Panelists Velma Candyass and Josh Davidson discuss over the top plans for Montreal’s 375th birthday, food at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) and Donald Trump. Plus another Sergakis Update and Predictions.
Well here we go again. The Société de développement Angus (SDA) just announced a $160 million, 12 floor development project for the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine, the heart of Montreal’s historic Red Light District and current Quartier de Spéctacles.
They’re calling it Carré Saint-Laurent. There’s supposed to be a market similar to Marché Atwater at street level, cultural organizations on the first floor and the rest of the floors split between residential and commercial space, the latter leased by the Quebec government for 25 years as office space for employees currently working in the Centre de commerce mondial.
If this sound familiar, it’s because just a few years ago, Angus tried to expropriate and demolish almost the whole block and build the Quadrilatère St-Laurent, a giant office tower for Hydro Quebec with a few boutiques and restaurants at street level. They failed.
Café Cléopâtre, a business located in a historic building with a strip club downstairs and an independent burlesque, drag, theatre and fetish performance space upstairs, refused to leave. Artists, heritage experts and people defending the rights of sex workers fought the PR battle while Cleo’s owner Johnny Zoumboulakis challenged the expropriation in court and won.
While the similarities are obvious, there are a few key differences. First, look at the promoters.
Angus and its head Christian Yaccarini were front and centre last time around, joined by then-mayor Gerald Tremblay and his Union Montreal administration, who had given Angus a no-bid contract to complete the project. While Hydro Quebec had agreed to rent out the space, the Charest government largely stayed out of the debate.
This time out, Angus and Yaccarini are again prominent but Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is by his side and was part of the announcement. The city hasn’t said much, aside from new mayor Denis Coderre appearing in the photo op.
As for the opponents, last time everyone, be they history buffs, anti-gentrification activists or ordinary people who felt that the corner of St-Laurent and St-Catherine needed buildings that were at a more human scale, gravitated to the cause to save Cleo, making Zoumboulakis and the artists he housed their champions. This time, it’s not so simple.
Café Cléopâtre is not in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs, at least not yet. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Yaccarini’s plan is to drastically change the neighbourhood around Cleo so it will stand out like a sore thumb and want to move, that hasn’t happened yet and is not part of the official plan.
That means arguments that Quebec and the SDA want to evict a bunch of artists from an entertainment district can’t be made. Also, Zoumboulakis can’t wage any legal battles over who his neighbours will be.
If the fight to save Cleo the first time out was turned into a movie, it would be emotional and riveting. This would be the sequel where Brad Pitt (I guess Zoumboulakis) has to take a supporting role.
While many of the same artists seem to be on board for the fight (if the Save the Main Facebook page is any indication), it’s not going to be about them or the Cleo. The fight against this development has to focus on heritage and what role that will play in the future of the lower Main. Instead of focusing on what Yaccarini and Marois are proposing, it should focus on what they’re not proposing.
A market with small, independent vendors is a good idea and one that should occupy some of the space. But what about other nightlife to compliment Cleo? Maybe a live music venue or two? Another bar?
This area needs small businesses that are independently owned. Kind of like those that were there before the SDA decided to expropriate everyone.
I’m all for residential space, but not condos as they are proposing for the St-Catherine side. This isn’t an area for condos, it’s an area for nightlife and could be a great place for those who thrive in that nightlife (such as independent artists who may not be able to afford condos) to live.
Above all, this is not an area for government offices or tall buildings. There are other parts of town where such things fit, the lower Main isn’t one of them.
The lower Main was, is and should always be about Montreal. It’s not about the Quebec state or upscale establishments, just look at how the 2-22, Yaccarini’s other project across the street, is failing.
The lower Main needs to be redeveloped based on what the area is and has always been. That was happening on its own organically a few years ago, but then the SDA and the city put a stop to it.
I think the best way to proceed is for someone to expropriate all the properties that the SDA seized a few years ago from the SDA and sell them at affordable rates to a bunch of independent business people who get the street-level, independent nightlife vibe and who can actually get things moving the right way. Clearly Christian Yaccarini and Pauline Marois don’t know what this area needs.
Through the generations the face of the Main has certainly changed, degraded and revamped. Just in the last decade, the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine Streets has gotten a make-over, and in some respects is still getting work done. Some buildings have been torn down, while constituents petitioned and fought with all their might to make sure establishment like the Montreal Pool Room and the Café Cléopâtre stood their ground. Major holes were dug up, patched-up and re-paved to make way for new developments within the entertainment district. The Quartier des spectacles now has a glamed up exterior and decor similar to the Place des arts, but all this has brought-in some new faces to the ‘hood.
