Empress outcome

This very long post may be the last one I’ll write about the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building in NDG.

I’m still trying to tease out exactly what Wednesday’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough meeting was about in terms of the final decision on the Empress.

Is the heart of the matter a disagreement about process? Is it about municipal parties with vastly different approaches to governance? Or is it that some NDG folks expect a different kind of borough government?

The answer is probably all of the above.

Some background

For people who don’t know Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG),  we are made up of two municipal districts (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Loyola) in Montreal’s most populous borough, Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. The CDN-NDG borough does not have borough councillors, all the councillors at borough council meetings are city councillors who, along with our borough mayor, attend city council meetings. Some of these elected officials are high profile:

  • Mayor Michael Applebaum is a member of the city’s executive and is second-in-command to the Mayor of Montreal
  • Côte-des-Neiges district councillor Helen Fotopulos is the city executive member responsible for culture and heritage
  • Snowdon district councillor Marvin Rotrand is vice-president of the STM, the city’s public transportation agency

Unlike most other cities, Montreal has political parties. In our borough, four out of five city councillors, plus the borough mayor, are members of the city’s ruling party, Union Montréal, while one councillor belongs to Projet Montréal, an opposition party.

The old Empress/Cinema building is located in the NDG district of NDG, an area represented by the sole opposition councillor, Peter McQueen. The building’s history is contentious. Most of the building was shut down in 1992. The city definitely took it over when Vision Montréal was the city’s ruling party (I’m unclear as to when it was bought. Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand says the city bought the building 23 years ago but Pierre Bourque of Vision Montréal only became the city’s mayor in 1994 – 18 years ago). A number of politicians who currently run the CDN-NDG borough were opposition councillors at the time of the purchase and consider the building to be a white elephant.

NDG is home to many artists and community groups and has a long history of community activism. An example of this is what happened after the Canada Lands Company, a federal crown corporation, announced plans to sell off much of Benny Farm, which was originally an 18-acre public housing project built for World War II veterans and their families. NDG community activists feared the land would be sold to private developers for condo and townhouse projects and they protested fiercely.

As a result, in 2002 Canada Lands created a Task Force with community stakeholders and held public consultations on the site’s future to set goals for the site. Today Benny Farm has a mix of affordable housing for seniors, families, low income and disabled people, many buildings were recycled and use green energy (there were some disasters on that front, but I digress), private housing exists alongside non-profit housing and it will soon to be home to a CLSC and a library/culture centre. The end result of the Benny Farm process was not perfect but there was a sense in NDG that at least people’s concerns were heard and taken into account.

The same cannot be said for the Empress Theatre/Cinema V building.

It would take a long time to explain just how many people and successive boards of directors and volunteers tried to restore the building over the years. About 15 years ago, a non-profit group (its latest name was the Empress Cultural Centre or ECC), was put in charge of developing the building. Initially people wanted a cinema but when they applied to the federal government for charitable tax status they were told cinemas were ineligible.

The focus then changed to resurrecting the theatre and creating a multipurpose performance space, offices and artists’ lofts. At one point the roof leaked, adding more damage to a building already stricken by fire.

It seemed every time anyone tried to redevelop the building, they ran into obstacles. By far the biggest one was finding money for engineering and architectural studies and repairs and renovations, with cost estimates running as high as $14 million. Attempts at getting funding from federal and provincial governments failed, even though well-known people (for instance, Peter McAuslan and Warren Allmand) were on the ECC board of directors. And there was always a question of whether the ECC had enough support from local politicians to get the project off the ground.

A note to journalists reporting on the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building: the building did not sit completely empty for 15 years. Head & Hands had an office on the Old Orchard side of the building until, I believe, 2003. They had to move because of the leaky roof. Also: one room was opened on the front left hand side of the building for use as an office/meeting space.

In late 2011 the CDN-NDG borough council took the mandate for the Empress/Cinema V building away from the ECC. In January the borough launched a “contest” for non-profit groups to bid on redeveloping the building. A set of criteria was established and groups had until May to find funding and prove their projects were financially viable and had a cultural component (environmental and community components were on the list as well).

A jury made up of four city employees and three citizens judged the bids. In June the committee filed its report with borough council. After eliminating a third contender, the jury ruled it had chosen Cinéma NDG’s neighbourhood repertory cinema project (modeled on Cinéma Beaubien) over the ECC’s proposal.

Wednesday’s borough council meeting was to be the final vote on the chosen project. Some NDG folks thought it would provide a chance to open up discussion on the building’s future. When the “contest” was discussed at January’s borough council meeting, Mayor Applebaum left the impression there would be an opportunity to talk about the jury’s decision before councillors voted on it.

