Photo by Toula Drimonis

Who will save Montreal’s Canada Malting plant?

A look at two proposals to both preserve the iconic Southwest factory and turn most of the land that it sits on into housing.

As I’m writing this column from my St-Henri home, right above my laptop in my direct line of vision outside my balcony doors is a building that has recently become a point of contention and conversation in Montreal: the former Canada Malting plant. Two groups with very differing visions for its future development are currently duking it out while I’m sitting here holding my breath.

For myself and many other Southwest dwellers, the Malting plant — located along the Lachine Canal at the corner of St-Rémi and St-Ambroise — is more than just an abandoned, dilapidated former factory with Instagram-friendly imposing ceramic silos (one of the last remaining in North America) on the way to McAuslan’s Brewery. It’s an integral and much-loved part of St-Henri and Montreal history. Frankly, I can’t imagine my neighbourhood without it.

But for others, it represents more than just a nostalgic piece of Sud-Ouest’s industrial history — it represents the future. The reason? The building sits on prime land for redevelopment at a time when Montreal’s St-Henri is experiencing a surge in housing prices, making affordable rents or home ownership out of reach for far too many.

The Canada Malting plant vs. the Montreal housing bubble

As I’ve watched lots on the Lachine Canal waterfront get snapped up over the past decade — and far too many questionable condo projects see the light of day, here and throughout Montreal — my worries for the Canada Malting plant increased. I knew it was only a matter of time before this site would be developed, and I wondered how and if whomever would take on that gigantic challenge would fight to maintain the historic landmark.

Canada Malting Plant
The construction of the Canada Malting plant in Montreal, 1903

Opened in 1905 and abandoned for the past 30 years, the rapidly deteriorating, graffiti-riddled Malting might be considered an eyesore and a danger for the many thrill seekers who routinely trespass and climb over the fence, but I’m infatuated with it and its history. I swear, I can hear the building — which used to germinate and dry the barley for the malt — whisper secrets to me when I walk by. And those gorgeous ceramic-covered silos? They were used to store the barley before it was shipped off to distilleries and breweries. When the canal was closed in 1970, all that changed forever, but the building remains a huge part of the city’s industrial heritage.

I never fail to walk by without gazing up at it, snapping a quick pic, or anxiously looking for any additional signs of deterioration. My biggest fear is that the site, now in deep disrepair, will reach the point of no return one of these days; too far gone to be saved, requiring complete demolition.

I’ve lived in St-Henri for close to 10 years now and have paddled in the Lachine Canal for 20. I fully admit to being unnaturally attached to this building and want whatever part of the structure is salvageable to be saved. But how and at what cost is, of course, the million-dollar question.

Proposal #1

The Canada Malting plant property is currently owned by Montreal real estate company Renwick Development. Their $120-million project includes 175 housing units for families and an additional 65 affordable social housing units in a separate building. Their plan also includes a preschool, a centre for children with autism, community space, artist studios, office space and a park.

Glenn Castanheira is the spokesperson for the developer. Full disclosure: I have crossed paths with Glenn in the past for work and I respect his love of and devotion to Montreal. He’s a dynamic, multilingual Montrealer with expertise in urban affairs. His vision for Montreal’s development (a focus on public transit and walkable streets that favour storefront business) has often been in harmony with mine.

Castanheira says he understands the pushback and the public scrutiny from local Sud-Ouest residents leery of more condos going up and ever-increasing gentrification.

“It’s legitimate,” he says. “Ironically, I spent a lot of time in the past fighting against or with developers to integrate more social housing in their projects. This project proposed by Renwick is the way projects should have been developed in the past, instead of how so many developers operate. We’ve been cheated in the past and now is an opportunity to do things differently — and better.”

The project is a good one, according to him.

“I challenge anyone to find a residential project in the city right now that includes 30 per cent of social housing,” Castanheira says. “This is not just another luxury condo project. This is a good local project I’m proud to be associated with that could give people exactly what they’re asking for.” While he easily concedes that it’s a for-profit project, he says so are many businesses like barbershops and cafés.

“Just because something can generate profit for the developer, doesn’t mean it also can’t give local residents what they’re asking for,” he insists. “Affordable social housing would be available in Phase 1 and the developer is even open to Solidarité Saint-Henri managing it.”

Proposal #2

Canada Malting Plant
The Canada Malting Plant, Montreal. Photo by Toula Drimonis

Solidarité Saint-Henri is the community organization currently competing against Renwick to get the city’s approval for the site’s redevelopment. Their $45-million project proposes a 100 per cent community-run project that would include 230 social housing units as well as rental offices, a rooftop garden, a public daycare, a community kitchen and an on-site industrial museum that would highlight St-Henri’s and the Lachine Canal’s workers and history.

Fred Burril from the community group À Nous la Malting recently told CTV News that what makes their project unique is that it’s 100 per cent community and social housing.

“The condo and the private housing development end up driving the cost of land and therefore the price of rent in the rest of the neighbourhood,” Burrill explained, “so it has a kind of domino effect of displacement in the area around it. We’re saying we want to provide entirely non-market housing on that site. The west of St-Henri is being particularly hard hit by gentrification right now and we want to stop that.”

The question, however, is how will a community non-profit project pay for such an expensive proposal? While the final project would be a revenue-generating one, how does one get a costly project like this off the ground without any private backing?

