By Ron Bernthal
About 100 years ago a Montreal neighborhood called Griffintown was the center of the city’s waterfront industrial life. Because part of the neighborhood was located along the Lachine Canal, a shipping waterway opened in 1825 just southwest of downtown, Griffintown became a choice location for factories, breweries, warehouses and shipping companies.
In 1959, when the nearby St. Lawrence Seaway opened to large vessels, and canal-side factories needed more hydro power than the Lachine could provide, the end of Griffintown’s economic prosperity was doomed. When the canal was closed to all shipping in 1970 the neighborhood around it went downhill fast, with former factories and warehouses standing empty, or demolished to make way for inexpensive houses and apartments. By the early 1990’s the area’s deindustrialization was complete, and for a while it looked like the area would remain an obsolete, quiet and somewhat desolate neighborhood.
But new residents, including artists and entrepreneurs looking for real estate bargains, and some officials within the Montreal municipality, would see Griffintown as an opportunity for reinvention and rebranding. The city’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board named the Lachine Canal the “Lachine Canal Manufacturing Complex” and Parks Canada soon began to oversee the clean-up and restoration of the canal.
During the past decade Griffintown has seen a large increase in residential and commercial development, with modern, mixed-use facilities, art galleries and studios, restaurants and new, upscale housing units being constructed within the renovated shells of the old brick warehouses and factories. Along with the nearby neighborhoods of Pointe-Saint-Charles and Saint-Henri, also former industrialized districts, Griffintown has become desirable location for young singles and couples wishing to live within walking distance of downtown Montreal, and with visitors seeking new restaurant, shopping and gallery venues.
House values have skyrocketed and many real estate developers have turned the century-old industrial factories and warehouses, including the former Simmons Bedding Company at 4710 St-Ambroise (now known as the Complexe du Canal Lachine) into prestigious residential loft buildings. Another historic landmark, the 1908 Mount Royal Spinning Company’s textile factory at 5524 rue St. Patrick, is now Complexe Dompark, with commercial, custom-designed lofts filled with more than 90 established firms and start-ups working in media, fashion, publishing and service industry-based areas. The old Redpath Sugar refinery at St-Patrick and Montmorency is now partially Lofts Redpath, converted after being abandoned since 1980, and the area around Atwater Market has become one of Montreal’s most desirable residential areas for condo developments, although critics have bemoaned the loss of many small family houses, daycare centers and schools that were once located in the neighborhood.
“My partners and I bought two late 19th-century buildings in Griffintown, a knitting factory and the powerhouse next door,” said Luc Laroche, a Montreal native, about the beginnings of Le Richmond, a restaurant in one building and a bistro and Italian market in the other, both very popular neighborhood eateries.
“Griffintown has grown much like SoHo, in New York City,” said Laroche from his brick-walled second-floor office above the former knitting factory. “Former warehouses on side streets are now loft apartments, art galleries and restaurants. We restored our two buildings using the original bricks and bringing in hemlock to replicate the original wood interior. We hired older Italian men for the tile work inside, and visitors really love the mix of our historic atmosphere, the upscale gourmet market and high quality cuisine we offer.”
In 2002, the Lachine Canal was reopened as a pleasure boating area, and the banks of the canal were redeveloped. An environmental reclamation project continues to clean up old oil spills, but the banks of the canal now offer bicycling and roller-blading paths, and Parks Canada offers guided tours of the canal by foot, bicycle, and boat during the summer months, with the Lachine Canal bike path placed third on Time Magazine’s list of the top 10 urban bike paths in the world. There are several Bixi bike stations in the neighborhood, Montreal’s easy-to-use, shared-bicycle rental program, which has been hugely successful since its 2009 start, with thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations placed throughout the city.
New structures continue to rise among the older buildings still standing in the historic Griffintown neighborhood. The Griffix condo project, at the corner of Peel and Wellington streets, was constructed on top of an original one-story brick building and reaches 20 stories with 175 residential units and ground floor commercial space. Across the street, at 120 Rue Peel, a beautifully designed 154-room Alt Hotel, part of Groupe Germain Hotels, opened in 2014, offering visitors modern rooms, innovative meeting spaces, a trendy bar, and located just five-minutes’ walk to the Lachine Canal, 15 minutes to Montreal’s downtown Amtrak station, and a five-minute taxi ride to McGill University’s main gate.
Today, Griffintown, or “The Griff” as it is sometimes referred to, is a highly livable, walkable neighborhood, with six new public green spaces and $93 million of public investment in infrastructure and local amenities. After city planners enacted more liberal residential rezoning regulations in Griffintown, allowing for taller, high density structures, it paved the way for dozens of design-driven, mixed-use projects attracting young professionals and older suburbanites, who have moved into the area and are supporting Griffintown’s new art galleries, restaurants, cafes, eclectic shops and high-tech businesses, creating a thriving, upscale Montreal neighborhood.
Although Montreal has seen a steady loss of financial and corporate firms relocating to Toronto, and young men heading west for energy jobs in Calgary and Edmonton (until oil and gas prices dropped), the city continues to be one of Canada’s top spots for new trends in the arts (visual arts, dance, music and design), incredible new bistro’s and cafes, and where evolving neighborhoods like Griffintown keep the city relevant and exciting.
In 2017 Montreal will celebrate its 375th anniversary. For information on special events and anniversary festivals go to Tourisme Montreal Visiting Montreal