“We’re used to long fights, where we know when it starts but we don’t know when it’s going to end,” says Karine Triollet.
She’s the coordinator of Action-Gardien, a coalition of community groups based in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles district, and a prominent voice for the interests of the neighbourhood. We’re in a meeting room at their office space, poring over a map of what’s known as the Bridge-Bonaventure sector: mostly industrial land to the east and south of the district’s residential areas, bordering the now-trendy Griffintown.
With us is Francis Dolan of Regroupement Information Logement, a renters’ rights group that is a member organization of Action-Gardien, and Jocelyne Bernier, a citizen activist who has called Pointe-Saint-Charles home for over 40 years.
They are part of the Bridge-Bonaventure committee, a group tasked with organizing a community engagement campaign planned for the spring. The message of this campaign? Development is coming, and what gets developed should meet the needs of residents in the neighbourhood.
The area has seen increasing interest from developers in recent years, especially the northernmost portion, the Peel Basin. Up until recently, this was the area being eyed for a new baseball stadium, before a refusal by Major League Baseball to allow Montreal and Tampa Bay to share a team ended that project.
“That’s one less thing to worry about,” Triollet remarks.
It represented exactly the kind of development her group wants to prevent at all costs — a vanity project that didn’t meet the needs of the local community. Though that project is dead, interest in the area lingers, and the question of what to do with the land remains.
Many, if not most, people can agree that Bridge-Bonaventure is not optimally used right now. It houses a handful of businesses and manufacturers, with a few lots unused and left to grow into wild patches of weeds in the summer. In one corner, a parking lot sits on what was once Goose Village, a working-class community that was razed to the ground on the orders of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau in preparation for Expo ’67.
Many parties are looking to change this reality, including Action-Gardien. But how to change it is where they differ.
A sustainable and community-oriented vision
The group has its own proposal for what to do with the sector, based on Pointe-Saint-Charles’ identity as a historically working-class neighbourhood that has seen a boom in speculation and a subsequent steep increase in home and rental costs.
Created following community consultations in 2019, the proposal presents a vision for the sector that is sustainable and community oriented, with residential spaces and commercial/industrial spaces alike. It’s a plan to develop the area in a way that meets the needs of current residents and that is in keeping with the neighbourhood’s heritage. This is what they are fighting for.
“The proposal can evolve, it’s not set in stone. But there are some aspects that we will refuse to change,” says Bernier.
The non-negotiable aspects are that the site be developed on a human scale and optimized for community use, and that all housing in the sector be off-market housing.
The proposal calls for 1,000 social, cooperative and family housing units in buildings no more than six to eight storeys tall. The suggested location for this housing is on land owned by Canada Lands Company, a Crown corporation. It is the same land previously considered for the baseball stadium.
Groupe Devimco, the developer expected to build the stadium before the MLB decision stopped it in its tracks, is the largest private landowner in Bridge-Bonaventure. The company had been buying up land in anticipation of the stadium project, and had released a plan of its own for the area. Though Devimco is now revising this plan, its previous plan indicates what might be included: 20-storey condo towers and office space to attract green technology companies from here and elsewhere.
Devimco declined an interview request for this article, citing the ongoing revisions.
“Density doesn’t always have to mean height,” says Triollet of the condo towers Devimco had in mind for the area. Housing is an obvious need, but condo towers are not how Action-Gardien thinks it should be tackled.
“We want off-market housing,” says Dolan. “That doesn’t mean it all has to be subsidized. It can still be varied, the same way the market is.”
Off-market housing would address the housing crisis and the equally concerning renters’ crisis, they believe. Different types exist and can provide the mixité sociale many want to see with residential development.
A severe need for off-market housing
The city of Montreal is slated to release its vision for the area in 2024, following consultations at the Office de consultation publique de Montréal. In the meantime, this vision is being elaborated with a consultation group consisting of different parties with interests in Bridge-Bonaventure. An Action-Gardien representative is at that table, as is a representative of Devimco.
Until the final product is released, the different parties are doing what they can to swing the city’s plan in their desired direction. This is why Action-Gardien and its member groups need to apply pressure to see the kind of development they want.
Some details have just been released of the city’s vision for the sector, which will subsequently influence zoning changes. For now, it consists of about 3,800 housing units, 635 of which would be social, off-market housing. The housing would be built on the federal land in the Peel Basin.
But the notion of a project consisting entirely of off-market housing does not seem popular with the city. Sud-Ouest Mayor Benoit Dorais, who is also the municipal executive committee member responsible for housing, affirmed that mixed housing is Montreal’s intention.
“Developing mixed housing is our priority. That is why we adopted the by-law for a mixed metropolis during the last mandate, in addition to our commitment to build 60,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years, with the aim of preserving the diversity of our neighbourhoods and promoting access to adequate housing for all,” explains a written response from his office.
The mixed metropolis by-law states that developers of projects larger than about five units must sign an agreement with the city to contribute to social, affordable and family housing. Its aim is to have all projects of more than 50 units include 20 per cent social housing, 20 per cent affordable housing and 20 per cent family housing, but the rate changes slightly depending on the area or other agreements made with the developer.
