I posted this on the old site years ago, but thought the timing right to post it again,as one of the scams was related to the sale of Nun's Island ......
City in the making, city for the taking
>> Montreal's 10 most outrageous real estate deals
by KRISTIAN GRAVENOR
Your landlord wants to build a mini-mall where your apartment stands. He's been watching a videotape in which Tom Vu rides a speedboat with bikini babes while explaining how to make a quick buck on land. And however grotesque they may seem, such hustlers, property pimps and landsharks have shaped the city with countless unusual, unbelievable and outrageous schemes. Act quickly as the Mirror offers you this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, no-money-down, well-located home for your eyes: the story of Montreal's Top 10 unreal estate deals.
1. An island in the stream:
For the Congregation Notre-Dame, the sale of Nun's Island seemed like an annual rite. Every time they sold the 29-million-square-foot property, the new owner would abandon his payments after witnessing massive sheets of spring ice tearing down the St. Lawrence River right over the deforested land. In 1955 the Church gave a turn to a writer for the tabloid Midnight named Colin Gravenor (my late father), who agreed to pay $1.25 million for the property. He scraped up only half the agreed-upon $10,000 downpayment which, to his surprise, the Nuns' wise old notary Robert Desy accepted. Desy probably doubted the next payment--a $100,000 instalment--would arrive within 90 days. And indeed, Colin's plans unravelled like a jute rug after fruitless efforts to attract investors. But armed with a typewriter and a head full of imaginary names, he initiated a one-man, grassroots lobbying effort to move the proposed Champlain Bridge from Lachine over his island, arguing that the longer bridge would cost less because it would require fewer costly land expropriations. His efforts swayed the feds, who agreed to the plan and threw in highway exits and an ice bridge to break the floes. Juda Gewurz and Joe Remer bought the island soon after, leaving Colin with a $2 million profit.
2. They Shoot Mayors, Don't They?:
Even when Blue Bonnets opened 75 years ago, a stadium in which horses occasionally drag midgets around in shopping carts was recognized as an unproductive use of city land. And now that the casino has left the track as popular as a saddle sore, the 43-hectare site--near the airport, two major highways and a metro station--can practically feel the backhoes ripping into its soil. But before the double-income-no-kids set start collecting boxes, it turns out that the stadium might not be in its homestretch. The PQ government intends to pony up $35 million for the site, $12 million less than the city paid for it in 1991. And although most councillors couldn't have reacted more negatively to Mayor Bourque's deal had he been jamming spurs into a baby colt, they remain powerless to stop the deal. Opponents can only recommend that Bourque, an ex-Pequiste, use some horse sense and sign an emphyseutic lease (in which the land reverts to the city in an agreed-upon number of years) and race to exploit this rare opportunity to create housing without displacing residents.
3. Marché Angry Nun:
The Catholic Church, still Montreal's biggest land-owner, can still be left feeling sheepish after dealing with real estate wolves. And if you believe the Quebec City-based Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a 900-member order pledged to educating the poor, their own lawyer Jean-Pierre Cantin led them astray in 1995 by selling their stake in the Marché Central Métropolitain to his friend Jean-Alain Bisaillon for $150,000. The sisters had originally acquired the land after the original developer defaulted on their $21-million loan, after which they poured $60 million of loan guarantees into finishing the mall. In the dispute, which awaits a court settlement, the nuns claim Cantin fleeced them of three-quarters of their pension fund. But Cantin has counter-argued that, far from innocent lambs, the nuns are actually slick operators who slyly manipulate a billion-dollar portfolio.
4. 1964 makes 1984 look like 1967:
Although today he's a private citizen sometimes spotted at Brasserie Capri, in 1964 Frank Hanley was the popular Pointe St-Charles city councillor known as the Mayor of the Pointe. Back then urban planners believed that low-income tenants could benefit by having their homes demolished, a theory that Mayor Drapeau decided to test on a place called Goose Village, a 300-building community at the foot of the Victoria Bridge. The 1,500 Villagers--half of whom were new Italian immigrants--were sent packing after a City report described the area as "dilapidated and unclean" (the same report cited a low incidence of disease and crime). La Presse praised the $4.5 million demolition as "a humanitarian work" although Villagers, whose monthly rents had cost them $37 on average, had to pay twice that in their new neighbourhoods. Ex-Villagers still consider official explanations a Mother Goose tale and many believe they were punished for their political loyalties to Drapeau's rival, Hanley. Although much of the flock had a honkering to resettle their old nests, biologists took a gander at the soil in Goose Village in the mid-'80s and found it had since become a wetland of industrial toxins.
5. Litterer's Leap:
In the early '60s Montrealers were saddened when a child fell to his death over the cliff at St-Jacques. Enter the ever-crafty Colin Gravenor, who made a deal with CN Rail to accept all liability for the long, narrow strip of land west of Oxford in exchange for a token purchase price. He then arranged to allow waste to be dumped over the cliff, for which he was paid by the truckload. As the waste created a shifting, unstable eyesore of God-knows-what, his cliff-side strip gradually expanded into a sizable commercial lot reaping handsome profits. The dumping, which had created one of the city's ugliest areas, was banned in 1982 when city botanist Pierre Bourque tried to stabilize the unsteady heap by covering it with highly resistant plants. But city blue collar workers say the site could contain dangerous toxins and several were suspended in an unsuccessful bid to initiate a large-scale clean-up in the late '80s. As for Colin, he preferred boasting about having expanded his property rather than answer questions about the soil.