Different political languages

Listening carefully Wednesday night to both CDN-NDG Borough Mayor Michael Applebaum and community group representatives, it seemed they weren’t speaking the same language. At all.

I wonder if in addition to NDG community folks and artists expecting a Benny Farm-type consultation, differences between Union Montréal and Project Montréal account for this disconnect.

(I’m aware of past differences community groups say they’ve had with Mayor Applebaum. I wonder about the bigger picture, the why of it all).

It reminds me of the mismatch you get when someone who enjoys working in a collaborative setting ends up in a hierarchical one.

While Projet Montréal emphasizes community consultation and participative democracy, in the case of the Empress Theatre/Cinema V building it seems Union Montréal was all about following city rules and process. The way Mayor Applebaum presented things it seems these politicians consider it their job to govern wthout necessarily always consulting constituents. This is puzzling considering this administration held information meetings in NDG for the Benny Farm Recreation Centre and the new library/cultural centre and to some degree there was public consultation for those projects.

When it came to the Empress decision there was no mechanism built into the process, aside from a 30-minute public question and information period (extended by 30 minutes), to allow for any sort of dissent. No special meeting was called to discuss the decision and no real opportunity existed for citizens to meet with or question the jury about their choice. Because the Empress decision was part of a regular borough council meeting, time was tight and there was a limit of three people asking questions on any given subject, including the Empress (after question period was extended, a few more questions on the Empress were allowed). So in spite of there being disappointment and distress and disillusionment for some NDG folks, the root source of the conflict wasn’t addressed.

At Wednesday’s meeting Mayor Applebaum called the contest an “appel d’offres,” (later on he said “appel de propositions”) and likened it to bidding on a road contract (ECC supporters at the back of the room cried out that culture is not the same as roadwork). During question period when respected NDG community activist Marlo Turner Ritchie asked Mayor Applebaum about adopting a collaborative spirit, Applebaum answered, “We don’t have consultation when we award a contract for a road.” During question period Sonya Girard of Action Communiterre asked Mayor Applebaum if there was a chance to open things up and work together for the best project possible. “I am not going to wait another three years, fours years, five years and watch the building deteriorate,” Applebaum answered.

When NDG district city councillor Peter McQueen challenged Mayor Applebaum to bring the Cinéma NDG and ECC groups together, Applebaum responded:

“One year ago I gave you an opportunity… to find a solution and partners,” Applebaum said. “You refused, Mr. McQueen, and we found a solution. When I gave you the challenge, you didn’t take it. You made a decision. You have to live with it.”

“You can’t have two winners,” Rotrand told McQueen later in the meeting. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Note: A similar challenge was presented by Applebaum to McQueen at January’s borough council meeting. Marie Cicchini of Les Actualités Côte-des-Neiges reported about it here. You’ll find my blog post account here.

Cinéma NDG-Caught In the Middle?

Community group reps and people involved with the ECC say they have nothing against Cinéma NDG. On Wednesday the ECC’s Paul Scriver told me he wouldn’t mind if Cinéma NDG stole the ECC’s ideas. Scriver’s goodwill appears to be founded on a belief that he’ll give his blessing to anyone who can get the building reopened. During question period Girard of Action Communiterre looked straight at the Cinéma NDG people and offered to work with them on a rooftop terrace to showcase urban agriculture, a feature of the ECC’s bid.

Aside from a scattering of media interviews, including a Montreal Gazette article, the Cinéma NDG folks have been tight-lipped about their project. Christine Beaubien of Cinéma NDG said they’d promised potential investors anonymity. Cinéma NDG supporters booed the ECC’s project during Wednesday’s meeting (especially when comments were made about the building sitting empty for 15 years). When the ECC’s Jason Hughes said it was difficult for a non-profit organization to find financing in such a short time for a building they did not own, Cinéma NDG supporters yelled out “We did!” Cinéma NDG supporters repeatedly jeered when McQueen spoke and loudly applauded their own win. It’s hard to tell if their board of directors has any interest in working with the people behind the “losing” bid or incorporating ideas from that bid into the Cinéma NDG project.

At Wednesday’s borough council meeting Mayor Applebaum made it clear the CDN-NDG borough believes in keeping the bid proposals confidential, just as they do for roadwork projects.

Judging from comments made Wednesday night by Cinéma NDG’s Christine Beaubien, the group appeared to embrace the borough’s policy on keeping their bid under wraps.

But yesterday (Friday, Sept. 7) Cinéma NDG posted its project proposal on the Cinéma NDG Web site.

