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NDG residents urge borough to keep its buildings
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 10 juin 2010
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SOS Empress does not want the Empress to become a private cinema, pharmacy or condos.

Recommendations to close and sell municipal and historic buildings in eastern NDG have many citizens concerned and organizing. The possibility of losing the Empress Cultural Centre on Sherbrooke St. and the Centre communautaire Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (CCNDG) on Cote St. Antoine Rd. prompted the creation of, respectively, SOS Empress and the Comité citoyen de NDG.

Recommendations for eventual closure or sale were drafted by the borough’s Direction de la culture, des sports, des loisirs et du développement social in its master plan, which was subject to scrutiny at public hearings in Cote des Neiges on May 25 and June 1.

Comité citoyen de NDG
Dominique Barsalou of the Comité citoyen de NDG argues that the closure of the CCNDG threatens the vitality of an entire neighbourhood, especially the square where it, a daycare, a library, schools and the Maison de la culture are located. Isabelle Létourneau, who created the Comité, says: “These public buildings have served generations. They are part of our heritage and we want to conserve and restore that. It’s the logic of our neighbourhood- we all bought old homes that we now maintain. We can mobilize our citizens to find money and financing…we love our buildings.”

A big issue for the Comité is the relocation of recreational activities to the future NDG sports centre at Benny and Monkland. The new pool and centre will be 2.5 km from the current pool at the CCNDG- this distance, claimed the interviewed members, is too great for families and children to walk.

Alexandre Lambert, Comité member and doctoral candidate in urban planning, suggested that the closure of the CCNDG would contradict the Ville-Centre’s active transportation, proximity and family policies. Lambert would like to see the borough adopt a long-term development strategy that values existing assets as well as new ones. So far, over 1400 residents have signed the Comité’s petition to keep and reinvest in the community centre.

SOS Empress
Unlike the CCNDG, the Empress is abandoned; the non-profit Empress Cultural Centre (ECC), the building’s occupant, has been seeking funds and partners to revive this former theatre and art deco building on Sherbrooke St. In April the borough council approved a non-renewable $62,100 grant to the ECC. This money is but a drop in the 12 million dollar bucket required to transform the building into the ECC’s dream of a multi-functional cultural centre.

Hints and proposals of the closure and sale of municipal buildings published in local papers prompted the creation of SOS Empress last March. NDG resident and SOS member Arlyle Waring laid out the group’s plan of action: “We have to meet with the [ECC] board; we need to meet with the borough; we need to meet with the community; and we need to meet with the Corporation de développement économique et communautaire. The will in the community is there and there seems to be will among [ECC] board members and in the borough, so it’s only a matter of coming together.” Members of SOS Empress planned on attending the June 7 borough council meeting.

An administrator “caught between two fires”
Gilles Bergeron, director of the borough’s culture, sports, leisure and social development department and responsible for the master plan, hopes the meeting about the CCNDG will result in “a formula that will please everyone.” He suggested that the borough might “conduct a new study [on the centre] that asks how we can make its spaces more functional.” Nonetheless, the building’s condition will lead to an eventual closure, if only temporarily, to ensure people’s safety: “I want to act before the ceiling crumbles.”

On the issue of walkability raised by the Comité, he remarked that the borough cannot build pools and centres every few blocks. In addition to the 8 million dollars needed to bring the CCNDG back to its original 1930s state, another annual sum of 700,000-800,000 dollars would be needed to keep the centre running. “Are all NDG residents ready to invest $8,000,000 so that these residents [around the CCNDG] don’t have to walk more than 0.2 km to go to the pool?” asked Bergeron. The location of the future NDG sports and cultural centres at Benny and Monkland is meant to satisfy the needs of residents in the district’s western and eastern parts, asserted the director.

On the Empress, he argues that “it’s been closed for 20 years. [The borough] didn’t close it. $200,000 [referring to the borough’s 2008 grant to repair the roof] later and the community brought us nowhere. We can be accused of not resuscitating it, but not of closing it.”

In the end Bergeron observed that “Mine is an administrative opinion. There is a whole other political logic, so if I’m told to do something, I’ll do it.”

What now?
In June the Comité citoyen de NDG will meet with Mayor Applebaum and Bergeron to discuss the CCNDG. According to Létourneau and Bergeron, Applebaum assured the Comité that, if need be, he would postpone the original August 16 deadline for Bergeron and his team to table its 10-year master plan on the borough’s cultural, leisure and sports facilities and services.

[Stephanie Watt]

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