Battle of Benny Farm
By Albert Warson
A federal Crown corporation's
redevelopment of a severely deteriorated WWII veterans' housing complex in
Montreal is a classic case of winning over hostile neighbours, blending affordable
and market housing, and a breadth of sustainability and green building likely
unsurpassed in Canada.
Canada Lands Company (CLC), based in Toronto, has been disposing of surplus federal properties for the past 10 years, creating more than 20,000 serviced lots, so far, for sale to home builders, mainly on decommissioned military bases.
Getting them approved for residential development wasn't exactly a cakewalk, but it was the Benny Farm low-rise apartment complex, built in 1946 and 1947 to accommodate veterans and their families, that tested CLC's resolve the most. It had inherited 10 years of fruitless debate between the neighbours and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the previous property owner, with the city of Montreal in the middle.
When CLC took over the project from CMHC it also took over controversy, stagnation, and then court injunctions. The prospects of a breakthrough seemed remote, given the fixed positions of linguistically and ethnically mixed Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood groups. They insisted on renovation, not redevelopment, as the only acceptable solution. They were vehemently opposed to height and density. High-rise condos especially were their worst nightmare.
Rather than face off in court and carry on with more pointless confrontations, CLC created a task force in 2002 to find a consensus among 10 involved community groups and achieved one in less than five months. It took Montreal's city council another year, from February 2003, to process the development plan and, in February 2004, work actually began on the 18-acre site.
Residents have started moving into the first of 550 affordable market-ownership and rental units, which are being renovated, built or attached to existing renovated apartment buildings.
A UDI award
There were other satisfactions for CLC. In April it received an award of excellence for Benny Farm from the Urban Development Institute of Quebec (UDI), recognizing its innovative approach, the thoroughness of the community consultation process, and its sustainable and environmental characteristics. (CLC has a wall full of industry awards for its projects across Canada, including a CHBA national grand SAM award and regional SAM award, both for Garrison Woods on the former CFB Calgary.)
"We might have fought for higher density, less affordable subsidized housing and more higher end housing, but we compromised along with everybody else," recalls Jim Lynes, CLC's acting president and CEO, who was on the task force along with a city of Montreal representative.
The task force had to pick their way through a minefield of development issues, among them whether to restore or demolish existing buildings, the proportions of rental, market, new and renovated buildings, says Lynes. Then there were height as well as mobility issues around the three-storey walk-up buildings for some disabled and impaired residents.
"It was basically less expensive to restore than to build new, so we supported the restoration of more than 200 units, and we all agreed on some selective demolition, adding new units to existing buildings and creating four- to six-storey structures as well, which gave us some greater density," he says.
Recycling old materials
While it isn't the first time materials from demolished buildings are being used in the construction of new ones, there may not be that many residential projects in any major Canadian city where it is being pursued on such a scale.
Bricks from the demolished buildings are being reused in new apartment blocks, he says, along with hardwood floors and radiators. Foundations are being ground up and used in new road beds.
Edilbec Construction Inc. of Montreal, the general contractor on the project, specializes in renovation and new construction of affordable housing. Dominic Savo, the president, says they saved about 75 per cent of the old bricks and worked them into the new construction for a cohesive 1940s look. Windows, mechanical systems, wiring, alarms and other modern features were, of course, new.
He describes the central court, with its parks, walkways and garden where residents raise vegetables, as a "horizontal condominium". Residents share the maintenance costs and in that way end up with better landscaping than if they depended on the municipal parks system.
Gordon McIvor, CLC's vice-president, public and government affairs, characterizes Benny Farm as "the best example of the federal government [CLC is its creature] working with the community, of all CLC's projects, rather than just giving grants."
When asked whether in retrospect CLC gave up more than it needed to in order to get around the troublesome impasse with Benny Farm neighbours, McIvor replied: "Giving things up sometimes leads to getting more back."
One thing CLC got back, he says, is that Montreal's mayor was so impressed with the way the Benny Farm turned out that he supported CLC's acquisition of an abandoned post office site on the Lachine Canal. McIvor says the federal cabinet has approved CLC's bid for the property.
Now it's only a question of price. The scale and character of development on that site will be determined over the next few years, but it will certainly be much larger than Benny Farm, he says, and probably mixed use in nature. HB