FLYING IN over the east end of Montreal one spring night in 1998, Pierre St-Cyr looked down at the island’s Rosemont district and saw a gaping black hole. Canadian Pacific Railway had turned out the lights on the Angus Shops in 1992, more than eight decades after opening the sprawling industrial complex the company had used to build and maintain its locomotives and its rail cars for passengers and freight. Generations of workers settled in homes surrounding the 500-ha site. But by the 1990s, the city’s lights surrounded a darkened, neglected complex. St-Cyr, an urban planner already hired by the CPR to rejuvenate the site, pressed up against the aircraft’s tiny window that night five years ago to get a better look at the challenge he faced. “It became obvious to me,” he recalls, “that this huge redevelopment job would be over only once that dead spot blended in again with the urban fabric of lights and life.”
Many workers died at the Angus Shops, a gritty place reminiscent ofModern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1936 tale of struggle in an industrial age. The compound was a smoke-belching, gated city within a city that at its Second World War peak employed 12,000 men and women in more than 60 buildings. But the diminishing importance of rail and the opening of the St. Lawrence
Seaway in 1959 contributed to the facility’s eventual demise. That heavily industrialized past left the CPR stuck with a polluted tract of land that nobody wanted, one laced with heavy metals and a variety of hydrocarbons.
Deserted and unproductive, the Angus Shops still needed $1 million a year from the CPR for maintanance costs and taxes—a drag on the bottom line that motivated the company. The clean-up required $11 million, including $3 million from an innovative, $180-million fund established by the Quebec government. At times, up to two dozen excavators heaved brimming bucketfuls of contaminated dirt—50,000 truckloads in all. Hauled off, the toxic waste was buried in a dump off the island near Lachenaie, Que., north of the city. Quebec’s environment ministry allowed the CPR to bury 50,000 cubic metres of some of the most contaminated soil in a membrane-lined berm beside tracks that still run along the site’s western edge, well away from the redevelopment.
The clean-up has resulted so far in $177 million worth of residential, commercial and industrial development, including 700 homes of varying sizes and styles. The largest building, stretching the length of
four football fields, was the “Loco Shop” where they built locomotives for many years. Seeing it as an important centrepiece, the CPR did not want it torn down. But because it was simply too big for single use, it had to be cut into three. Roughly a third became industrial space, divided into two storeys. Gutted, the facade of the centre span houses a roofless parking lot for the Loblaws grocery store now occupying the third section. The store features a massive crane overhead, equipped with a hook that used to move loads as heavy as 60 tonnes.
That nod to the past and the attention to detail resonate with locals. Ginette Caron, 59, a seamstress who has lived in Rosemont for 15 years, pauses in the parking lot on a muggy day. Like many still in the area, Caron has a family connection to the Angus Shops, and by extension, the Loblaws. “I was really moved the first time I stepped in there,” Caron says. “I said to myself, Tm standing where my grandfather used to stand.’”
Claude Lachance, a nurse’s aide, moved into his new condo nearby in March. Dust rises from the still-unpaved road as cars lurch by. Lachance, 37, was happy not to have to move off the island to find a place to live. “Look at what they did,” he says, waving his arm at the homes around him. “It’s super nice, and you’ve got no bridge to commute across—that means a lot.” Lachance’s contractor gave him a letter stating the area had been cleaned to the province’s environmental standards. The letter helped, but it almost wasn’t needed. Says Lachance: “I told myself they wouldn’t have built all this on a toxic dump.” That’s all in the past now. D. H.
THE ROUGH-AND-READY east end of Cornwall, Ont., used to have a bad reputation; some might say it still does. But that’s changing. Le Village—as the area’s now sometimes called—is undergoing a welcome transformation that goes beyond the cosmetics of a swish new name. Several older homes sport new siding and roofs, others have been bought cheap, gutted and upgraded, and a few renovated storefronts now dot the commercial strip where once they stood neglected. Home owners are seeing their properties appreciate. Roger Migneault, 63, has lived there for 30 years. He talks about the
positive impact of the new baseball diamonds down the street, close to the St. Lawrence River, and the plans to renovate an old cotton mill a 10-minute walk away in the other direction. “Everybody here is happy with what’s been done,” says Migneault. “We can’t ask for more.”
In the early 1900s, teenage boys came off the farms around Cornwall to work in the mills in Migneault’s neighbourhood. But as the companies left for cheaper Asian labour, or simply went bankrupt, many of the buildings along prime waterfront real estate became warehouses before being abandoned. Fortunately, the area isn’t terribly toxic, says Chuck Charlebois, a former city councillor and volunteer with the Renaissance Group, a not-for-profit corporation trying to improve the area’s fortunes. Six fuel tanks 20 m high were removed last year, along with tainted soil. The lot remains fenced off, waiting for development, but at least it’s clean and ready to go, says Charlebois.
The Renaissance Group is cobbling together a business plan to turn one fivestorey mill building into 48 high-ceiling lofts. Despite being close to the river, the area sometimes feels more populated by pigeons than people. If the group can interest a developer, the $8.5-million renovation could start as early as next spring, which in turn could spark development of other abandoned buildings nearby. Incentives may be needed. The plans for the lofts call for the demolition of an annex of one building. Disposing of those bricks would normally cost a developer about $450,000 for dumping rights, says Charlebois, but the city may waive those fees. There is, however, a payoff for city coffers. Current taxes on the building net Cornwall $22,000 a year. Redeveloped, the lofts would generate $118,000 annually. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to say the developer can make a buck,” adds Charlebois—it’s money in the pocket for the city, too. D. H.
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