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.


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