Thousands of Montrealers voice their thoughts on the Van Horne warehouse project

With its industrial brickwork and iconic water tower topping its roof, the Van Horne warehouse has stood for nearly 100 years in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood.

A developer now wants to turn it into a hotel and office building, with commercial space on the ground floor.

But that would require a zoning derogation, and before the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough council approves such a change, it is getting a feel for what the community thinks with an online survey that people have until Feb. 12 to respond to.

Coun. Marie Plourde said some 5,000 people responded in the first 24 hours after it went up Monday, and that’s “really huge,” as a good turnout is usually a few hundred.

“It shows how much the people in Montreal are attached to this building,” said Plourde, who represents the Mile End district and has a background in urban planning.

The Van Horne warehouse was built nearly 100 years ago. It can’t be converted into a residential building because it is so close to the rail line. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Constructed around 1925, the seven-storey building was built to store goods. It was designed with an unusual, triangular shape so it could be wedged between the railway, Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Van Horne Avenue.

The proposed project includes the transformation of the building and new construction on neighboring land that connects to the warehouse.

However, that won’t happen without the council’s green light.

Getting the community’s input

“Before we go through that process, we want to see if there is some kind of social acceptance in the neighborhood,” Plourde said.

The development firm behind the project has already posted plans for the property online, stirring a strong response from the community, she said.

And while many people might want housing instead of the proposed project, that’s not possible under regulations that require a certain setback from the rail line for residential construction, the city says.

Beyond that regulation, the sector is already designated for economic development in the city’s urban plan.

Laurence Morel lives nearby and was one of the thousands to respond to the online survey. She said a hotel is a good thing because it will reduce the need for short-term rental services like Airbnb. Often those services are illegal, she said, and take away long-term housing from the area.

“I think people are more willing to go to a hotel than to Airbnbs,” she said.

Such a project would also encourage more pedestrian infrastructure so people on foot can get around more easily, she said.

Woman standing on city street with brick building in background
Laurence Morel lives about 10 minutes away on foot and works in the area. She hopes such a project will reduce the need for Airbnb rentals and increase the pedestrian infrastructure. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Glen LeMesurier, a sculptor who has a studio near the warehouse, has been active in the neighborhood for some 25 years. He manages the Twilight Sculpture Garden, a lot filled with artistic creations next door to the building.

The building is hardly used and won’t survive unused and unmaintained, he said. Being left vacant will lead to further deterioration, he said, and he supports any project that prevents demolition.

“How long do you want to just keep it empty?” He said. “It’s been empty since I started the garden in ’99.”

People care about building

Dinu Bumbaru, policy director at Heritage Montreal, said the building is somewhat protected as it is designated as a heritage property by the city.

The borough, when assessing any proposed project, must take that into account before approving any project, he said.

This particular building is part of the urban landscape and has a strong presence in its neighborhood, he said.

“People have developed an affection for it,” Bumbaru said.

The developer has contacted Heritage Montreal to discuss the building, he said. There is concern that any changes would damage the building’s character, but it is refreshing to see the borough reaching out to the public to see what people think, he said.

Such a project would help preserve the structure, he added, and “we see some value in the developer moving forward and giving new life to the structure.”

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