The group is asking the city of Montreal to reserve the site so that it can’t be developed for other projects while they reach out to multiple levels of government for the financial support.

“Montreal should be a city that’s for everybody; not just people with money,” says Burrill.

Race against time

In 2013, a 700-condo project proposed for the site was quickly blocked by St-Henri residents who wanted a community project. Luxury condo projects may not be an attractive option to many locals, but finding a way to preserve parts of this fragile structure, with so much patrimonial value, while developing the site for housing certainly is. And whether we like it or not, the clock is ticking.

Last year, Dinu Bumbaru from Héritage Montreal was interviewed by Journal Métro and made it clear that, despite Solidarité Saint-Henri stating they haven’t seen the site deteriorate that much in the last seven years, time is a factor.

“If the materials deteriorate too much that the structures become dangerous, it will be lost,” he said. “There is an urgent need to act to ensure the preservation of this old malt factory, whose terracotta tiles are degrading rapidly.”

As recent news of the Empress Theatre in the NDG-CDN borough demonstrated, wait too long and you’re left with absolutely nothing to salvage. The long-abandoned Art Deco landmark on Sherbrooke Street, built in 1927 and once serving as a vaudeville and burlesque theatre, has been sitting around waiting to be saved since 1999. Plans were recently announced that it will now be partially — or totally — demolished to make way for affordable housing, commercial and community space.

While I’m happy the borough is doing something constructive with it, it pains me that we’ve resorted to facadism once again. If we’re lucky and the developer is willing to incur the exorbitant costs of salvaging the building’s once-beautiful neo-Egyptian façade, it will be restored. If not, so long architectural heritage!

For profit vs. non-profit

Canada Malting Plant
Inside the Canada Malting plant. Photo by Jarold Dumouchel

About a year ago, the Southwest borough gave the À Nous la Malting collective $10,000 to prepare a sustainable business plan in order to go to the next step to put the site on reserve for the community project.

Reached by phone, Shannon Fransenn, coordinator of Solidarité Saint-Henri, believes that the social housing project they’re proposing should be a model for the development of affordable housing that’s also very financially viable.

“Especially now that the housing prices are going up so much, we need to really shift our thinking about housing development to non-profit housing,” she says. “It just makes sense for everybody.”

Fransenn is adamant that Renwick’s project, even with the inclusion of 30 per cent social housing, is still a standard condo project, like so many others.

“Their goal is to build a for-profit project that will help them get rich,” she says. “The priority is not meeting a community’s needs.”

In the past, the city of Montreal has expressed interest in collaborating with the community group, so long as a concrete and viable plan be presented to them. It remains up for discussion whether their 137-page proposal will pass that test. The borough would still need to rezone the area from industrial to residential for any further development, and the process certainly won’t be finalized anytime soon because a public consultation is mandatory.

In all fairness, the Malting site is not an easy project to tackle. Decontamination costs will undoubtedly be expensive for both the land and the interior of the building, and there are historical components that will require restoration and preservation.

The rub

The community group estimates decontamination costs at $3.5-million (which would be paid for by public funding, regardless of whether the development project is private or public) and Renwick estimates them to be at a much-higher $14.6-million when one takes into consideration pre-decontamination, demolition of unviable structures, stabilization of the building and decontamination costs. While the community group insists those numbers are purposefully inflated in order to discourage them from moving forward, Castanheira says that securing the structure and reinforcing everything before decontamination can take place is a very costly process.

Considering how exorbitant the decontamination and preservation costs would be, many (myself included) wonder whether it wouldn’t be wiser for the city to invest in a different site where the cost per social housing unit wouldn’t be so inflated and where a financial investment would go much further in providing what the neighbourhood needs.

It’s obvious to me that the community group behind the project is well-versed in the social challenges Montreal is currently experiencing. Its members are both aware of and informed about how gentrification creates displacement and exacerbates urban poverty and social inequality and how real estate speculation is affecting people in terrible ways. They are proposing to do something about it while attempting to preserve a landmark that is an essential part of St-Henri’s industrial history — although they have said in the past that the latter is not their number one priority. Their involvement is genuine and community-focused and those are all good things.

The borough and the city

But a for-profit project that would be able to shoulder those high costs, break ground within a year and deliver 65 social housing units in an area that desperately needs them, all while maintaining a historic structure beloved by many in our community, is nothing to scoff at either. Does a private developer hold the key to rescuing and restoring this heritage building of a bygone era?

“It’s an advantage for the community right now,” says Castanheira, “because nothing can be built and not a single derogation can take place without all the conditions we’ve outlined being met.”

It now falls to the borough and the city of Montreal to assess the viability of both these proposals and decide on the next steps. While the current administration has certainly demonstrated its support for more social housing, it can’t afford to ignore the numbers behind such a massive project either. A financially fragile and unrealistic project could put its entire viability at risk.

In the meantime, the Malting plant silently looms in my daily background, waiting, as it has waited for years, for something to happen. What next? I’m not sure… The only thing I’m unequivocally certain of is my love for this structure and my hope for its restoration and preservation for generations to come. ■

To better study the proposals for the Canada Malting plant site in Southwest Montreal (and see for yourselves which one you agree with), the À Nous la Malting proposal can be found here and the Renwick Developments proposal can be found here.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.

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