On March 14, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., 249 citizens living close to the Bellemare grocery store development in Verdun asked for a referendum about the project. Now the borough has to hold a referendum that they are likely to lose or the developer has to pull the project and perhaps submit a revised version for consideration again.
The process wasn’t easy and if Quebec Bill 122 goes through, this will be among the last times it happens.
This was a great example in which local government officials set up a city development project that went beyond what local citizens can stand. Locals are always concerned that a project fits in with its neighbours. They care that unit costs within a development aren’t too high, that parking remains available, and that traffic isn’t worsened. Developers and city officials are concerned with increasing the density in a region, building higher-priced units that generate more tax dollars and “beautifying” neighbourhoods, which almost always means gentrification.
With this project, the borough of Verdun was very happy with the project they negotiated, which expands a beloved grocery story and creates rental units rather than condos. Several proposed units are large enough to accommodate families, a big need in Verdun. The developer has also offered to contribute $150,000 to build social housing.
Neighbours were not happy at all. The worried about the potential traffic and parking headaches that the four-storey 67-unit mixed use building will generate. They know that the grocery store parking lot will be frequently used, but the major street next to it is one-way, so anyone who visits the store will have to leave by the smaller residential streets. There’s also a school right across the street from Metro Bellemare, so it will be children negotiating passage through the traffic. Parking is already difficult.
To try to lessen the project’s impact, residents living on Claude, de l’Eglise, Evelyn, Galt, Gertrude, Gordon, Hickson, Joseph and Verdun had to negotiate a byzantine process that included verifying via a formal legal notice whether they had the right to participate. If they did, they went to Verdun borough hall, 4555, rue de Verdun, Salle du conseil, local 205, to sign a register for a referendum about the project. If they didn’t, they’re still annoyed.
Developer Robert Bellemare had things even tougher. He faced criticism, graffitti and hate while trying to present the positive sides of his project. He’s already spent a year negotiating with the borough’s local development committee. Then he spent several months trying to win over critics. His latest attempt occurred the morning of the register according to Radio Canada. That move was to create a citizen consultation committee to ensure his grocery store expansion is done in such a way that they will approve. There were other changes too, but according to my colleague’s story, they weren’t sufficient to keep residents from signing the register.
The borough also faced lots of criticism during the project, especially after the Mayor told the developer which zones they opened, allowing him to open additional spots and raise the number of residents who had to sign the register. (See this story in the Metro and this one on Radio-Canada).
In the end, 249 people of the 2,294 who live near the project signed the register. This was just a few more than the 243 people that were required . The borough can now hold a referendum about the project or the developer can pull the project, make the changes citizens demand and resubmit the project to the city again.
As tough as the process is for everyone involved, its advantage is that it keeps neighbourhood development in the hands of the citizens who live there. Everyone would prefer something easier. On the ground, citizens say they should be involved earlier in the process, when a project developer is beginning to present his project to the borough.
Quebec’s provincial government has a different idea. They prefer to remove all citizen clout entirely with Bill 122. If it goes through, citizens will have no say over what happens in their neighbourhoods.