Dear Montreal: Can We Make It Last?

5455 and 5445 De Gaspé – Loft Style Offices Now for Rent. Photo by Raphaëlle Aubin.

By Miranda Campbell

Is Montreal’s status as a cultural and artistic hub in jeopardy? Recently, David Byrne lamented the demise of New York City as the “center of cultural ferment,” the demise of the New York City he moved to in the 1970s — a place where people migrated to for the “possibility of interaction and inspiration,” the “possibility of serendipitous encounters,” a place where you were “in the thick of it.” Byrne suggests that “emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people” have been driven out of New York City by skyrocketing real estate costs, but argues “we can’t let that happen” if New York has any hope of continuing on as a cultural capital.  So what is there to do?  Can we make the possibility of serendipity last?  Or does the attempt to preserve that possibility only fossilize it, creating cultural relics rather than cultural inspiration? Montreal is not New York City, but it is a place that still has that feeling of being in a hotbed of vibrant creative action, a place where unexpected things happen, and can happen. Real estate costs here are definitely not in the New York City stratosphere, but the same pattern of artists being  pushed out of the places they’ve adopted can be found just about anywhere.

The Bovril Building. Photo by Miranda Campbell

In Montreal, the 30-year lease has been developed as one strategy to anchor artists in their neighbourhoods rather than have them displaced by real estate speculation.  Earlier this July, we heard the news story of a deal being brokered between artists and the Hasidic community in the Bovril building on the corner Parc and Van Horne, commonly known at the Cuir Dimitri building—the city granted a zoning change allowing the Hasidic community to convert the ground floor into a school, provided that artists working on other floors be given 30-year leases to allow them to stay in the building with affordable rents.  This was a pleasant enough little story, but there’s a bigger story of underlying effort to ensure Montreal stays artist friendly. Byrne hopes that fat cat bankers “might emulate the Medicis and fund culture-makers – both emerging artists and those still in school,” but failing an influx of philanthropist patron coin going into the independent artist purse, trying to legislate stability for artists might be the route to go.

Founded in 2010, Pied Carré is a non-profit organization that represents the more than 800 cultural producers working in the Mile End (known for having one of the highest densities of creative workers in Canada) and works towards protecting and maintaining artist studios. Real estate speculation in the St Viateur East area has been particularly voracious, and unlike residential leases that have certain protections, commercial rent can fluctuate wildly. The building at 5455 De Gaspé, which houses many artist and artisan studios, was sold for $8 million in 2008 and resold in June 2011 for $37.8 million. The new owner, Allied Properties, acquired this building, and later its neighbour, 5445 De Gaspé, with the intention to renovate to attract high-end office clients, and artists thought they’d be getting the boot. With her work at Pied Carré, Raphaëlle Aubin was part of a community-led team working towards intervening in these types of situations and proposing solutions (such as acquisition of buildings, urban planning bylaws, and long–term leases) while lobbying municipal and provincial levels of government to take action, as well as working with both artists and building owners to try to develop solutions.

Raphaëlle Aubin, third from left, at a social mapping of Mile End workshop put on by Bricolage Urbain. Photo by Melanie Lambrick.

Raphaëlle comments that the goal of Pied Carré is to secure affordable long-term space for artists, creative workers, and artisans.  Most often, artists have studios in commercial buildings, where rent can increase 100% year to year. Looking at the work that Acme was doing in London with long-term leases in industrial buildings, Pied Carré forwarded the 30 year lease proposition in the hopes of giving artists stability to transform their spaces and to buy equipment that’s “super expensive and heavy, and costs $5000 dollars to install” without the threat of eviction or astronomical yearly rent increases.

At 5445 and 5455 de Gaspé, Allied Properties was hot to trot to renovate entire floors to rent them as high-end offices, but the Plateau Mont-Royal borough wasn’t on board. Raphaëlle explains that “the borough put an interim control on the area – a freeze on the area of the construction of new office spaces that were 500 square feet or larger” as what was happening was owners were “kicking everybody out on the floor, and building one giant office with new tenants.” Pied Carré had gotten a lukewarm reception when previously meeting with Allied, but after the borough blocked its development plans with the interim control, Allied was interested in chatting again.  Eventually, a community benefit agreement was hammered out, and Raphaëlle comments, “the borough said we would think that if you signed a long-term lease with artists, over 20 years long, that would be a benefit to the community, and we would give you a dérogation, an exemption from being part of this zoning, so they were exempted from it.” As a result of negotiations between Pied Carre and Allied, several floors at 5445 de Gaspé have been set aside for long-term artists leases, and the rest are slated for redevelopment.

