Quebec backed Hôtel-Dieu housing plan, but ‘nothing is happening’

November 8th, 2023

A coalition that has been waiting for years for the Quebec government to act on its promise to implement the group’s proposal to redevelop the Hôtel-Dieu hospital site with social housing, health and community services and green space says it worries the project is in jeopardy amid talk of a sale.

Dimitri Roussopoulos, president of Communauté St-Urbain, says the coalition’s project has broad community and political support but is at a standstill, and authorities at both levels appear to have stopped taking his calls. That, he added, has him worried about possible backtracking by Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec from its 2022 and 2018 election promises to work with the coalition “to create a new, innovative residential and social diversity district” out of the sprawling hospital complex at the foot of Mount Royal.

Three people stand outside the former Hôtel-Dieu hospital

Dimitri Roussopoulos, president of Communauté St-Urbain, with Milton Park co-operative members Susan Read, left, and Cindy Cook outside the former Hôtel-Dieu hospital site in Montreal Monday Nov. 6, 2023. Roussopoulos’s group is a coalition of community groups and unions that has been lobbying for years for the site to be redeveloped for public use. PHOTO BY JOHN MAHONEY /Montreal Gazette

“Nothing is happening with our project despite all of the candidates (in the provincial election) supporting it,” Roussopoulos said. He added that Mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal party endorsed the Communauté St-Urbain plan in its municipal election platform, but even Plateau-Mont-Royal borough mayor Luc Rabouin, a member of the Plante administration, hasn’t returned his calls lately.

“Why are we being stonewalled?” Roussopoulos asked. “The level of frustration is very, very high.”

Communauté St-Urbain’s project calls for 300 social and community housing units, including co-ops for families, 24/7 medical services and community support services for mental health, dependence and other health problems. It also calls for community spaces, including a daycare, artist studios, offices for community groups and an area for urban agriculture. The project involves requalifying three of the five hospital pavilions, construction of two new pavilions and transforming the site’s exterior parking lot into green space.

Architect and philanthropist Phyllis Lambert, who is honorary president of Communauté St-Urbain, said she’s also frustrated with what she considers a lack of transparency.

“I think the government is rude, whether it’s the municipal administration or the provincial government,” she said of the unreturned calls.

Hôtel-Dieu hospital, which is part of the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal, moved to the CHUM’s new superhospital in 2017.

Rumours circulated months ago that Quebec had offered to cede the Hôtel-Dieu complex, between St-Urbain St., Parc Ave., des Pins Ave. and Duluth Ave., to Montreal, but that city hall had balked at shouldering alone the cost of upkeep of the hospital pavilions while the site is redeveloped, Roussopoulos said.

In the meantime, others are lining up for the site.

The regional health and social services agency, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CCSMTL), confirmed it’s looking to buy the complex and isn’t committing at this point to social housing or other components of Communauté St-Urbain’s proposal.

“The CCSMTL has an interest in being the buyer,” CCSMTL spokesperson Marianne Paquette said in an email.

“The CCSMTL sees this possible acquisition as an opportunity to work with its partners to continue to develop a range of care and services adapted to the evolving needs of the population. At this time, no official date for the possible acquisition is set. Consequently, it’s too early to announce the future vocation that could be envisaged by the CCSMTL for the different pavilions of the Hôtel-Dieu.”Article content

Meanwhile, the Université de Montréal is also looking at the Hôtel-Dieu site as an option to house part of its faculty of medicine, university spokesperson Geneviève O’Meara said.

“This option, like several others, is currently being studied,” she said in an email. With the Université de Montréal expecting 390 medical students in 2024, “it is clear that the current space (on campus) will not be large enough to accommodate everyone.”

Just who, exactly, will decide the future of the Hôtel-Dieu site remains unclear.

While the CCSMTL says it’s discussing the purchase of Hôtel-Dieu with the CHUM, the Université de Montréal says it’s discussing the acquisition of space for its medical faculty with the Quebec health and education departments. Meanwhile, the Health Department says it’s still in talks with the city.

“The MSSS (Health Department) has ongoing discussions on this subject with the city of Montreal,” department spokesperson Marie-Claude Lacasse said in an email.

“No decision has yet been made.”

The CHUM, on the other hand, said “a process to sell the Hôtel-Dieu is underway with the (CCSMTL).”Article content

CHUM spokesperson Andrée-Anne Toussaint added that “ultimately, the vocation (of the complex) will be defined by these partners, including the Quebec government.”

Rabouin said through a spokesperson that his “borough has already committed to collaborating with the city, the Quebec government and neighbourhood citizen groups in the event of a re-qualification of the Hôtel Dieu site” that preserves its public and community character to make ample room for social and affordable housing, maximize green space and offer services for health and well-being.

The premier’s office refused to answer questions.

“We won’t comment on the discussions taking place at this stage,” Legault press attaché Ewan Sauves said in an email.

The Health Department had declared the Hôtel-Dieu surplus property in 2013, ahead of the hospital’s move to the CHUM. However, in 2015, the then-Liberal government declared it was no longer surplus and said it would become a “super-clinic.” The province then specified it wanted the southern portion of the site for health-care services, an element that is integrated into the Communauté St-Urbain project.Article content

Exterior view of the former Hôtel-Dieu hospital

Hôtel-Dieu hospital

Four of the Hôtel-Dieu pavilions are partially occupied at the moment, including by CHUM clinics that are awaiting space at the superhospital, an unhoused shelter and some Jewish General Hospital patients who have been relocated during renovations.

The CHUM’s board of directors passed a resolution on Sept. 29 declaring the Hôtel-Dieu complex surplus again.

Lambert and Roussopoulos said the lack of transparency around the Hôtel-Dieu’s future is surprising given that the province and city are engaging in public planning for the future of the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital site.

“A number of citizens in this neighbourhood and elsewhere who believe in the Communauté St-Urbain project are planning to occupy one of the pavilions and the parking lot at Hôtel-Dieu in the spring or early summer,” Roussopoulos said.

“It’s at that point that people are frustrated waiting for communication.”

In the 1970s, Roussopoulos and wife Lucia Kowaluk led a grassroots movement that blocked a developer’s plans to demolish the Milton Park neighbourhood, just south of Hôtel-Dieu. The battle led to the creation of one of North America’s largest co-operative housing projects on an urban land trust. Kowaluk helped found Communauté St-Urbain before her death in 2019.

The coalition is supported by dozens of organizations, including Les Amis de la Montagne, Heritage Montreal and the Fédération des coopératives d’habitation intermunicipale du Montréal métropolitain.

Privatization of any part of the complex would be unacceptable, Lambert said.

Hôtel-Dieu was founded in 1644 and run by city founder Jeanne Mance. The hospital moved to the present location in 1861.

“This is the first hospital of Montreal,” Lambert said.

“Since the 17th century, it’s been serving the public. So it always has to be public. To privatize it in any way would be a disgrace.”