Growing pains in Montreal's cultural redevelopment

Montreal's new Quartier des Spectacles has been under construction for four years and still is facing opposition.
Parts of St-Laurent Boulevard and Ste-Catherine Street East, earmarked for redevelopment as part of the Quartier des Spectacles. (Google Street View)

Montreal's new Quartier des Spectacles  has been under construction for four years and still is facing opposition.

The project to create a cultural quarter with a public sqaure, a symphony hall  and a skating rink has cost close to $1 billion in  public and private money . The  two sq. km. area also will be home to new luxury condos and office towers.

Like many Canadian cities, Montreal is counting on culture to create jobs, attract tourists and revive an underused part of the city.

Eventually the city will have 28,000 seats in a variety of venues near the Quartier des Spectacles. That's the world's second biggest concentration of seats — after Times Square in New York — according to Martin Maillet, who manages the new Quartier des Spectacles.

Club Cleopatre owner Johnny Zomboulakis is flanked by fetish night producer Eric Paradis, left, and burlesque dancer and producer Velma Candyass on June 3, 2009. They opposed plans to expropriate the club. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
But at a public meeting Thursday, the audience was divided on whether the project was worth waiting for.

Renowned architect Witold Rybczynski said he doesn't have faith in governments to create culture and that culture should develop on its own, not in "theme parks."

 He pointed to mistakes made by government early in the building of Place de Festivals, including use of the wrong kind of grout that necessitated repointing of granite tiles   at a cost of $600,000.

"[A city official] said 'the mortar we chose worked well in the laboratory, but we noticed that in real conditions it wasn't holding up,'"  Rybczynski said. "That's how the government does things. It does things in laboratories, then it's surprised by real life.'

Some audience members argued that the project is already successful in redefining downtown Montreal. The Place des Festivals has been used the last two years for summer festivals and the Grey Cup parade.

But others say real artists are being driven out by an expensive project.

Two weeks ago city council had to give up on plans to expropriate Johnny Zoumboulakis, who has owned a strip club, Café Cleopatra, on St. Laurent for 35 years.

"In one month's time they were going to pull the ground off my feet.  And not even offering… a parachute, not even an umbrella for a soft landing, just like that.  I thought it was inhumane," Zoumboulakis said.  

Eric Paradis leads a group that supported Zoumboulakis and was able to get the city to rescind its expropriation plans. He complains the city is catering to well established groups, such as the Montreal Jazz Festival and Just for Laughs.

"So they're investing millions on an electronic vacuum system for garbage and the artists are literally being pushed away," he said.