From a parking structure to a community facility: the future Éthel project
Céline-Audrey Beauregard and Ariane Perras, dynamic Verdun residents and winners of the 2019-2020 Civic Incubator cohort, are the driving force behind the project to repurpose the Éthel parking structure.
Recognizing the cultural potential of an automobile-related infrastructure
Testimony of an urban development centred on the automobile to the detriment of the social fabric and neighbourhood life, the Éthel parking structure persists in the urban landscape of Verdun.
Little-known and neglected, it unfortunately struggles to fulfil its primary function and of its nine half levels, the highest ones have already been out of use for a long time.
However, the parking facility does offer a few advantages. Located a stone’s throw from the De l’Église metro station and in the liveliest commercial area of the neighbourhood, with over 21,000 square feet (approximately 1,950 m²) of parking space to be revitalized, it offers, as a bonus, a breathtaking view of the city from its top floor.
Photo credit : SDC Promenade Wellington
So, what can be done with this space? Verdun is currently undergoing intense redevelopment while facing major risks of gentrification. New sites, such as the recently developed beach, playgrounds and the “greened over” church square, are bringing changes and their share of tensions between new and former residents. What Verdun lacks is a space that residents could reclaim together and use jointly despite their respective differences.
The Éthel parking facility thus defines its new vocation, while offering an opportunity to upgrade an urban infrastructure that is unparalleled in Montréal.
Events that have been taking place there since 2011, such as the Festival Marionnettes, a Creative Morning conference or the screening of short films as part of the Festival Longue vue sur le court, have made it possible to test promising uses and consolidate a shared vision. However, the growing dilapidation of the site is considerably hindering the organization of new activities.
Recognizing the need for upgrading the infrastructure, key players started a process of reflection as early as 2013, supporting the idea of transforming the aging facility into an emblematic and innovative urban space. The project is led by the Société de développement commercial de la Promenade Wellington (SDC) and the NPO “Jardin Éthel” created in 2018. However, the project is moving slowly due to administrative complexities, investments to be planned and a need for coordination between the Ville de Montréal, owner of the parking facility, the Verdun Borough and the various partners.
The motivation of two Verdun residents
But the determination and commitment of Céline-Audrey Beauregard and Ariane Perras is changing this situation. Verdunites committed to improving living conditions in their neighbourhood, they first met at a community networking day. Combining their knowledge of social innovation and transitional urban planning, they form a duo determined to make the rehabilitation of the Éthel parking facility a reality.
Their proposal is to combine urban agriculture and greening, art and culture, entertainment and a meeting place, to make it an inclusive, accessible space that is aligned with the aspirations of Verdunites.
“Verdun is proud of its ‘village’ culture, but the neighbourhood has inevitably undergone profound transformations in recent years, not without creating tensions among the different citizen groups. By imagining an inspiring space, a vector of gathering and socialization, we want above all to ensure that Éthel project has a vision anchored in the local community.”
In a bottom-up approach and through a facilitated creative process, each person will be invited to bring his or her colour to the programming.
Éthel project intends to build bridges by encouraging the local population to take ownership of the space and allow the cultural diversity of the neighbourhood to express itself through citizen initiatives.
The revitalization project is also included in the borough’s strategic development and cultural development plans. It is an important component of the Quartier culturel pilot project, whose vision is to make every citizen an agent of change.
“We are part of a thriving ecosystem: between the SDC, which is invested at 150% to make the main artery bustling, the financial partners ready to invest in the project and the community of the Demain Verdun citizen movement.”
Photo credit : Caroline Perron
Drawing on the Civic Incubator program
Several challenges awaited Céline-Audrey and Ariane: how to structure the stages of development? How to create a common vision between the objectives of the SDC and the change hoped for by the people of Verdun? How best to respond to the different needs and what are the blind spots?
“The MIS is already operating in Verdun, having incubated Demain Verdun, among other things. We were familiar with the Civic Incubator program and wanted to access its valuable expertise. By joining the cohort, we also forced ourselves to block time in our days to work on the project.”
Among the practical workshops, the one on the theory of change particularly helped the duo to weave a thread between the different ideas and to define implementation phases, while making sure they were heading in the right direction.
“It was during this workshop that we understood that, although our project’s starting point is an infrastructure that will support innovative programming, we need to set up the project backwards: defining the users and a shared vision of social dynamics, in order to create a co-constructed programming that will give meaning and identity to the Éthel parking facility.”
“The introspection workshop was very useful for us as well, particularly in defining ourselves as project initiators, identifying some of our inner blocks and developing our resilience as leaders.”
“As for the individual follow-ups with the MIS resilient leadership counsellor, they were so valuable for learning how to develop healthy, balanced and creatively promising partnerships.”
The coaching within the Civic Incubator led to the development of a phased strategy, the first step of which was to take place in the spring: meeting with residents to ask them about their expectations and initiate discussions, in anticipation of a summer program that would introduce potential users to Éthel project.
Of course, the project is being put on hold in the context of the confinement arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the activity is temporarily reorganized on social networks, and the reflection continues to create a meaningful space when the relaxation of physical distancing measures allows it. At that time, there is no doubt that interest in such a community space will be heightened and the joy of meeting there will be multiplied tenfold.
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