No vacancy

Illustration by Justyna Stasik

A walk starting from the stone edges of the Lachine Canal up towards the leafy flank of Mount Royal is an exploration through Montréal’s rich and textured past. Chapters of the city’s history reveal itself through architecture – from the sprouting grain towers on the canal’s bank, which helped fuel Montréal’s economic might, up to the Golden Square Mile, where the imposing stone facade and the majestic roofline of the 125-year old Royal Victoria Hospital frames the mountain.

The working hum of the silos faded long ago and the bustle of “The Vic” gave way to silence after 122 years of service when it merged with the city’s superhospital at a new site in 2015. All that these structures house now is empty space, something a new local organization called Entremise is fighting hard to reverse.

Entremise was started after its founders struggled to answer why, when there are so many people and projects needing space, any building should sit idle. With funding from and in partnership with the city, the Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS) and the McConnell Foundation, the non-profit has as its first pilot project transformed a formerly vacant public industrial building in the city’s Griffintown area into a 5,000 square foot co-working space and incubator for a diverse group of tenants (think startups, artists, creative industry companies and other non-profits). Demonstrating what can be achieved with some new paint and fresh thinking, the Young Project has clearly taken the late urbanist Jane Jacobs’ axiom that "new ideas need old buildings” and placed it at the core of its vision.

The Young Project is not designed to last, but the concept behind it is. Before Entremise’s involvement, the city already had cemented plans to demolish the building to make way for social housing. But now, instead of leaving it mothballed during the months and possibly years it will take for that to be realized, Entremise is filling a much-needed societal gap by matchmaking deserving and innovative tenants with affordable, flexible and temporary space. The term for this “in-between” use of buildings is called transitional urbanism, and the Young Project represents this promising idea in action by demonstrating that you can regenerate and requalify urban space in a totally different way. It is a model that Entremise hopes will serve as a paradigm shift in the way we think about urban planning in North America.

“When a building is empty, immediately it deteriorates exponentially,” says social entrepreneur and Entremise co-founder Mallory Wilson. “There are squatters, illegal occupancy, danger for young urban explorers, and drug dealing. If it sits idle for a while, the chances of it being demolished are significantly elevated. You also have sustainable development, heritage, symbolism and history lost. The list is pretty long.”

The costs to owners of an empty structure are also significant as their insurance fees go up, while property values can go down by as much as 18 per cent, according to Wilson. In 2016 alone, six heritage buildings in Montréal were lost forever to fire, another unfortunately common hazard of deadbolting an unoccupied edifice.

From empty Gothic churches and art-deco theatres to mid-century post offices and Victorian-era mansions, Montréal’s portfolio of empty heritage buildings is vast and varied. For Dinu Bumbaru, Héritage Montréal’s policy director, the transitional urbanism model represents a new way for the city to put its heritage to good working use.

“Heritage buildings often are complex situations – they can be very iconic, and they can provide a lot of embedded meaning – they’re more than square footage,” explains Bumbaru on these buildings’ character and personality. “They resonate with people’s minds and hearts.”

According to Bumbaru there is a growing sense in the heritage community that participants in the public, private and non-profit sector need to work together to bring new life to these buildings, make them part of the fabric of their neighbourhood and connect them to the larger urban environment.

“We can have a non-demolition strategy, but increasingly we are looking at a revitalization and repurposing approach to conservation,” says Bumbaru on why Héritage Montréal has a strong interest in taking the kind of approach to buildings that Entremise has been exploring. “Unlike a painting or a sculpture or an artefact that you can put in any safe environment,” he explains, “the way to preserve a building is to use it properly, to occupy it and make it useful. It’s a heritage which is made to earn a living in society.”

The City of Montréal also believes that filling the close to 900 vacant buildings that Entremise has recorded (approximately 120 of which are heritage designated) is ultimately the best conservation strategy for the metropolitan and has made it a part of its Heritage Action Plan. “Initiatives such as the Young Project help maintain safer neighbourhoods and promote Montréal's economic vitality by providing a lever to businesses that are growing but still need a little help,” says Montréal Mayor Valérie Plante on how the Entremise approach addresses a number of important issues in the city.

What attracted the McConnell Foundation to support the launch of the Young Project was the social inclusion aspect of the venture and the broad potential for adopting the model Canada-wide. Jayne Engle, the program director and lead for the Cities for People initiative at the foundation, says that all cities have unmet social needs, but they also have resources available to address them. Too often though, cities are not adept at best matching the two. “Transitional urbanism fits with what I call seeing the city as a commons,” says Engle. “It’s about seeing the city as a set of shared resources and actually better using them in a way that adds up to collective good.”

The success of the Young Project has its founders envisioning a network of spaces like it throughout Montréal and in all Canadian cities. Maybe one day soon, having any building – no matter its size, type or heritage – vacant for an indeterminate amount of time will be a thing of the past.

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