City Set to Reclaim Cinema V

Tariq Jeeroburkhan

August 16, 2011 – The old Empress Theatre on Sherbrooke Street and Marcil in NDG has been a cultural landmark since 1927, since which time it has housed a first-run theatre, a repertory theatre, an abused children’s drop-in centre, several offices and most recently the Empress Cultural Centre. All this despite a fire in 1992.

The Cultural Centre signed a fifty-year lease with the city 12 years ago, and it has taken that long to find a developer willing to upgrade the building and its facilities. Now, as the Empress Cultural Centre had located such a developer and the project looked set to take flight, the city has moved towards breaking the lease with the Empress and has cited the lack of certain cultural requirements agreed upon in the lease as justification for the break.

“We have no idea what these cultural requirements were,” said Jason Hughes, board member and treasurer of the Empress Cultural Centre. “The city has not told us what their plan is based on or showed us a plan at all.”

At the close of the NDG Borough Council meeting last night five city councillors out of six voted to break the lease with the Empress Cultural Centre. The lone dissenting councillor, Peter McQueen of Project Montreal had his motion to postpone the vote virtually ignored earlier in the evening.

In fact, Councillor McQueen made clear that as far as he was concerned and aware the ECC had followed all of the city’s guidelines to the letter.

“(The ECC) plan is not finalized, I agree, but it’s a very good start and it’s exactly what Mayor Applebaum and the city asked them to do,” McQueen said. “So we’re all just a little distraught and surprised that now the rug is being pulled out from underneath them.”

The city had asked the Empress Cultural Centre to come up with a plan for the future of the space by the end of June, and the development proposed by the ECC included a 25 million dollar renovation (by a world-renowned architect), condo and commercial development and a dedication for cultural space. The mix of private and public sector money for this project was an important factor that the ECC hoped would swing the council’s support to their side – unfortunately not after last night’s vote.

The city now has a sixty-day hold on the building and has proposed a partnership of NGOs to combine efforts in determining the fate of the Empress Theatre, basically starting the speculation process over from scratch despite the 12-years of work put in by those involved with the ECC. The city said that it will look at plans and proposals for the Empress again by the end of December.

Paul Shore, a media consultant who has been heavily involved with the Empress project in both the planning and fund acquisition stages was visibly distraught as he questioned Mayor Applebaum before the vote last night.

“Why take steps back? We already have a viable plan in place for development – a 25 million dollar development. What other non-profit (organizations) in NDG or beyond can offer what we have?” asked Shore.

The Mayor responded by saying that it was the contributions of other NGOs that he was interested in seeing – although the only one he mentioned by name was a group called Cinema NDG.

The NDG Borough Cultural Director summed up the city’s position clearly:

“Eleven years later and 1.5 million dollars of public money on this building and the story is that we are at the beginning – the building is empty, no project in the building for us we just want to take back conditional property rights,” said Gilles Bergeron.

Meanwhile, Jason Hughes and the Empress Cultural Centre are just hoping that they will get an opportunity to help with establishing a cultural venue in NDG that has been a long time coming.

“In the summer we signed a letter of intent with a developer, we have a working plan. We think we need more time and we also need the city’s support – not to be put in conflict with other projects or other developers.”

-fin-

Tariq Jeeroburkhan is an Independent Content Enhancer and can be contacted at

tjeero@hotmail.com

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3 Comments

Filed under Community Rights, Local Stories

3 responses to “City Set to Reclaim Cinema V

  1. Hi Tariq,
    It is possible to make mistakes in your reporting – I just wanted to set the record straight. In your article you say “…the ECC included a 25 million dollar renovation (by a world-renowned architect), condo and commercial development and a dedication for cultural space.” I can tell you that I was at the meeting in June with the Mayor and that there was no talk of condo development in the sense of condominiums (housing or apartments) and no dollar figure mentioned. Talia Dorsey, our architect that has been working with us since January is amazing, but it would also be inaccurate to say that she is “world renowned.” True, I was not able to be at the Borough Council meeting in August, so I did not hear this person that you may have quoted… Regardless, I think that the best function that I can perform is to set the record straight. We have not provided any dollar figure other than the potential cost to consolidate (repair) the building and that was in the vicinity of 1.6 million dollars.
    Indeed, cooperation and support from the city is what the new Empress Cultural Centre Board has been requesting since we started our work in October 2010. The idea that the process is now “opened up” for other community groups to make a bid a redeveloping the theatre does not take into consideration that all of those not-for-profit community groups will now be going after the same funding options and appealing to the same community. If the City had instead opted to bring the community groups together to find a solution, we would be all for it, we want to find a solution that serves the community. What we offered to the mayor with the help of our development team would have done that… now the community will have to wait some more years before the process can begin.

  2. Your article is of interest to me as the president of the board of the Empress Cultural Centre (ECC). I wanted to correct you and state clearly that we have never mentioned a dollar figure for our proposal of how to develop the Empress Theatre (your figure of 25 million dollars is completely wrong). The amount of money that it would take to redevelop the building is entirely dependent on what mix of commercial and not-for-profit eventually fill the space and what kind of zoning changes the city will allow. The central idea of our plan is that the private sector could participate in re-vitalizing an exceptional property while supporting the community need for more cultural space. Exactly how big the cultural space within the re-developed building would be is dependent on fund raising and many other factors.
    Additionally, there is no plan to put condos at the Empress. We have explored the possibility of affordable housing among many other options. However, if the city does not allow any zoning changes, re-development of the Empress is going to be very difficult.
    Please refer to our website http://www.empresscentre.org for more accurate information. Videos of Talia Dorsey’s presentation “Contextualizing the Empress” can be seen here: http://empresscentre.com/webE/?page_id=60

    • Tariq Jeeroburkhan

      First of all, the figure of 25 million was a figure quoted by one of your communications people in an open, public council meeting discussion with Mayor Applebaum. I simply reported it. If the figure is wrong, as you claim it is, take it up with your people. Secondly, the plans and proposals for the Empress, including yours, are purely speculative until there is a consensous agreement on moving forward. Until then no proposals are irrelevant or to be overlooked. I believe that was the message the city sent the ECC by voting, as the city council did, to remove ECC exclusivity from the project. Finally, as someone who has grown up all my life in NDG, I know that sooner or later the Empress will be re-developed and whatever plans are agreed upon by whoever will be involved in that re-development will be easily implemented once there is support from the city. That being said, I appreciate your commenting on the article and hope that you will keep updating the situation from the ECC standpoint as the story develops. -TJ

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