November 1, 2006
by Canadian Architect
TEXT Peter W. Murphy
One of the most ambitious urban projects in recent Quebec history, the revitalization of the Saint-Roch neighbourhood has re-energized what was formerly Quebec City’s downtown, adjacent to the well-known historic Old City. Up until the 1960s, the Saint-Roch neighbourhood attracted shoppers and visitors from all around the region who flocked to its many boutiques, restaurants and department stores, making Saint-Roch one of the most lively urban neighbourhoods in the city.
With the rapid expansion of Quebec’s suburbs during the 1950s and ’60s, the centre of commercial activity in the city gradually shifted to the numerous shopping malls which sprouted up outside of Quebec’s traditional downtown. With this shift came the decline of the Saint-Roch neighbourhood: business and store closings, population stagnation and eventual decline, high vacancy rates and building demolitions, and the construction of a new highway which sliced through the eastern portion of the neighbourhood all contributed to creating a downward spiral which left the neighbourhood economically and urbanistically devastated.
The Saint-Roch Mall: the first city initiative to revitalize the neighbourhood
To counter this negative dynamic, business owners, in collaboration with the City, decided that they should try to compete with suburban malls which had been draining much commercial activity away from the downtown area. In 1972, after a referendum on the subject, Quebec City created an enclosed pedestrian mall along Saint-Joseph Street which had been one of the main commercial streets in the neighbourhood. The roof covering the mall, which extended approximately 500 metres east from La Couronne Street, made Saint-Joseph Street “the world’s longest covered street” at the time. It was, in a sense, an adaptation to Quebec City’s climate of the pedestrian mall mode which was popular elsewhere in North America but which, with several notable exceptions (such as in Madison, Wisconsin or Burlington, Vermont) eventually proved to be unsuccessful. By trying to imitate the success of a suburban shopping mall in an urban neighbourhood, the Saint-Roch Mall was ultimately never able to compete with the suburban malls, largely due to a declining local population base and its failure to accommodate the parking needs of its clients. Over time, the covered roof disfigured many of the historic building’s faades, including that of the magnificent Saint-Roch Church. By cutting off all cross-street traffic, the mall isolated residential portions of the neighbourhood from major boulevards. The roof effectively turned the street into an introverted corridor with reduced connections to surrounding businesses, houses and stores.
To further complicate issues, the mall remained, legally, a public street. As such, the city was required to treat the mall as it would any other public street, which involved high maintenance, security and surveillance costs: the city was required to ensure access to housing units along the street 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
Despite these urban, economic and legal issues, the mall rapidly became a popular gathering spot for the local population, especially the elderly and homeless. Unfortunately, the mall and the surrounding area also became a popular spot for undesirable behaviour, most notably prostitution and drug dealing, which contributed to an increasingly negative public perception of the mall. Eventually, after some initial success, the mall became plagued by store closings and high vacancy rates: by the mid-1980s, the mall was no longer economically viable.
The problems associated with the mall, in combination with the overall economic decline of the Saint-Roch neighbourhood, inspired city officials to envisage other approaches for the revitalization of the area. Toward the middle of the ’80s, a large-scale commercial, residential and hotel complex was proposed on vacant land south of the mall, yet the design was met with strong opposition by local residents and Quebec City’s design community. Their opposition was due to the overall scale of the project which was generally perceived by opposition groups to be disproportionate when compared to the more modestly scaled buildings on surrounding city blocks, as well as the failure of the project to address the social, economic and urban issues in the rest of the neighbourhood.
The mayoral elections of 1989: a turning point for Saint-Roch
The revitalization of Saint-Roch became a major political issue during the mayoral election of 1989. Jean-Paul L’Allier, who would eventually go on to win the election, proposed to elaborate a global vision for the neighbourhood that would be developed in collaboration with the local population and representatives from the business community–an approach which would become the basis for the strategy adopted by the City.
The strategy proposed by L’Allier was based on a multi-faceted approach to attack Saint-Roch’s problems on several fronts simultaneously, which involved developing a synergy between educational institutions, the arts and culture sector and housing. Incentives to attract high-tech industries would be added to the target sectors in subsequent phases. The efforts to bring jobs and residents back to Saint-Roch were to be accompanied by major investments in public infrastructures and new or restored public spaces.