Dolan says that the by-law is a start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the severe need for off-market housing. And with 635 of 3,800 units slated to be social housing in the city’s vision for Bridge-Bonaventure, that’s just under 17 per cent, still short of the by-law’s stipulation.
“And this is on federal land,” Triollet points out. “The fact that the city doesn’t want to go further than that to address the housing crisis is unacceptable.”
Robert Beaudry, city councillor for Ville-Marie and Montreal’s executive committee member responsible for urban planning, said that the city is developing its vision for the sector with the needs of current and future residents of the neighbourhood in mind.
He said that he believes there is a way to develop this much housing, both off-market and on the market, while still avoiding massive condo towers.
“A soft density is possible,” he says. Although he could not go into further specifics about how that could be accomplished, he affirmed that the city does want to respect the community’s desire for human-scale development.
Another 635 units would be affordable housing — truly affordable, Beaudry claims.
Fighting for housing ‘they themselves will never live in’
But Dolan, Triollet, Bernier and others involved in mobilizing for housing issues are wary of the term “affordable housing,” particularly when used by politicians.
Affordable housing must be slightly below the median market rent in Montreal. But in a housing crisis, even the median becomes unaffordable.
“What politicians call ‘affordable housing’ isn’t actually affordable,” says Dolan. “The average rent anywhere is becoming less and less affordable.”
“We only look at the number of social housing units in a project,” Triollet agrees. “Everything else is not off-market, so it won’t do much to help.”
For now, the promise of 635 affordable housing units, even if they were “truly” affordable, does nothing to assure the community activists that it will be enough to quell the crisis.
Dolan says that there is considerable interest in the future of the Bridge-Bonaventure sector among the people he works with in the area who are trying to secure housing.
“Even though housing takes time to be built, the people we’re working with right now are still interested in knowing what will happen with future social housing projects,” he remarks. “Even if it’s about buildings that will be finished in years that they themselves will never live in.”
Craig Sauvé, city councillor for Saint-Henri, Little Burgundy, Pointe-Saint-Charles and Griffintown, says that housing is the top concern among his constituents, and he hears a lot of support for social housing options. He agrees that the stadium project had raised considerable concern among residents.
“I think when the stadium was on the docket, there was a lot of legitimate nervousness, not only just about housing, but also about what that’s going to actually do to the neighbourhood,” he says.
“What I can say to reassure the population of Pointe-Saint-Charles (who were wary of the baseball stadium project moving forward) is that we heard them about the needs of the current residents, who do not have many services available to them in a close proximity,” said Beaudry.
“We’re going to make sure we have a mixité sociale, and we will develop on a human scale,” he says.
Quebec must do more to solve housing crisis
While there is definitely interest in social housing among Montrealers and at least some willingness at the municipal level, Sauvé says that there is little that can be done without the province demonstrating real leadership in creating social housing.
“It’s almost like they don’t believe at all in public investment in housing, which is extremely sad given what renters are living with right now in Montreal,” says Sauvé. “It’s really the worst situation for social housing we’ve been in in decades, with zero interest. It’s extremely frustrating.”
It is an election year in the province, so the message that the Quebec government must do a lot more to address the housing crisis will be one tool in the toolbox for organizers seeking to raise awareness among Pointe-Saint-Charles residents about what’s at stake with Bridge-Bonaventure.
The mobilizing that the Bridge-Bonaventure committee is preparing for is nothing new to longtime involved residents like Bernier.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she says. “We just have to find ways to be seen.”
Door-to-door, postering and virtual town hall meetings to keep the community up-to-date about the mobilization are all planned. Activism has long been strong in Pointe-Saint-Charles, and those same networks established for previous actions remain useful.
Bernier and Triollet were involved when protracted, large-scale community mobilization got a casino project in the Peel Basin cancelled in 2006. That massive struggle, a “David and Goliath” battle according to Triollet, proved that major victories can be won when Pointe-Saint-Charles residents mobilize.
“To this day, I’m still proud that we got half of the population of Pointe-Saint-Charles to sign a petition against the casino,” says Triollet.
But this time, they are not so much fighting against something as they are fighting for something: for development that serves the local community, instead of development that prices it out.
While raising awareness among Pointe-Saint-Charles residents, the committee is also gearing up to lobby for the funding and political will to create the social housing that they want to see.
There is municipal, provincial and federal funding that can be obtained, so they plan to lobby all three. And, since the land they hope gets used for entirely off-market housing is federally owned, even more pressure will be put on the federal government.
“This isn’t one step after another. It all happens at once,” remarks Bernier.
There will be people who disagree, even in Pointe-Saint-Charles. “We’re not trying to convince every single person,” says Triollet. “We just want our voice to be heard.”
With the arrival of spring, the time to ramp up their mobilizing is on its way. A recent virtual meeting open to all to discuss the upcoming campaign brought the community together to unite around a common goal — and served as a reminder that the community’s strength is in the dedication of its people.
“At the virtual meeting, I saw quite a few people in attendance who were there for the fight against the casino,” Triollet notes. “That really warms my heart.”