Matt Shane working on Observation Area, Oil on canvas, 8 ft. x 20 ft, 2012, from

Matt Shane is one young visual artist who is part of the 30-year project at 5445 de Gaspé: for him, the 30-year lease means being able to stay put rather than facing unsustainable rent hikes and displacement.  He says that the 30-year lease project will “allow me to keep my studio in the neighbourhood I live in. The rent will increase each year, but the rate is incremental and is a known quantity. I don’t earn enough money as an artist to pay more than I already do for my studio. If I couldn’t afford this studio, I’d have to seek another location further away, which would be problematic as I don’t have a vehicle and work at a large scale.”  Beyond these personal benefits, Matt sees the community benefits of anchoring artists in their neighbourhoods. He states: “many artists have been working at 5445 / 5455 de Gaspé for years. This project enables us to stay in these spaces, which have become our homes. They are not beautiful or luxurious buildings, but their tall walls, concrete floors and abundant windows serve the purposes of most artists quite well. Artists have played a huge part in shaping the Mile End into what it is today. Our presence has, over time, rendered the neighbourhood trendy and attractive to big developers. The usual rules of gentrification would, at this point, have us packing up and getting priced out of the district. The 30 year lease project spurns that cycle. It allows us to stay where we are, and it will ultimately ensure a diversity of class and occupation in the Mile End, which is a sign of a healthy neighbourhood.”

Construction underway at 5445 De Gaspé. Photo by Miranda Campbell.

The 30-year lease may be a boon for artist stability, but it’s an imperfect solution in many ways. Although pleased with the project and the precedent it has set, Raphaëlle says, “it’s important to note it’s not an entire career. If you’re an artist, [a career is] 40 years maybe.” Artists are going to be able to stay in the building long-term, but Raphaëlle notes, “there are a lot of people who have been displaced because they’re not part of the definition of artist, artisan, all that. Gentrification affects all strata of workers.  It’s not just artists who then get evicted.  It’s a bunch of other people too, like manufacturing jobs …  I think we have to find some kind of way that we can keep our neighbourhoods diverse with a whole bunch of different types of jobs, not just office jobs, and then now office jobs paired with artists!” Before the 30-year lease project began at 5445 de Gaspé, artists were dispersed throughout the building, but now they’re “ghettoized [together] on a bunch of floors.”  Raphaëlle wonders if artists “want to be next to artists all of the time?” Artists are not staying in their pre-existing spaces, and “now because it’s a Project, capital P, three or four floors are going to be used for [artists], they all have to be up to code, which means a huge amount of money … of course, if there are broken sprinkler systems, those should be fixed, but…” Being up to code means a lot of technicalities, like having to have a fire exit on each end of a space – as a result, whole floors have been gutted and are being rebuilt. For his part, Matt Shane comments, “at this point, the only downside is the process of renovation and moving to a new space within the building. We’ve been in a temporary studio for the past 9 months, and we’ll only get into our new space in mid-December. That has cost us time and money.” Raphaëlle also wonders if this type of government-sanctioned project reduces the possibility of spontaneity and serendipity of artistic careers unfolding through happenstance.  Does the new 5445 de Gaspé still have those magical possibilities of “interaction and inspiration” and “serendipitous encounters?”

At the same time, it seems clear that some type of intervention is needed.  Raphaëlle suggests that it’s important to have cultural workers more involved in urban planning so they could work on lobbying and adapting zoning bylaws that can work against them.  She also recognizes the difficulty of this kind of work, in part because it’s difficult to understand the city’s bylaws and how they function.  The mystifying language of city codes and bylaws might be found across North American cities, but Raphaëlle says, “Montreal is particularly difficult to understand. The corruption has to do in part with the fact that people don’t know how it works; they don’t understand how government contracts are given out or how zoning bylaws work.”  Inspired by New York City’s Centre for Urban Pedagogy, with four other young women from her urban planning grad student days, Raphaëlle has started Bricolage Urbain, an organization dedicated to citizen engagement though developing educational tools and organizing activities to explain how the city functions: “the reason we started Bricolage Urbain was our own frustrations with having to decode the city and how it works. We found it so difficult and we have the training, so if we found it difficult, and we are all bilingual, I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for a regular person.”

It seems that that there are no easy solutions. By attempting to address the risk of losing the fertile and inspiring environment Montreal offers to cultural producers, we create new risks, like that of stifling creativity by creating an institutionalized, fossilized arts scene that’s lacking the spontaneity and magic of what once existed. But thanks to the work of people like Raphaëlle and others, this process of development and displacement of artists is being addressed, and by taking into account these new risks and attempting to grapple with them, we may have a chance of preserving some of that magic.