Once known as Montreal’s red-light district, this reputable street corner is now home to La Vitrine – the one-stop ticket-window for most of your cultural and entertainment needs, where you can plan an outing or check out the last minute tickets that are available at a discount. In the same building, a new restaurant opened its doors – named after Lili St. Cyr, the most famous woman in Montreal in the 1940s and 50s. Lili was known for her beauty and burlesque shows, as well as her immoral, obscene and indecent behaviour, given the very catholic climate that ruled Quebec at the time. Times have changed, some people are not as uptight and Montreal’s joie de vivre cannot be satiated, especially with indulgence staring at us right in the face.
The St. Cyr notes the contrast from the classic style of the 40s and 50s with a clean modern twist with French cuisine that borders on Mediterranean flavours, with citrus and herbs to showcase some of the province’s best ingredients. The restaurant located in the 2-22 building, offers three different areas that aim to please and tease in any situation, from a sexy cocktail in their lounge, to linger over an tempting menu or simply just drop in for a quick bite before or after a show.
On opening night, dimly lit with hanging glistening lights, this new venue was packed and rightfully so. Greeted with bright smiles, a glass of wine and a few amuse-gueules at the front bar, the evening was off to a good start. Plates of miniature samplings of St. Cyr’s menu paraded around the dining room before flying off into peoples mouths. I can’t blame them; the bites were delicious, well put together and tested true to a certain quality that is not easy to pull off given a hungry finicky crowd of critics of all sorts. Displayed above the glass encased wine cellar, the black and white projections of Ms. St. Cyr and vintage images of the Main from way back when, reminded us that the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine has been through many ups and downs that have transformed the face of culture many times over.
If the Magdalen Island scallops – with the pinkish-orange coral still attached and intact (a rarerity it seems these days) – with the delicate cider zephir are any indication of the quality, inspiration and deliciousness of the Chef’s savoir-faire in the kitchen, then I would say this to you: Grab your main squeeze or round-up some of your peeps and head out for a night on the town for dinner, drinks and a show. With satiated palates, who knows where the night may lead you…
For supporters of Café Cleopatre and the heritage of Montreal’s historic Red Light District, Christmas may come early this year and I’m not talking about the Glam Gam holiday show that wrapped up last weekend, either. Angus head Christian Yaccarini confirmed to Cyberpresse that he may just throw in the towel and give up on his company’s ongoing attempt to expropriate the legendary burlesque, drag and fetish performance space and downstairs strip club.
For several years, Yaccarini’s Société de développement Angus (SDA), with the full blessing and encouragement of Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay and his administration, has been buying up spots on St-Laurent boulevard between St-Catherine and the Monument Nationale theatre and leaving them vacant, creating a virtual ghost town around the lone holdout Cleopatre. They hope to raize the area and replace what was recently a thriving community experiencing a rebirth with a giant skyscraper to house Hydro Quebec offices.
Meanwhile, a coalition of artists, historians, academics and residents have been fighting this plan tooth and nail in the media, at City Hall, at the Office de consultation public and recently in the courts. It’s this case brought by Cleo owner Johnny Zoumboulakis that may finally break Yaccarini’s stubbornness on the matter. He argued that it might just not be worth it to keep paying legal fees when, as he put it in French, “Cleo’s lawyers just don’t want to come to an agreement.”
If Angus does decide to stop fighting, it would be a decision “with heavy consequences for the lower Main” as Cyberpresse put it, but only because of the situation Angus created all around the Cleo. Even when a group of artists endorsed by the Quartier des spectacles put up graffiti art over the boarded-up buildings, Angus had it painted over a few months later, destroying an attempt to bring life back to the block.
Now (if they drop the case), Yaccarini and company will have to decide what to do with the lots they do own. Maybe they could adopt a plan put forward at last May’s Petcha Kutcha night all about the Main: one that would see a living tribute to the area’s burlesque past. This plan was heavily cited in the booklet put out by those responsible for the event (though with no mention of the Cleo). Or maybe they could just pass the project on to another developer, one with more knowledge of what the area needs (ie. not an office tower in the heart of an entertainment district).
Maybe the city could force Angus to do the right thing, but given the fact that the Tremblay administration is heavily involved in this disaster and even handpicked the developer, ignoring his criminal past, that doesn’t seem very likely. That might not matter, though, because if people working together to stand up to him can (eventually) get Yaccarini to change his mind, maybe people working together can make the city adopt their plan.