Tories hope for Montreal beachhead

The Conservatives have no plan for the city's waterfront, but they announced a 'land-assembly' project nonetheless

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The Gazette, Monday, April 23, 2007

The hardest part of any big real estate deal is usually assembling the land before speculators get wind of it.

That's in the private sector.

In the public sector, as in the crown land along the Montreal waterfront, the biggest challenge is settling turf wars among multiple stakeholders within the federal government.

Or even, as in the case of Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon and Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, getting two people in the same room as they were at the Montreal Board of Trade last Friday.

Cannon and Fortier shared the same stage, but stood at different podiums as they announced that nearly 5 million square feet of federal land on the waterfront would be "rehabilitated and developed" by the Canada Lands Corporation. Fortier acknowledged that the setup of twin podiums looked more like a debate, but assured the audience he agreed with the announcement.

The sensibilities in orchestrating such a joint appearance can only be imagined with their offices, where when staff refer to "the minister," they mean their guy, not the other guy.

Let's see. Cannon is the Harper government's Quebec lieutenant, meaning he's the senior political minister for the province. This means nothing is supposed to happen here without his signoff. And as transport minister, he has 17 crown corporations reporting to him, including Canada Post, the Port of Montreal and the Old Port of Montreal, all of which figured in the land assembly announced Friday, but none of which talk to each other on a regular basis.

Senator Fortier is the minister responsible for the Montreal region, which means nothing happens here without his say-so.

A redevelopment plan for the Montreal waterfront usually involves a grandiose scheme for the Bickerdike Basin next to the Port of Montreal headquarters on Cite du Havre. For years, there has been a steady procession to the port's president and CEO, Dominic Taddeo, who always explains that Bickerdike is an important part of a $2-billion-a-year business.

But this time Taddeo was prepared to part with three non-strategic assets, the Pointe du Moulin north of Bickerdike, the Rue des Irlandais at the foot of the Victoria Bridge and the restored waterfront segment of the Lachine Canal.

In addition, CMHC is prepared to sell some fallow land on Cite du Havre and Canada Post has agreed to unload a disused mail-processing plant and parking lot on Ottawa St.

Canada's New Government, as the Conservatives still style themselves after 14 months in office, call this land assembly "Montreal's New Harbourfront."

Harbourfront? That's a Toronto turn of phrase, and not necessarily a felicitous one. The redevelopment of the Toronto waterfront has mostly been a series of high-rise condos, which obstruct the views of Lake Ontario from a city already cut off from the water by the elevated Gardiner Expressway.

In Montreal, there are enough stakeholders to fill a Chamber of Commerce lunch to overflowing. There's the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec, the CN and CP railways, the Port of Montreal and the Old Port, developers, lawyers and lobbyists, not to mention community activists in the southwest part of town.

You want a local controversy? Try to move the casino to the neighbourhood without the support of the people who live there. There's been talk of relocating the Montreal Casino to the waterfront ever since it opened on the old Expo 67 site.

Undoubtedly, the casino will figure prominently in any redevelopment plan for the waterfront.

But at present, there is no plan, only a land assembly. So what's the point?

Well, it's politics. The Conservatives have no presence in Montreal, and they see a waterfront redevelopment project as a means of establishing a political footprint.

They wouldn't be the first to have tried, and they could hardly do worse than the Liberals, whose Montreal legacies include billion-dollar fiascos such as Mirabel Airport.

If you build it, they will come. But before they can come, it remains to be built.

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