This should be one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Montreal, but it has become one of the seediest since the pandemic began.
The eastern area of downtown, around the Berri-UQAM station, suffered a new blow this Friday with the announcement of the closure of the mythical Archambault store, installed there for more than a century.
The group cited the “increasing deterioration” in business prospects to justify its decision.one. The sector has become an unattractive “urban mix lab” for potential clients, she argues.
Archambault is unfortunately right.
The neighborhood is tougher than ever, in fact.
I have frequented the area around Place Émilie-Gamelin for more than 20 years, when I was studying at UQAM. It was already poor, dilapidated and grey, to be sure, but it was also like many other parts of the metropolis.
Montreal was lost, and so was life.
The city’s economy has picked up speed, as evidenced by all those skyscrapers springing up downtown. But the Berri-UQAM sector, despite being strategically located at the intersection of three metro lines, has never really managed to harness the momentum.
It has even deteriorated since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
The program that plays on a loop every day at the exit of the subway is infinitely sad. The street population has skyrocketed on Place Émilie-Gamelin, as has the use and sale of hard drugs. Many residents no longer feel safe there.
The gaping wound that constitutes the old bus station adds to the sinister aspect of the place. The city of Montreal bought the abandoned site in 2018 for $18 million and promised to quickly complete a project that would include office space and affordable housing, but nothing has changed since then.
Why is it so long?
Valérie Plante’s administration points to the pandemic to justify the endless journey of the project. Telecommuting has reduced originally planned office needs, and in the meantime, the city has embraced a new affordable housing strategy, so initial plans had to be scrapped.
Benoit Dorais, head of housing on the executive committee, assures me that the “needs review” exercise should be finished by the summer. The city will then decide whether to build the building itself or issue a “call for projects” to the developers.
The City Council has a “will” to step on the accelerator in this file, but there is no specific calendar at this stage. We can only hope that he stops dragging his feet, because the urgency is double here.
This project could not only restore vitality to a struggling sector, but also provide a roof for the growing number of people struggling to find housing.
The city should literally lead by example.
Another project, this one private, could see the light of day sooner if the Plante administration gives the green light. The Mondev group plans to build two residential rental towers on the south side of Place Émilie-Gamelin, next to the Archambault store, which will close. The company has already acquired several buildings that were scheduled for demolition and terminated the leases of the businesses that housed them, such as the Amir and Da Giovanni restaurants.
Mondev will present a new version of the project within “one or two weeks”, after having made several “corrections” to the initial version of 2020, the architect Maxime-Alexis Frappier, from the ACDF firm, in charge of drawing the plans. This building complex could serve as a “spark plug” to revive the sector, he believes.
The details of the new plans will remain to be seen, but a private investment of around $200 million would certainly not harm the sector.
The projects are up in the air, in short, and that is positive, but the underlying problem continues.
Disenfranchised populations have exploded in the neighborhood, with addictions, homelessness and mental health issues on the rise, with no resources to follow.
The situation will not be magically resolved without reinvestment from the state, argues Jean-François Mary, CEO of the community organization CACTUS Montreal. “Coexistence” is likely to remain tricky with new residents settling in and around Berri-UQAM, he adds.
The Quartier des Spectacles Association, which has been running Place Émilie-Gamelin for a few months of the year for the past eight years, believes that more police officers should be deployed to improve the feeling of security on the premises when there are events on the square. .
It is not a question of expelling the homeless, but of ensuring a harmonious “cohabitation” with the spectators and the employees, advances its general director, Éric Lefebvre.
Either way, the authorities can no longer afford the problem to escalate.
Other local businesses are at risk of closing, as the legendary bar Le Saint-Sulpice announced on Sunday, and the heart of Montreal’s lure could suffer damage that is difficult to repair.
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