts to increase charitable giving. What Marvin said last Monday to me was simply the cries of a man who had been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. My goals (not necessarily my activist methods) are supported by Imagine Canada and many other organizations/individuals, BUT who supports what I do is meaningless. They cannot attack my goals so they find the need to attack me. This activist welcomes such attacks as it shows the attackers for exactly what they are! 🙂

    I have nothing but pity for a man like Marvin Rotrand who thinks that he deserves any respect. In my personal opinion, Marvin Rotrand has sold his soul to Mayor Gerald Tremblay for the additional $63,000/yr that he receives for being Vice Chair of the STM, etc. If I would not be charged with assault, I would not hesitate to spit in his face, because that is exactly what he deserves (and as mentioned, I have pity for him).

    Prepare your questions and of course ask them why if they spent public funds on an architect’s assessment of the Empress, why they would not release the full report to the public. If the public pays, the public gets to see. That is the bottom line.

  6. Vanessa says:

    I received this query from Vanessa, a McGill student. If you’re concerned about the Empress and would like to help her out, here’s how:

    I’m working on a paper on the Empress Theatre for a development class at McGill. I was wondering if I could send you a small list of questions about your feelings towards what happened at the council meeting last week and towards the theatre in general. I would need to have your responses by early next week so if you have the time and would like to help out, can you email me at vanessa.page[at]mail.mcgill.ca? Thanks 🙂

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