Is the city up to its old tricks?

A proposed 30-storey tower downtown has been green-lighted despite a lack of proper consultation, one of several worrisome moves by the Coderre administration.


We’ve taken steps to safeguard against corruption and graft in the city’s contract-awarding system, but the Coderre administration seems willing to leave the door ajar when it comes to changes that can significantly alter the value of developers’ properties.

A proposal to build a 30-storey tower as part of the Alcan Island Redevelopment Project on a block of Sherbrooke between Stanley and Drummond is being rushed through the approval process with astonishing alacrity and a suspicious disdain for consultative mechanisms. The city provided the absolute legal minimum of public notification for the project and scheduled one day of hearings one day after the St. Jean Baptiste holiday that, unsurprisingly, no one attended.

If that wasn’t enough to set off the sirens, claims by the city that it had the approval of experts on its urban planning advisory board turned out to be wrong, according to at least two of its members. The chairperson of the Comité Jacques Viger, Adrien Shepard, resigned over a majority decision of the committee to accept the project. Then committee vice-chair Pierre Corriveau told The Gazette on Thursday that he didn’t even consider that his group had actually endorsed the project.

The current Maison Alcan is considered to be a prime example of the city’s first major step away from pell-mell development that had historically shown little concern for heritage or architectural harmony. Unlike the piecemeal development so common under mayor Jean Drapeau and his predecessors, the project took care to integrate new buildings both with the historic structures preserved within its core and with surrounding buildings, a mark of modern urban planning.

In a joint advisory from Shepard and Jacques Lachappelle, chair of the city’s Conseil de Patrimoine, on May 28, they express support for a small part of the planned changes to the site, but said that both consultative bodies, “are uneasy over the major transformation of the Maison Alcan site, which is a milestone in the recent history of Montreal’s urban planning approach, and consider that the project should better dovetail with the spirit that guided the Maison Alcan project at the beginning of the 1980s.”

They went on to list six recommendations, including downscaling the project’s density and reviewing the decision to make the 30-storey tower the central axis of the project, especially considering that it “erases the original intention” of making the conserved buildings accessible and a dominant face of the complex.

So we have:

1. A public consultation that is so poorly advertised and scheduled that no one shows up;
2. A mayor and city councillors who insist that the project was given the thumbs-up by advisory committees that, in fact, were highly critical of the plans and which proposed major changes or additional studies.

The Alcan project is being promoted by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s real estate company and Yale Properties Ltd. Laliberté is also behind another controversial proposal that got Mayor Denis Coderre’s quick endorsement in May, turning over 13 hectares of Île Ste-Hélène for a site celebrating funeral rites to be called Pangea. In fact, it was Coderre who approached Laliberté, looking to the entrepreneur to come up with some new megaproject to help celebrate the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations in 2017.

“Kid Kodak” Coderre is self-admittedly a keen admirer of Laliberté, and his willingness to enthusiastically endorse the billionaire’s pet projects is worrying for a man who holds the keys to so many of the city’s prime heritage sites. Coderre himself has said that he thinks the city owes the billionaire an apology for dragging its feet on Laliberté’s desire to build a permanent Cirque du Soleil venue in Pointe St-Charles in 2005, saying he was “ashamed” of the Gérald Tremblay administration’s decision to eventually withdraw its support.

“I told myself that the day I became mayor, I would meet him anew and that we’d find a way to replace that,” he said at a news conference to announce his support for Pangea.

That attitude alone dictates the need for a consultative process that is both thorough and above reproach, pretty much the opposite of what has occurred so far.


Is the Alcan Island Redevelopment Project another form of apology from Coderre to Laliberté? After all, allowing a developer to build a 120-metre tower in the heart of the city, 15 or more storeys higher than neighbouring buildings right at the foot of Mount Royal, will put enormous stress on the surrounding neighbourhood. It will affect sight lines both to and from the mountain, increase traffic and cause a host of other problems with no clear benefit to anyone but the developers, who will be able to increase the number of square feet they rent out and, consequently, significantly boost profits.

There are plenty of other places in downtown Montreal, further back from the mountain, where a new 30-storey building would fit in with the surrounding highrise office towers, alongside major arteries designed to accommodate heavy traffic volumes. Plunking one of those ubiquitous towers into the heart of the museum, bar and shopping district surrounding Concordia and McGill universities is not only an affront to the careful planning that has gone into that neighbourhood in the past 25 years, it is an insult to the consultative process put in place precisely to avoid these kinds of one-off deals between city councillors and private developers looking to maximize profits.

If someone hasn’t done it already, a complaint should be filed with the Coderre’s vaunted Inspector General’s Office to examine how this project has been fast-tracked and why the city took every step possible to minimize the opportunity for interested citizens to familiarize themselves with the project and submit criticisms.

The contortions and sleight of hand that are coming to light suggest a pressing need to blow away the smoke. Until that happens, the city should put approval of the Alcan Island project on indefinite hold. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.