First, to send a clear message to residents about the city’s intentions, the new mayor proposed the creation of a public garden–the Jardin de Saint-Roch–which would become a catalyst for other investments. The park, designed by Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui and Associates on the same piece of vacant property that had been proposed for the previously rejected commercial, residential and hotel complex, set a new standard for contemporary public spaces in Quebec City. By playing off the site’s topography, the landscape architects succeeded in creating a strong image for the neighbourhood. A cascading water feature became the focal point for a densely planted park featuring native plants and recent botanical introductions. More significantly, multiple seating options were designed to include seating in sun or in shade, on benches or on the ground, inwardly facing or with a view toward surrounding streets, alongside a small waterfall, or under a small pavilion. In so doing, the park would be able to accommodate large numbers of users simultaneously.
But, given the weak employment and economic situations in Saint-Roch, who would actually use the park? To ensure the long-term viability of that investment, it was then necessary to make a concerted effort to attract business investments to Saint-Roch as well as to bring in new residents to stabilize the population base.
Public and institutional projects in Saint-Roch
The second gesture posed by Quebec City was to relocate the design, planning and economic development services from Old Town to a portion of a former industrial building–the Dominion Corset Factory now known as La Fabrique–so that the approximately 140 employees most closely associated with the implementation of the revitalization plan for the area would be close by throughout the process. The move was done in partnership with Laval University’s School of Visual Arts which agreed to occupy a significant portion of the newly renovated building. To accommodate the art students, it was essential that their housing needs be adequately addressed. To do so, several projects were undertaken specifically to create studio spaces for the students and professors within walking distance of the newly relocated school.
One such intervention was a collaborative project by architects Therrien and Thibault/Carrier and Associates in association with artist Florent Cousineau, Les Ateliers du Roulement Billes (2000-2001) which involved the renovation of an existing industrial building and the construction of 33 live/work spaces for artists. With their large gara
ge-style doors opening onto the adjacent street, the ground-floor studio spaces are currently being occupied by Laval University’s School of Visual Arts. What is commonly referred to as the “beehive”–a rounded prow covered in flexible paper-like concrete strips–juts out from the otherwise orthogonal structure to express the creative artistic process of the building’s occupants.
Several innovative approaches to meeting artists’ needs were undertaken as well. One such project–the artists’ cooperative Mduse (1995)–involved the restoration of four existing buildings and the construction of five new insertions to complete a series of historic buildings along the Cte d’Abraham. Architect mile Gilbert designed a centre for the creation and the diffusion of the arts–including exhibition, production and studio spaces, a small theatre, as well as housing for visiting artists. By respecting the scale of the existing urban fabric and using a diverse mix of materials, he succeeded in creating a dynamic, if somewhat eclectic ensemble.
To reinforce the cultural character of Saint-Roch, several exhibition and small theatre projects were undertaken in the area. One of the most notable was the construction of the Thtre de la Borde (2001-2002, Jacques Plante, architecte in association with Galienne et Moisan, architectes) which contributed to consolidating the urban fabric along Saint-Joseph Street. The entrance hall was conceived of as an extension of the street, through the use of glass on the main faade at street level. The intimate scale of the theatre forms an appropriate transition between the two adjacent buildings, and the recuperation of portions of the faade from the movie house previously occupying the site lends an historic continuity to this otherwise contemporary insertion.
In the context of the City’s efforts to encourage the arts in Saint-Roch, a unique project was undertaken to convert an adjacent highway overpass from an eyesore into a work of art. Artists were hired to paint surrealistic murals on pillars supporting the highway and in so doing, these massive concrete structures were visually softened and dematerialized, and have since become a popular destination for visitors.
Business investments in Saint-Roch
To attract business investments in downtown, Quebec City offered fiscal incentives to companies through the creation of the National Centre for New Technologies of Quebec (CNNTQ). As a result, companies such as Ubisoft, CGI, TQS (a Quebec television station) and Le Soleil (one of Quebec City’s two major newspapers), opened offices in new and renovated buildings. The arrival of large numbers of workers has had a snowball effect and continues to attract other commercial and business investments including some of Quebec City’s finest new restaurants, cafs and unique stores such as Benjo, a children’s toy store inspired by F.A.O. Schwartz in New York and Hamley’s in London–an investment that would have been unthinkable ten years earlier.
