The Negro Community Center land :
On Tuesday, November 18, 2014, the Quebec Court of Appeals refused to hear the South-West Borough’s appeal of the Superior Court decision authorizing the demolition of the historic Negro Community Center (NCC) in Little Burgundy.
The City’s inaction
In this decision, the Court of Appeals reiterated the reasons of Superior Court Judge Luc Lefebvre, who, in his decision of November 14th, 2014, strongly criticized the City of Montreal for its’ inaction in this case. According to the honorable Judge Lefebvre, the repairs that the City required would have only “postponed demolition.” The Court estimated that the required repairs would have cost as least several hundred thousands of dollars.
The Court underlined the fact that these repairs were only imposed by the City on October 14th, 2014, after 25 years of inoccupation of this building constructed in 1891. Judge Lefebvre wrote, “asking the owner to take on alone the cost of these repairs while the City has done nothing for the last 25 years to stop the degradation of this building which is classified as ‘significant’ appears to the Court as an unreasonable demand.” At the Superior Court hearing, residents of Little Burgundy testified as to the dangerous condition of the NCC, for the owner, in favor of demolition.
The Negro Community Center was demolished a few days after the Court of Appeals judgment. Thus, an important element of Little Burgundy’s historic patrimony was lost forever.
The NCC land in the hands of a “holding company”
The demand for demolition was filed by 9289-5929 Québec inc., a company which is itself the property of a second company, “The Sen Trust”, listed in the Quebec Enterprise Register as a “holding company”. 9289-5929 Québec inc. bought the NCC land for 300 001$.
A “holding company” does not produce goods or services. Its’ only objective is to hold actions in other companies. One of the advantages of holding companies is that shareholders can protect liquid assets from eventual lawsuits by transferring funds from one company to another. In this way, holding companies can limit responsibility and reduce the level of taxation. A holding company can even lend money to the “active company” that it owns, and become a guaranteed creditor in the event of bankruptcy.
In other words, as far as the NCC land goes, everything is in place to assure a maximization of profits and a limitation of risk and taxation.
For the time being, we don’t know what the owner of the NCC land intends to do with this property. It is safe to presume, however, that the company bought the land in order to obtain a return on its’ investment, and that this objective is its’ first priority.
The Mayor’s position
Borough Mayor Benoit Dorais promises to maintain the current zoning of the NCC land (“institutional, place of worship”) “as long as the company does not have a project which respects the community’s will.”
We wonder about the real possibilities of obtaining a project that responds to the community’s needs, as long as this land is subject to the rules of a real-estate market which is characterized by the speculation which is so prevalent in the South-West of Montreal.
In order to protect the community’s economic and social rights: a land reserve
The Courts have denounced the City’ inaction, but it is not too late for the City to act. We have lost a part of our history, but this land could still serve the social and economic needs of the community.
The imposition of a land reserve would permit this property to be removed from the speculative vicissitudes of the private real-estate market.
By virtue of section 75 of the Law on Expropriation (LRQ, c E-24), any organization which is authorized by law to expropriate property can impose a reserve on this property. Section 144 of the Charter of Montreal (c C-11.4) allows the City to impose a reserve (or even acquire a property for purposed of habitation).
A land reserve prohibits, while it is en effect, any construction, improvement or addition on the property which is targeted, except for necessary repairs (section 69 of the Law on Expropriation). It is true that the imposition of a land reserve could open the door to a compensation for 9289-5929 Québec inc., but this compensation cannot include any amount regarding the use that the owner could have made if the reserved had not been imposed. In other words, the company could not claim the “lost profits” of an eventual condominium project.
It is interesting to note that the imposition of a reserve only permits a compensation for the actual damages directly caused by the imposition of the reserve. Moreover, no compensation is allowed for constructions, improvements or additions made after the imposition of the reserve.
To allow the community to decide its’ future: a community land trust?
In our opinion, it is imperative that the City impose a land reserve on the NCC land as soon as possible, in order to limit the compensation that 9289-5929 Québec inc. could claim. The moratorium on development created by a land reserve would give residents of the community time to decide on a project that responds to their needs.
The creation of a Community Land Trust could be a way to insure that the community has a direct control over the utilization of the NCC land. This form of property, based on community needs, is relatively new in Canada, but has a long history in Europe, and also exists in the United States, Africa, the Middle-East and Latin America.
In Montreal, the Milton Park Community is the fruit of a Community Land Trust. Starting from the principal of democratic control, a Community Land Trust, with representatives of community groups, residents, and other community actors on its’ Board of Directors, could decide if the needs of the community would be best served by social housing, community spaces, health-care services, small businesses, sources of employment, or a combination of these elements. Putting the NCC land in a Community Land Trust would protect it permanently from the speculative vicissitudes of the real-estate market.
The NCC land could then become, rather than a symbol of failure and neglect, a pole of social and economic development of Little Burgundy.
Manuel Johnson, lawyer
Services juridiques communautaires de Pointe Saint-Charles et Petite Bourgogne
The Community Legal Services of Pointe-Saint-Charles and Little-Burgundy were created in 1970. We are a non-profit organisation and a local legal aid centre administered by the local population. We encourage and promote social justice through legislation, access to justice and other social measures.