Montreal’s mayor fiasco, NDG & zoning changes

I grew up in NDG. I moved back here in 1995 after some time away.

I’ve long been interested in politics and especially anything that affects my community. But the political goings-on of my home neighbourhood make me sick.

On Tuesday (June 18) Michael Applebaum resigned as interim mayor of Montreal after being arrested Monday on 14 criminal charges that include breach of trust, conspiracy and municipal corruption, and fraud against the government.

Applebaum used to be mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce . His opponents here in NDG  are cheering the end of Applebaum’s political career, especially since Applebaum had stated his intention to run as mayor of the CDN-NDG borough in November’s municipal elections. The animosity surrounding Applebaum is so great I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone playing the song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead.”

I’ve always been disappointed with the acrimony I saw Applebaum display towards citizens and opponents at borough council meetings. For years I’ve wondered about Applebaum and some of the other politicians running our neck of the woods. Zoning decisions have especially bothered me. It’s always seemed that when it comes to zoning in the borough, there’s no accountability and nowhere to go if you’re unhappy about a zoning decision.

Over the past few days Applebaum’s allies and detractors have spoken their minds about his arrest and resignation. For a sense of the disappointment with Applebaum in NDG, check out this column in Wednesday’s La Presse. Applebaum’s loyal defenders include Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand and Susan Clarke, city councillor for the Loyola district of NDG (my district). Yesterday morning Clarke told CBC’s Daybreak show that she wonders if Applebaum was set up. That’s the kind of loyalty Applebaum inspires among his friends.

I think Warren Allmand hit the nail on the head in radio interviews on CBC and CJAD Tuesday when he pointed out the lack of transparency on zoning decisions in the borough. Allmand used to represent NDG as a Member of Parliament and he’s also been a city councillor. The zoning problems in our part of the world predate Michael Applebaum. And these problems run deeper than which political party wins the most seats to run our borough.

A friend has criticized journalists for not exposing corruption in our borough earlier. As a freelance journalist, in 2007 I tried to write about a number of the rumours I heard about Applebaum being involved in questionable zoning changes. I would ask the people making the accusations for concrete proof. I was told where to find information but not given copies of what these sources had.

I  couldn’t afford to investigate the allegations. Not only would it take a long time, I wasn’t earning much writing articles and the fear of being slapped with a defamation suit was very real.  Digging into zoning issues could take weeks, months or longer. It involved finding the archives of local community newspapers, scanning the small notices about zoning changes placed by city officials and noting down the lot number involved in a rezoning. Then you have to figure out the location of the property that’s being rezoned.

It’s easier now to find such information. Instead of visiting the courthouse or a newspaper’s paper archives in person, you can go online to  search the city’s tax assessment rolls and scroll through local newspapers. But zoning change decisions are made in secret. It’s not always easy to find out which properties have been rezoned and by the time you find the small newspaper notice about a zoning change it may be too late for concerned citizens to do anything. Zoning committee meetings are not open to the public or the media.

Recent examples of questionable zoning changes in NDG include several properties rezoned from commercial to residential or residential/commercial:

  • The NDG Food Depot was in an old factory building at 2121 Oxford St. but lost its longtime rental space when its landlord sold the building to a new owner who plans to build condos. The Depot,  whose food bank serves at least 700 hungry people a week, was given nearly no notice to move. It still hasn’t found a permanent home and at the end of this month will move  a second time from a temporary location at River’s Edge on Côte St. Antoine Rd. to another temporary location at Trinity Memorial Anglican Church on Sherbrooke St. The Depot’s loss of its Oxford St. space is appalling. There’s no way you can build condos on the site of a former factory without changing the zoning. But who authorized this? Who among the borough’s politicians and bureaucrats decided to change the zoning and cause this sort of harm?
  • Strangely, the site of the recently closed Dunkin’ Donuts on Sherbrooke St. will soon be home to condos. Again, the zoning was changed from commercial to residential/commercial. There will be condos on the upper floors and businesses at street level.
  • On Monkland Avenue a number of commercial buildings, including a Petro Canada gas station, a garage and a building that housed a strip mall with a Couche Tard, soup and noodle restaurant and a hair salon have all been torn down to make way for buildings that have condos on the upper floors and businesses on the bottom.
  • On the Snowdon side of Côte St. Luc Rd., a developer offered the owners of the popular Carmine’s Tuscany Grill a deal so good the restaurant’s now closed. Expect demolition and condos. Like the others, this zoning change has never seen any public hearings.

Probably the most shocking example of controversial rezoning in the borough over the past 10 years was the borough’s decision to move the Benny sports complex from Benny Farm, where it was originally slated for construction, to Benny Park across the street. The borough had purchased land at Benny Farm for the sports and recreation centre and even held public consultations complete with architect’s drawings and focus groups. Discussions continued for months.