The Decision

Mayor Applebaum, CDN-NDG director Stéphane Plante and Marvin Rotrand explained the reasoning behind the decision and compared the two project proposals:

  • The Cinéma NDG bid was clearer and provided more details – Plante.
  • Cinéma NDG’s business plan was far better than the ECC’s – Rotrand
  • Cinéma NDG’s estimate on the cost of renovations was more realistic than the ECC’s. Cinéma NDG estimated $12-$14 million, while the ECC quoted $6.7 million  – Plante & Applebaum
  • The Cinéma NDG project had letters of intent from investors, while the ECC did not – Plante (The ECC’s Jason Hughes and others shouted from the back of the room that the ECC’s project bid did include such letters)
  • Because of its partnership with Cinéma Beaubien, Cinéma NDG has experience running a similar project – Plante
  • Cinéma NDG has already raised $5 million, has the Caisse Desjardins as an anchor tenant and is backed by Investissement Québec. Its track record at Cinéma Beaubien will help it find financing – Applebaum. “We have a group with money and credible projects. I really believe if we don’t give this group a chance the building will be closed for years and years. I don’t know much about the other project except the jury poked holes in it” – Rotrand
  • The jury committee was not convinced of the rentabilité (profitability) of the ECC’s project – Plante
  • Cinéma NDG’s project will devote 60 per cent of the building to cinema (there will be four screening rooms) and 40 per cent to commercial space – Applebaum
  • A cinema has widespread appeal – this was said by a M. Côté (a jury member?) during the question period and echoed by Applebaum, Plante and others.
  • Cinéma NDG has until the end of 2013 to launch its project and build links with the community.

“There is always a place for innovative ideas,”  Côte-des-Neiges district councillor Helen Fotopulos told Cinéma NDG supporters. Both Fotopulos and Applebaum repeated their willingness to help Cinéma NDG seek government funding.  “We will help you if you need our support to continue your project,” Fotopulos said.

NDG district councillor Peter McQueen voted against the decision, citing a lack of transparency. McQueen accused Applebaum of misleading groups when Applebaum said projects would not receive any help from the borough. “Everyone was given the same documents,” Applebaum said. “The city would not financially support any project.”

Other issues

During the question period Christine Beaubien of Cinema NDG accused Peter McQueen of approaching Cinéma NDG’s potential investors and asking them about teaming up with the ECC’s project as well.

Fotopulos said she was “shocked” CBC Daybreak knew what was in Cinéma NDG’s bid proposal, the allegation being that McQueen had illegally leaked confidential information from Cinema NDG’s bid proposal documents.

It seems Mayor Applebaum is considering having McQueen investigated for possible misconduct as a city councillor (he mentioned seeking “l’avis de notre contentieux”). Or perhaps this was a veiled threat.


Toward the end of the vote discussion a number of ECC supporters left the room. Marlo Turner Ritchie told the Cinéma NDG folks, “Good luck with your Cinéma Caisse Pop.”

Behind all the frustration and anger is a dire need in NDG for multipurpose performance spaces (for community theatre, art exhibits, music, film screenings etc.), office spaces for artists’ organizations and artists’ lofts, rooftop gardens, places serving locally sourced food and spaces where you get to see films produced by local NDG filmmakers. There is also a deep attachment to the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building that goes beyond bringing back the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Just after Wednesday’s meeting Marlo Turner Ritchie posted on Facebook:

Well THAT was a frustrating experience. Both Sonya and I, along with other citizens asked questions and shared ideas that addressed the need for public consultation, cooperation and maximum creativity. In a nutshell, Applebaum shared denial, hostility and lied outright (I.e. His “independent” jury was stacked with his own staff,  like the room tonight.) He even went as far as to suggest that the fact that we discussed this project in the context of a “contest” was illegal. Tonight was an opportunity to bring people together. Instead, he sought to divide us. Let’s show our elected officials that we can rise above the egos and political back-room deals and do what is right for our community! Write to the media! Contact your elected officials! Either that or we sit back and accept that “Cinéma Caisse Pop” will be the future for our precious historic asset.

Turner Ritchie also posted she is worried that 25 per cent of the Egyptian-styled facade could change when corporate logos are installed on the building.

But on the same Facebook page, John David “Hobbes” Hickey, a man I know to be devoted to the NDG community, a terrific storyteller and friend, appealed for peace:

Once the place is fixed up, it’s an ocean of possibilities where everyone can participate, thrive, and evolve. Once the roof is repaired, who is to say that we can’t ever have a rooftop garden? Once the cinematic halls are built, who is to say that we can’t have a live concert in one of them instead of a movie? Once the lobby is restored, who is to say that the art work of local artists cannot be displayed for all to enjoy (and maybe purchase)? But if we dig in our heels now, refuse to get involved because it didn’t happen exactly the way we wanted, everyone loses. Yes, I would’ve been much happier if could’ve gone the community-involvement route, but the economy is worse than ever, so prudence over leaps-of-faith tends to win out.

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