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.

Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)
Current state of the lower Main (photo by Donovan King/optative.net)

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.

It looks like the independent burlesque, fetish and drag artists who call the second floor of Café Cleopatre on St-Laurent their artistic home will be able to continue doing so, at least for a while. City-backed developer Angus Development (SDA) told Radio Canada that they have scrapped their plans to expropriate the venue, and now plan to build two 13-storey buildings on either side of Cafe Cleo. This turn of events brings to a temporary end what is probably the biggest local David versus Goliath story to come about in a long while.

While this turn of events will allow many to breathe a sigh of relief, does this mean the Cleo is safe for good?

“No,” says Eric Paradis, who runs the monthly Club Sin fetish nights on the Cleo’s second floor, “the Cleo will never be safe as long as corporate interests rule above those of the artists.”

It’s those same corporate interests that led the Tremblay administration to offer the SDA a no-bid contract to “redevelop” the lower Main. It’s also those interests that gave the SDA the bright idea of building a skyscraper office tower for Hydro Quebec as the centerpiece of an entertainment district and evicting all the entertainers who stood in their way.

Fortunately, those motivations were clear to people who performed, worked and lived in the area as well as historians, academics and pretty much anyone who cared about Montreal’s real culture. Those voices came out en masse at the public consultations on the subject nearly two years ago, when FTB first picked up this story.

Now, Angus may well be taking its new two-building proposal to the public consultation process. Even though the plan allows for the Cleo to remain, it’s a far cry from the re-emerging nightlife that existed on the block before Yaccarini and company started buying up lots and boarding up buildings.

“Regardless of my status of producer of events,” Paradis commented, “I think it’s preposterous to build anything over six stories on that part of the Main.”

This also isn’t a done deal. The announcement by Angus just says that they have asked the city to remove their name from the expropriation process, so the city still needs to do just that. Some may remember that the last time Angus made a concession (after the OCPM ruling came down), Tremblay erased it and said that things would proceed as planned.

So while supporters of the Cleo, authentic grassroots culture and Montreal’s heritage take a collective sigh of relief, is there something else they should be doing to ensure that the Cleo remains, and that a better idea for the area than two office towers comes to light?

“Make yourselves heard!” Paradis argues, “your ideals to preserve and rebuild have every right to be.”

If you want to be heard, you can comment on this post, the Radio Canada article, spread the story and join the Save the Main Facebook group. You can also read our previous coverage of the story.

Photo by Chris Zacchia