Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Griffintown Project: A Mistake to Go off the Grid

Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s administration seems poised to make major changes to an old industrial part of the city so a developer can build a combination of housing, commercial buildings and a shopping center.

The neighborhood, Griffintown, was where Irish immigrants settled in the mid-19th century so they could be work on the Lachine canal and the industry that grew up along it. Over the last 20 years it has become a ghost town as industry moved out and housing deteriorated. Plans to build a casino and entertainment complex fell through a couple of years ago, under a barrage of protest from planners and residents.

This time around Tremblay and friends seem keen on seeing something done. They’ve frozen development for two years in the area to help Devimco, the consortium of developers, so they assemble the necessary land. Tremblay also appears to be listening to Devimco’s demands that a trolley or at the very least trolley buses be provided to link with Montreal’s business and commercial center.

But developing the land along the lines Devimco suggests would completely do away with a unique part of Montreal history, Steven Peck argued in Le Devoir on Monday. When Griffintown was laid out in 1804, it adopted the grid pattern which became standard over much of North America, but which was an innovation at the time: New York adopted the grid only in 1811. The advantages of this kind of layout were described by Jane Jacobs in the ground breaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Chief among them is the pedestrian traffic and liveliness it engenders which works toward making a neighborhood an attractive place to live and work.

Peck doesn’t go into detail about this but he does point out that the most successful redevelopment plans in other cities have taken a homegrown element and capitalized on it. To completely eliminate Griffintown’s specialness by building another highrise-big box development that might be found anywhere would be a big mistake, he says.

Could be. This is one to keep an eye on. The developers also recently completed a new Life Style shopping center on the South shore of the St. Lawrence, and I intend to visit it soon. I’ll give a report when I do.

1 comment:

Jean-Louis Trudel said...

Peck did not actually state that the grid pattern was a North American innovation. He simply pointed out that Griffintown's grid was an early example, earlier than New York's.

But he surely knows that L'Enfant plans for Washington in 1791 was a very rigorous grid, and that gridiron street patterns stretch back to Antiquity. This short history suggests the earliest one dates back to 2670 BC... They were common in Roman camps and Renaissance towns.

Or have a look with GoogleMaps at 13th-century Aigues Mortes in France. It's almost as good a grid as what remains of Griffintown.

History aside, I haven't looked at the development plans of Devimco, so I won't comment on them. But one thing is for sure, Griffintown's grid pattern may be an early example of its kind, but is it unique enough to be sacrosanct? I'm not so sure.