NDG's Empress Theatre could be demolished to make way for affordable housing, community space
Published Thursday, March 5, 2020 11:16PM EST Last Updated Friday, March 6, 2020 3:07PM EST
MONTREAL -- The Empress Theatre, a long-abandoned landmark on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) neighbourhood, could be partially, or completely, demolished to make way for affordable housing, commercial and community space, CTV News has learned.
Montreal's public housing agency, the SHDM, has been given the mandate to oversee the planning and management of the project.
Initial plans declare that some housing units in the new structure will be earmarked for affordable housing for artists, according to documents sent to CTV News. The ground floor of the new structure will be reserved for commercial space in favour of art galleries or similar enterprises, the rest of the building will feature community space.
“NDG residents have been waiting a long time for the Empress Theatre’s rejuvenation,” said Côte-Des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-De-Grâce borough mayor Sue Montgomery. “We are taking action to give the neighbourhood back this hub for community gatherings and cultural activities, while adding a component dedicated to housing. This is a project that will inject a healthy dose of sparkle to Sherbrooke West in NDG and, in turn, help surrounding businesses thrive.”
To build the new project, much of the building -- possibly all of it -- will have to come down.
CTV News has obtained an overview of the plans that forsee the "partial or complete demolition" of the theatre in favour of the development. Three sources have confirmed that the borough was set to announce the project in the coming days before putting it to a vote.
The old theatre has stood at the corner of Old Orchard Avenue and Sherbrooke Street since 1927. It was a vaudeville and burlesque hotspot, a dinner theatre and a movie theatre before a fire prompted its closure in 1992. The city acquired it in 1999, and it has sat vacant, apart from some first floor offices, ever since.
As it stands, the theatre is structurally unsound and will have to come down, according to an audit performed by an architectural firm viewed by CTV News.
Heritage Montreal policy director Dinu Bumbaru laments losing the building and the heritage that comes with it.
"The Empress is a rather unique heritage cinema and building for its architecture, now mostly its exterior, but also its living memory as Cinema V. We care for it and are deeply saddened by its condition after decades of city ownership," said Bumbaru.
Bumbaru said a Heritage Montreal team toured the building in the fall and observed decayed concrete floors and water infiltration.
The roof is at risk of collapsing, the audit warns, but its iconic facade, featuring stone columns and busts of Pharaohs, can be saved and integrated into a new design -- at a cost. Expenses would balloon if workers were to conserve the exterior of the building.
"That visit illustrated the challenge of revitalizing or rebooting the building but also that, unexpectedly, pieces of the original neo-Egyptian decoration had survived here and there that could be, if not kept, at least scanned and documented properly," said Bumbaru.
Though plans to refurbish and revitalize it have been announced before, borough and city officials told CTV News they are confident that this plan will come to fruition.
The shape, style and design of the new building are yet to be decided.
Though barren and decrepit, the theatre has become a landmark. Its architecture is unique; its neo-Egyptian style is recognizable. Some will be sad to see it come down if the facade cannot be saved, City Councillor Marvin Rotrand told CTV News.
"Despite it being an eyesore on Sherbrooke Street, many NDG residents want to conserve its iconic facade and were hoping for a project that was mostly a cultural community venue," he said. "Several previous projects failed to ever get off the ground. The SHDM plan is the most solid yet to be announced."
The project is still in its early stages. Officials are waiting for further studies before plans can be finalized. Borough officials say they will also begin consulting the public in April to make sure the earmarked project will meet the needs of the population.
Bumbaru said mandating SHDM doesn't mean demolition is guaranteed.
"SHDM is a very useful para municipal corporation that can help get the Empress off the quagmire in which it sits now," he said. "Yet, as a heritage building, things need a bit of expert oversight. SHDM has got good professionals but lately has pulled down a significant heritage concrete building near UQAM for which apparently the state of decay made it hard to hope much, but it was very difficult for HM to even get a meeting with SHDM to understand the situation. Hopefully, with the Empress, the process and expertise will lead to better communication."