Royal Vic for residences

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McGill Reporter
September 27, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > September 27, 2001 > Royal Vic for residences

Royal Vic for residences

It isn't likely to happen any time soon, but the Consultative Committee on the Reuse of the Existing Buildings of the McGill University Health Centre has endorsed McGill's proposal to turn a big chunk of the Royal Victoria Hospital and a portion of the Montreal Chest Hospital into student residences for the University.

The committee, which held a series of public hearings earlier this year and listened to submissions from citizens groups, scholars, and government and business representatives, officially presented its report to the board of directors of the McGill University Health Centre earlier this month.

Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Morty Yalovsky presented McGill's submission to the consultative committee. The committee supported many of the proposals Yalovsky put forward.

Chief among them was the idea that the Royal Vic's Women's Pavilion and Ross Pavilion be converted into student residences. Located close to the University and to other student residences that border Mount Royal, these buildings are already "residential in style" and could be converted into student residences fairly easily.

The Montreal Chest Hospital, located a short distance from McGill, could also be converted, in part, to student residences, Yalovsky stated in his submission. Again the committee agreed.

The University is facing a major problem when it comes to student residences. The number of students who come to McGill from outside the Montreal area is growing at a time when finding an apartment available to rent is becoming increasingly difficult.

Yalovsky welcomes the committee's recommendations but cautions that it isn't likely to result in any new residence spaces any time soon.

"It wouldn't make a dent for at least five years. We need spaces immediately which is why we're looking at other alternatives."

The committee also backed the idea that the Faculty of Medicine should have first dibs on the buildings currently used by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Montreal Neurological Hospital once they relocate to the new MUHC campus. The faculty would use the space to expand its teaching and research activities.

Yalovsky also raised the idea of a new Montreal Institute of the Environment that would occupy much of the Royal Vic and include the McGill School of Environment. The committee calls on McGill to further explore the notion, but Yalovsky says chances are it won't happen. While the Ross and Women's Pavilions can be converted into student residences fairly easily, transforming other parts of the hospital complex would represent a project that McGill can't afford to take on right now.

"What we have been told is that the cost for renovations would be astronomical."

The report supports extending the Institut de recherches clinques de Montréal, a research centre with some links to McGill, on two lots of the Montreal Chest Hospital. It notes that the Regional Health and Social Services Board of Montreal-Centre anticipates a need for more geriatric and long-term care facilities for the anglophone community and suggests that the Montreal Children's Hospital be considered for this role.

"Public use [of the buildings] should have priority where the financing is available or realistically forthcoming," the report declares. In cases where that won't be possible, "residential rental space or condominiums are appropriate private uses."

Senator Joan Fraser, a former editor of The Gazette, was one of the committee's three members.

"People differed wildly, passionately about what should be done with these buildings. Where there was common ground was the notion that the buildings matter, that these aren't quaint little backsheds that only interest the cognoscenti. Everyone believes we should have the greatest respect for their history."

In the report Fraser and the other members of the commission warn, "It would indeed be a pity if this file concerning the reuse of the buildings became the impoverished relative" of the project to build the new MUHC campus.

The worst-case scenario, in Fraser's estimation, "would be for the buildings to stand empty and crumble like the old Seville Theatre." But she adds that it isn't likely given the widespread interest in the buildings' future.

While all presenters agreed that the buildings should carry on in some fashion, there was a consensus that this had to be done in a manner that promoted further public access to the mountain.

The report calls for the creation of a new body, with the MUHC retaining "master control" that would oversee the completion of a comprehensive action plan for what to do next. The report urges that this be done as quickly as possible and suggests that McGill play a major role. "I think that's appropriate just because the buildings are so intimately linked physically and historically with McGill," says Fraser.

Urban planning professor Raphael Fischler was one of those who made a presentation to the commission. He says that he and others disagreed with the notion that presentations shouldn't question the creation of a new MUHC campus at all, a condition put forward by the MUHC when it created the consultative process.

He says there "is a lot of good stuff" in the report. He agrees that private developers "are not necessarily destroyers of heritage." He also endorses the report's contention that a clear and precise framework be developed to guide how the existing MUHC buildings are dealt with in the future.

He isn't so sure that the MUHC should be in the driver's seat in determining the fate of buildings that it is abandoning. "I think we need a mixed committee with diverse representation working on that."

He is also uncertain about the call to come to quick decisions about which buildings should be used for public and private purposes while simultaneously developing overall criteria to guide how to deal with how the buildings should be used. "That seems to be putting the cart before the horse."

David Culver, chair of the MUHC board of directors, welcomes the report.

"It was a very balanced and sensible report. To the extent that I have any influence, I want to see that what the reports talks about is respected in the end." The MUHC board has appointed former Quebec health minister Claude Forget to take the report "and decide what the next step should be," says Culver.

On another front, Culver has been named the chair of a new committee established at the request of the Health Ministry to oversee the creation of the new MUHC campus.

The McGill University Health Centre Development Corporation, which also includes Principal Bernard Shapiro among its members, will hold its first meeting in a few weeks to figure out what its priorities should be.

"The significance of this is that it points to the government wanting to see this project get completed," Culver says.

He says the government can offer some concrete assistance if it wants the MUHC campus to be built in a timely way by ensuring that its bureaucracies don't put up any unnecessary roadblocks in terms of red tape or special requirements.

"I hope we can get this done the way Expo '67 got done, not the way the '76 Olympics got done," Culver says. According to Culver, history indicates that too much red tape derails major construction projects and adds significantly to their expenses.

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