Then with no warning whatsoever, the plans were quashed. It was decided the centre would be built in Benny Park across the street and the land purchased at Benny Farm would become a library and cultural centre. It’s still hard to believe how anyone could have the nerve to cancel original plans for the sports and recreation centre on Benny Farm after going to so much trouble to make sure the public was consulted about the original project and site.  Benny Park had to be rezoned to allow for the construction. While an information session was held at Benny Park to discuss tearing down the park’s existing outdoor swimming pool to build a new indoor pool within the sports and recreation centre, there was no real redress if you had a problem with it and if you believed the borough should not be building in a park when green space was disappearing all around the borough.  In 2007 some people tried to gather up enough support to force a binding referendum on the matter but ended up with a registry that was only 10 signatures short of the required 139 signatures.

The only hope for true democracy in CDN-NDG is for someone to fix this borough’s lack of transparency and accountability. Unless and until the borough’s zoning committee meetings become open to the public and the minutes of these meetings become publicly accessible and are released as open data, I’m not holding my breath for change anytime soon.

On Tuesday June 25 the local Projet Montréal team for CDN-NDG will be holding a “democracy rally” for CDN-NDG. In response to recent “events that have shaken our borough” Projet Montréal wants citizens to express their concerns and ask local politicians questions during this last borough council meeting before the summer break.

When: Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 5:30 p.m. Gather in front of the Cummings Centre building at 5151 Côte-Sainte-Catherine Rd.

6:00 p.m. Press Briefings (speeches) by Michael Simkin, Projet Montréal CDN-NDG mayor candidate in this November’s elections and Peter McQueen, city councillor for the NDG district.

6:15 p.m. Register at the Cummings Centre for borough council question period.

7 p.m. Borough Council meeting starts at the Cummings Centre.


Lessons from gardening in clay soil

garden bed covered in peat moss, shredded paper, sheets of newspaper and leaves
Lasagna gardening in 2011

I won’t give anyone tips on how to fix clay soil.

I’ve tried for years to get the clay soil in my city community garden plot to co-operate. I’ve added leaves, peat moss, coir (coconut fibre), compost and manure. I’ve double dug, tilled (even, gasp, used a rototiller to lightly blend leaves into the garden bed), used a garden fork to turn the soil.

But as hard as I try to break the clay down and get it to merge with the other materials, it remains what it is. When wet, it’s thick mud that doesn’t drain well. When it dries its texture is grey concrete. You can see cracks on the garden’s surface. While the clay is rock hard,  if you pick up a clump and squeeze, it crumbles into dust. There are grey clumps all over the garden’s surface. I want to scream. It’s a nightmare.

What I need to learn is to accept the clay soil for what it is, instead of working against it. It seems accepting the clay as it is means building a raised bed, building a new soil environment on top of it.

Gardening offers plenty of life lessons. For me the lesson here is it’s better to accept things as they are than to struggle against something. I don’t know what the life lesson is in building a lasagna gardening bed (sheet mulching), layering leaves, paper and cardboard, compost, soil and coffee grounds on top of the clay, but at least it’s a lot more fun than struggling!

Montreal happenings for gardeners

Here are a few interesting sales and events for Montreal gardeners that you may not have heard about

As gardening season gets under way, there are always a few gardeners who wait till the last minute to get their plants in.

If you love heirloom plants and herbs, here are a few places you may want to check out if you need plants for your garden:

Santropol Roulant Seedling Sale

Santropol Roulant’s annual seedling sale today offers a wide variety of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated plants. When you buy from them you also support a great cause.

Plants cost $3.50 each or 3 for $10

The list includes:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplants
  • peppers
  • basil
  • parsley
  • lettuce
  • shallots
  • ground cherry
  • cucumbers
  • summer and winter squash

When: Saturday June 1st 2013, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Santropol Roulant, 111 Roy St. E. (corner Coloniale)

Seedlings at the Coop La Maison Verte

Once again the Coop has teamed up with Ferme du Zéphyr for the eighth edition of its annual seedling sale. The sale is ongoing – seedlings are for sale until supplies last.

This year’s sale features more than 140 varieties of certified organic heritage tomatoes, vegetables and herbs.

While some varieties are now sold out, there’s still plenty of choice.

Plants generally cost $4 each

When: ongoing, while supplies last
Where: Coop La Maison Verte, 5785, Sherbrooke Street West

Marché des Savoirs: édition Agriculture urbaine

Call it an urban agriculture knowledge-sharing/skill-sharing/barter event.

A Montreal startup called E-180 has joined Santropol Roulant in organizing a get-together where people can discuss urban agriculture, get advice on projects  and share their knowledge.

Check out Santropol Roulant’s terasse and enjoy food and drink from Crudessence and RISE Kombucha.

Bring along a plant to trade with other gardeners. The groups Troc ton jardin and Plantcatching will be there to help make that happen.

Other groups at this gathering will include Lufa Farms, Équiterre, Éco-stage (Katimavik), and Montreal’s Urban Ecology Centre, it’s sort of a who’s who of Montreal groups involved with urban agriculture (though it puzzles me to see Action Communiterre missing from this event).

All the publicity I’ve seen about it so far has been in French, it’s unclear whether this gathering is in French only.*

**Note: There is information in English at the bottom of the registration page.

When: Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 6-8 p.m.
Where: Santropol Roulant, 111 Roy St. E. (corner Coloniale)

Cost: Pay what you can donation to Santropol Roulant

There are only 100 spaces available for this get-together.
You can register here

Happy gardening!