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