Project Salon 1861 aims to create community hub in Little Burgundy

This past Friday, Natalie Voland, president of Gestion immobilière Quo Vadis Benefits Corporation, discussed the link between architectural renovation and community growth during a Social Economy Initiative event as part of the Faculty of Management’s homecoming.

Voland received both her BA and her BSW from McGill University, after which she began working for a real estate firm, and has since worked to combine traditional business with community engagement. Presently, Quo Vadis is working on repurposing l’Eglise St. Joseph in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood into a cultural and entrepreneurial hub of the area. Voland stressed that the force driving this latest project was about addressing the needs of the community.

“We decided to listen to our clients,” Voland said, “And what a strange concept, because in real estate, people typically don’t listen.”

The transformed church, which is being referred to as ‘The Salon 1861,’ will house offices, conference centres, an area to be reserved for events, and a community centre that will have multiple exhibitions rotating throughout the year. The overarching goal is to encourage businesses to move into the area, thus boosting the economy and the overall livelihood of the community.

“We need more jobs here,” Voland stated. “We need to stop losing out  [on] amazing students because there are no opportunities here [….] Montreal is the coolest city on the planet—we are creative, we are fantastic, but we need to stay here and invest in here.”

Voland took a moment to stress the importance of having all aspects of business—be it real estate, entrepreneurship, research, or social improvement—work together towards an ultimate goal of improving Montreal as a whole.

“We need to start working together towards a shared economy,” Voland claimed. “We don’t necessarily need to wear Birkenstocks to understand that we all live in the same world together.”

Beyond her goals for the local citizens, Voland spoke to Quo Vadis’ involvement with multiple faculties within McGill on the project, beginning with the Desautels Faculty of Management.

“We wanted to work together with the Faculty of Management. Why? Because we needed to change the way business is done,” Voland explained. “Part of that is going top-down to the big companies saying you need to change your set-up, or we could approach people who are mouldable and be able to change how you think about business. They came up with something called the social innovators lab, which is being formed. It’s in its embryonic stage, but stay tuned and get involved.”

From there, Voland spoke on getting involved with the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in collaboration with the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition to institute gardens in the area and run nutrition programs in the local schools. Additionally, Voland expressed hope to work with the Faculty of Religious Studies, the Faculty of Law, and the Schulich School of Music as part of a larger goal circulated around improving multiple facets of community life.

Professor Michael Jemtrud, former director of the School of Architecture, emphasized the role McGill students—especially The Facility for Architectural Research in Media and Mediation (FARMM)—will have in the development of Salon 1861.

“We are heavily involved and I think it benefits students immensely.” Jemtrud said.  “The Salon 1861 initiative has allowed students to be involved in the analysis of the historic building, the digital documentation and design of the church [and] the programming of the co-working space. [We] will be involved in the implementation of the environmental assessment method for the renovation and in-use certification.”

The largest partnership involved in the renovation is with the Quartier de l’Innovation (QI), a group established by École de technologie supérieure (ETS) and McGill in 2013 that focuses on research, cultural, and business collaborations with neighbourhoods throughout the Montreal area.

William Straw, professor of communication in the Department of Art History at McGill, who works with the cultural sector of QI, spoke to McGill’s role within the communities and the impact its presence can have.

“Any presence of universities—which are public institutions, at least in Quebec and Canada—in the neighbourhood is preferable to more restaurants or boutiques inasmuch as university-based research can be said as contributing to the public good,” Straw said. “For the same reason, the expansion of Concordia throughout the Guy-Saint Catherine’s area has given public institutions a presence that marks the neighbourhood in a better way than […] simply [opening] new businesses.”

Jemtrud elaborated on the challenges the project faces going forward.

“Processes such as [these] are notoriously slow and bureaucratic but all things considered, I think it has gone as well as [could] be,” he said. “The refurbishment […] will require further investment from various partners, particularly with the high standard that has been set for the environmental performance of the building. This will present several challenges, but all of the primary partners are committed to this goal.”

While the church is still in the early stages of its renovation—restrooms need to be added, fire escapes need to be brought up to code, and the building is not yet handicap accessible—Voland was confident in the future economic success the project would have. Straw also supported this statement, emphasizing that for students, community engagement is key.

“Students will benefit from conceiving their relationship in response to the expressed needs and desires of the community,” Straw said. “McGill as a whole will benefit from coming outside of its walls and interacting with other communities.”

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