Educational institutions in Saint-Roch
Since the start of the revitalization efforts, major investments have also been made by educational institutions in Saint-Roch, including, among others, the cole nationale d’administration publique (NAP, 1996-1998) and TLUQ/Universit du Qubec (TLUQ/UQ ) (1998-2000, both by Ct, Chabot, Morel, architectes with Les architectes Bernard et Cloutier in collaboration with Depuis Letourneux architectes). Facing the Jardin de Saint-Roch, the NAP is the result of an architectural competition which required that a former bank building on the site be integrated into the faade. The result is a highly articulated building, where the different volumes are tied together by the internal circulation systems. Adjacent to the NAP is the TLUQ/UQ building which, because of its similar massing, articulations and materials, forms a coherent ensemble with the NAP. This sober yet elegant and appropriately scaled complex frames the public space across the street and sets a high architectural standard for future interventions in the neighbourhood.
Housing in Saint-Roch
As housing was one of the City’s priorities in revitalizing Saint-Roch, great emphasis was placed on introducing a mix of housing types that would target as wide a variety of clients as possible. One such project across from the Jardin de Saint-Roch is the residential project Ct Jardin (1999, Andr Roy, architecte). This urban-scaled building is part of a large residential complex called L’lot Fleurie which was built in three phases, all designed by the same architect. It includes several housing types and densities: row-houses, cooperatives and condominiums. Like the park, this particular building plays off the topography, with the roofline following the slope of the site, thus allowing large terraces to be built on the upper floors. A ground level integrating offices and a restaurant contributes to animating the streetscape.
As another important residential and commercial project symbolizing the dramatic changes in Saint-Roch, the restoration and recycling of the Lalibert building uncovered the magnificent brickwork of an historic building that housed J.B. Lalibert, a store in operation since the 19th century. The upper floors were converted into 51 dwelling units–Les Lofts Lalibert, while the store still occupies the basement, the street level and a part of the first floor.
Restoring Saint-Joseph Street
After much public debate about the future of the Saint-Roch Mall, especially with regard to accommodating the needs of the local population who used the mall for social purposes, work began in early 2000 to remove a portion of the roof to restore the streetscape with pedestrian comfort as a top priority. To avoid competing with suburban malls, the redevelopment strategy involved attracting stores and businesses that could be found nowhere else in the region. Specialty shops and restaurants, high-end boutiques, as well as a Mountain Equipment Co-op store have now opened along the revitalized portion of Saint-Joseph Street. Virtually all of the faades along this section of the street have been restored, with new housing units recently completed. Also, a new public square in front of the Saint-Roch Church reinforces the notion of the street as the traditional heart of the neighbourhood. The success of this first phase of the revitalization of Saint-Joseph Street has encouraged the City to continue its efforts with a second phase that will begin in 2007, and which involves removing the remaining portion of the mall’s roof.
Since initiating the project in 1989, over $413 million in private and public investments have been made in construction, renovation and infrastructure improvements, while over 4,000 new jobs have been drawn to Saint-Roch. Nearly 1,100 housing units have been created in addition to approximately 130 artists’ studios, and over 1,500 students now attend the new educational facilities. The Jardin de Saint-Roch has become one of the most popular public spaces in Quebec City, and during the summer lunch hour, it is often difficult finding seating within the park. The success of the Saint-Roch revitalization can be traced to six points:
1. A solid partnership was created between the city, business community, universities and the provincial government.
2. A long-term vision for the neighbourhood was an integral part of the initial plan; priorities, accompanied by a realistic action plan, were clearly identified from the outset.
3. An emphasis was placed on mixed-use projects so as to create an integrated approach to the redevelopment of the neighbourhood.
4. The development plan targeted a mix of new residents which include artists and students as well as employment in high-tech industries, stimulating the economy and everyday life in the neighbourhood while avoiding large-scale gentrification displacing large numbers of current residents.
5. A synergy developed between city employees, elected off
icials and the local population to ensure that the implementation of the plan would best meet the needs of current and future residents, workers and visitors.
6. Finally, the City realized that to change the public’s perception of Saint-Roch, it was necessary to have high-quality architecture in new construction and in the renovation of existing structures as well as in its public spaces.
Based on the success of the efforts put forth by the City and its partners, this strategy for the Saint-Roch neighbourhood will likely be adapted to other sectors of the city in need of a similar intense yet balanced approach to urban revitalization. CA
Peter Murphy, AICP is a senior urban designer for Quebec City.