Perpetual construction threatens downtown dining scene: Montreal chef

“If we’re not careful, the Joe Beefs of this world are going to disappear,” Pablo Rojas says. “We’re going to lose the cachet that makes our city what it is.”

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Longtime Montreal chef Pablo Rojas says perpetual construction runs the risk of sapping the life out of the downtown bar and dining scene.

Since teaming up with partners to revamp and reopen the former Dominion Square Tavern last year, Rojas has become intimately acquainted with construction-induced headaches — probably more so than he would ever have wanted. A new condo tower that’s going up on Mansfield St., west of his bar, has already delivered its share of unwanted noise and vibration.

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On Monday, the city suddenly blocked the sidewalk on Metcalfe St., directly south of Rojas’s Bar Dominion, leaving the building accessible only via a single pedestrian lane that snakes through two construction sites. Metcalfe was already off-limits for vehicles because of major roadwork underway on nearby Ste-Catherine St.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business for 22 years. I saw St-Denis (St.) crumble. I was on St-Laurent (Blvd.) when it crumbled. Now, it’s downtown,” Rojas said in an interview Friday.

“If things keep going the way they are, given the price of real estate, all we’re going to be left with downtown are franchises that can afford losing money for three years. This is not what downtown is known for internationally.

“The minute we lose what makes Montreal unique, these family-owned businesses, we’re going to become just another generic place full of (chains like) Madisons and St-Hubert,” Rojas said.

“If we’re not careful, the Joe Beefs of this world are going to disappear. We’re going to lose the cachet that makes our city what it is.”

Contractors working in the area have taken over the alleyway adjacent to Bar Dominion, making truck deliveries impossible and forcing bar staffers to walk hundreds of metres to drop off their garbage, Rojas said. On Saturday morning, when a Gazette reporter visited the area, several parked cars obstructed the alleyway. Rojas estimates business at the bar has plunged 50 per cent since the sidewalk was closed.

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“People like to talk about a relaunch of the downtown area, but how can you believe them when everything is closed? It’s a bit of a joke,” Rojas said. “In a month, they’re going to shut down Peel St. They’re making things extremely difficult.”

Construction and safety concerns has closed part of Metcalfe St. in Montreal, creating headaches for businesses in the area.
Construction and safety concerns has closed part of Metcalfe St. in Montreal, creating headaches for businesses in the area. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

City officials say they had no choice but to close the sidewalk to pedestrian traffic.

Fragments of the Avis parking lot’s façade at 1225 Metcalfe, adjacent to Bar Dominion, “are in imminent danger of falling, and a security perimeter has been set up to protect the public,” Hugo Bourgoin, a spokesperson for the city, said Friday in an emailed response to questions. “This measure is intended to prevent any potential accidents, given the safety issues beyond our control. Everyone’s safety remains our top priority.”

Ville-Marie borough officials are in talks with the building’s owner “to resolve this situation as quickly as possible,” Bourgoin stressed. The city is in “constant communication” with businesses that have been affected and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association, he added.

Steven Tsatas, who owns both the Bar Dominion building and the Avis parking lot, confirms the city’s version. Tsatas said he has “full faith in the administration” and the communication with municipal officials “has been nothing but great.”

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“Obviously, there’s a condo building that’s being built in the back. They were dynamiting in the back, there was some vibration and there was a bolt that fell,” Tsatas said Friday in an interview. “As the diligent landlords that we are, our first priority is public safety. God forbid that anything would ever happen. I would never be able to live with myself.”

After noticing “there was some debris and cement dust,” Tsatas said he hired an engineer who immediately ordered dozens of diamond-shaped concrete slabs to be removed from the parking lot’s façade.

“In a perfect world, all of those diamonds would come off. If they come off, there is no more drama,” Tsatas said. “That building was built in 1959, and it was built with the construction code of 1959.”

When fissures in the concrete were detected,we decided, and the city decided, it would be a good thing until further evaluations are done on the diamond precast things to close up the street to make sure that nothing happens,” Tsatas added. “Unfortunately, given the egress of the sidewalk, it’s very challenging to get in and out, especially for Dominion. It’s not perfect. The building at the back and the city roadwork at the front are the bread, and we’re the ham and cheese in the middle.”

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Engineers are scheduled to inspect the Avis building this weekend “to isolate exactly what is happening so we can get to the repairs quicker,” Tsatas said. “But until that happens, it’s going to be closed.”

None of this will appease Rojas, who said city officials have shown a general lack of consideration for merchants when carrying out roadwork downtown — despite assurances by Mayor Valérie Plante herself businesses would be able to function normally even amid the construction.

“This is beyond acceptable,” Rojas said. “We’re stuck in a hole and we cannot do a thing. When Ms. Plante came to see me October, she told me that things were going to be done differently with a bit more consideration for merchants. A few months later, I don’t have access to my business, I have no deliveries and no garbage collection. It’s hard to believe them after that. The results are not there and nobody is accountable.”

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