6. The Communist Block:
One of the city's biggest yuppie havens was the creation of long-time, card-carrying, endless-meeting-attending, property-is-theft-chanting communists. Starting in the late '60s, Norman Nerenberg and two others equally intent on renouncing their communist roots bought up a chunk of the McGill ghetto spreading out from Milton and Park. Their company, Concordia Estates, hired the loyal communist agitator Gerry Fortin--who later called himself a "sucker"--to persuade tenants to leave in the name of a socially conscious development. Nerenberg wrote pamphlets describing the would-be money-making monolith as "the kernel of the future" and "a salute to life." But in fact the planned $250-million Cité Concordia, which included a 20-storey office building, 500-room hotel, three apartment buildings and "perhaps" some subsidized housing, would have laid waste to six blocks of the McGill ghetto. Local hippies countered with sit-ins, demonstrations and hunger strikes, and carried placards with slogans like "Milton Park and Vietnam: It's the same War!" The hippies caused the project's financing to whither away by lobbying the moneymen, but not before the wrecking ball gave hundreds of low-cost homes a great leap forward. In their place now stands La Cité, a ferile concrete beast on Park Avenue, and the low-cost housing which had been the developers' justification for the evictions still does not exist.
7. The Great Seduction:
Robert Landau is a Sherbrooke Street art dealer who has peddled countless paintings. But none of his sales affected as many lives as his own landscape of a downtown condo-paradise, which found an unlikely buyer in the MCM-led city administration in the mid-eighties. Landau, along with business partner Douglas Cohen, had recently bought up the properties at Overdale and Mackay but not in the aim of being low-rent landlords of students, artists and immigrants. Their condo plan so excited an administration in search of middle-class taxpayers that councillor Nick Auf der Maur denounced his own constituents' attempts to defend their homes, and the once tenant-friendly MCM Executive Committee ignored their own party study, which recommended that existing buildings should be integrated in the new project. Then-Mayor Jean Doré's administration worked with the developers to ensure that the new tenants would not be exposed to low-rent riffraff by declaring the existing premises uninhabitable--which was not true, as I can attest, having lived there at the time. The wealthy tenants who Landau and Cohen promised have since materialized: they come every morning to leave their cars on the unmaintained parking lot which now occupies the land.
8. A Demolitionist Offers Tribute, to Himself:
William Cornelius Van Horne had a home befitting his hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, all-night-poker-playing lifestyle, hobbies which he pursued while off duty from overseeing the construction of the Canadian National Railway. But the 52-room mansion at Stanley and Sherbrooke, an architectural and historical gem built in 1869 and partially designed by one of the fathers of Art Nouveau, was slated for demolition in 1973, a victim of a $31,000 annual municipal tax bill. A neighbour sought a court injunction against the demolition and conservationist Phyllis Lambert offered to buy the building, but owner David Azrieli had other plans. By exploiting the lax demolition bylaws, Azrieli struck the last spike in the hopes of the preservationists by sending in the wrecking crew in the middle of a September night. Far from feeling ashamed, Azrieli installed a plaque in his own honour at the corner of the generic office building that went up on the site.
9. And Never the Twain Shall Meet:
When the wrecking ball swung on the 400 homes northeast of St-Dominique and Ontario in December 1957, Constantin Spodunik had to be pulled from his home. The wild-eyed Ukranian herbalist was one of 4,000 residents evicted from the 20-acre downtown area, after perhaps the nastiest-ever provincial-municipal feud. Mayor Drapeau despised the proposed Habitations Jeanne-Mance subsidized housing project, predicting that it would doom private development in the city's east end, adding in '50s-speak that that it would "present a psychological block between east and west and its two great races." Duplessis supported the plan, which dominated the 1957 city elections, and his ballot-stuffing campaign led to Drapeau's only electoral loss. The project now stands as an example of how not to build public housing, as it segregates tenants into a ghetto apart from the larger community. It destroyed twice as much low-cost housing as it created.
10. Invasion of the Condo Nation:
A compilation of homebusters would be incomplete without a mention of the various government initiatives which razed entire neighbourhoods. These include Complexe Desjardins, Complexe Guy-Favreau and the Ville-Marie Expressway (for which east-end Molasses-town was demolished but never used). But government inaction can also be costly, as proven by René Lévesque's PQ government which--apparently unsatisfied with the tens of thousands who were scared out of their homes by their referendum the year before--passed legislation in 1981 so full of loopholes that landlords feasted on it to force thousands from their apartments. In the six years before it was amended by the provincial Liberals, landlords muscled out what tenant activist Arnold Bennett estimates as up to 20,000 renters from the Plateau-McGill ghetto area alone. Those were happy days for landlords, in which they could gold-plate bathrooms and double rents, convert apartments into condos through a tricky co-ownership manoeuvre or turf tenants out who waited more than 10 days to reply to certain letters.