Hudson’s derelicts

514 Main from the corner of Reid: demolition by attrition?

A Hudson visitor recently asked me why the town allows what looks to be an abandoned crack house in the village centre.

Council wants to preserve a century-old heritage structure, I explained. The timber-frame duplex at the corner of Main and Reid was sold by the family of the original owners to a developer, who flipped it to Groupe Lawlor, whose plans for a three-storey multi-unit condo were rejected by council in July 2022. Hudson’s demolition bylaw (652.2) states that nothing in town can be torn down or moved unless the owner has first obtained authorization to build a replacement, so nothing can move forward until the two sides agree on a compromise.

The once well-maintained duplex next to the now closed Vivery Restaurant is surrounded by a sea of junk. Ripe for a PPU?

The town doesn’t have the legal tools to force the developer to maintain or restore the building, let alone incorporate it into plans for the replacement structure. The municipality has adopted legislation that would allow it to place a reserve on the the property, but the courts have established the seller has the right to fair market value. Lawlor paid just under $1.1 million, so the question becomes whether the property would be a worthwhile acquisition for the town.

As long as this stalemate persists, the old Gaudreau house at 514 Main, once a well-kept testament to the skill of the inventive artisans who built much of the town’s French quarter, will remain a very public eyesore, the once well-manicured yard and outbuildings filled with junk, the once cozy sun porch running the length of the frontage a sorry spectacle of torn screens, sagging doors, clapped-out furniture and a tattered Canadian flag. 

Demolition by attrition they call it — and it’s not the only example in Hudson’s downtown heritage district.

The Hodgson house at 498 Main is another heritage structure caught in a legal labyrinth with no exit.
Hudson mayor Chloe Hutchison told the May council meeting she’s determined to preserve the town’s look and feel, which is why the town is also blocking demolition of an similarly deteriorating structure at 498 Main.

During the second question period, Hutchison was asked what she hopes to achieve by blocking 498’s teardown in light of the fact that the previous council adopted resolutions approving both the demolition and an 18-unit condominium project on the site, located between the IGA parking lot and the SAQ.

The owner, Lotissement SM Inc., has filed a motion requesting a court order for the emergency demolition of the structure, parts of which date back to 1856. To back its case, the developer cites two engineering reports, both of which list potentially dangerous structural defects and salubrity concerns. Council’s basis for rejecting the demolition request: no estimate was filed on the cost of restoring and upgrading the building even though it was never an option.

“The outcome I expect to achieve is that our local heritage is of value and there’s (sic) ways of repurposing lots and continuing to develop or redevelop in a respectful manner of our local quality and heritage,” the mayor replied. “And I think that is a prerogative that has been given to councils in the recent change in the law on cultural heritage and we are exercising that right.”

Renderings of the front and side of SM’s 18-unit project at 498 Main, approved together with the demolition of the existing structure by the ptevious council. The mayor had no estimate of legal costs.

A followup question was how much is the town prepared to go in fighting this. Hutchison had no answer, but the the case history of 498 Main suggests it’s a bottomless legal money pit. SM had reached a deal in January 2020 with a family member mandated to represent its interests, but wasn’t able to take formal ownership until August 2022. In the meantime, the project was approved unanimously by the previous council at its June 1, 2020 meeting on the unanimous recommendation of the Town Planning Advisory Committee reached at its May 13, 2020 session. A month later, council revoked the demolition permit after learning of the involvement of Quebec’s Public Curator on behalf of the interests of the last surviving resident. The fight will likely revolve around questions about which parts of what decision are still valid.

A cornerstone of Quebec municipal law used to be that every council’s hands were tied by the decisions reached by the previous council. Under Legault’s CAQ government, this has morphed into a quagmire of grey zones, leaving it to the courts to interpret the legislator’s intent and apply it to real-life situations. For that reason alone, one wonders whether any Quebec mayor can say with certainty the law is on their side. As we’ve seen from recent decisions, the law cuts both ways.

Hudsonites tend to get emotional about demolition, but it’s a recent thing. The Wilderness, home to Hudson’s founding couple, was torn down with little fuss back in the ‘60s. That began to change with the destruction of a row of businesses on what is now the IGA parking lot.

With the growing public concern at the loss of heritage buildings, successive administrations tightened Hudson’s demolition bylaws as it became clear that nothing was safe from demolition, not even the Christmas Shoppe on Cameron. (It and Val’s hair salon were demolished to make way for a structure that began construction only last year.) 

A draft revision produced in 2009 enshrined the principle that no main building on a lot could be torn down until its replacement had been approved. It wasn’t formally adopted until 2015, with five exceptions — accessory buildings; main buildings to be demolished for public safety reasons; main buildings whose condition is such as to endanger people or has lost half of its value by decay, fire or explosion; main buildings where there was a court order for demolition, and municipal buildings. 

In 2019, the previous council removed the exception for main buildings whose condition is such as to endanger people or has lost half of its value by decay, fire or explosion. In other words, the owner of a building seeking a demolition permit for those reasons first would need to get a replacement structure approved.

The Torrance Cottage precedent

The former Hudson Gazette gave voice to the impassioned pleas by Hudson’s amateur historian Rob Hodgson on behalf of the Torrance Cottage, a Como summer residence best known for its connection to a Beaver Hall Group artist. The developer even offered to move the timber-frame structure to a town-owned lot. The town’s involvement was limited to refusing the owner permission to demolish. After years of litigation, the case found its way to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which ordered the structure’s demolition and saddled Hudson taxpayers with costs.

Groupe Lawlor’s proposed replacement for the Gaudreau house at 514 Main. Council and TPAC both rejected this plan and demolition, leaving the existing structure unprotected. Update: a revised plan was rejected at the June 2023 council meeting.

The 498 Main Hodgson house file has echoes of Torrance Cottage. Again, Rod Hodgson weighed in, this time with a possible personal interest in preserving the family home of three generations of Hodgsons. Support for preservation was by no means unanimous; at the January 2023 demolition committee hearing, nine residents requested to be heard. Of those, four were either vehemently in favour of demolition or saw little value in trying to save a white elephant when the town is in dire need of seniors’ housing. In the end, just 40 residents submitted written opposition to the demolition. As far as I can tell, none of the intervenors argued for the town acquiring the property. 
Over the years, the town has acquired half a dozen properties of dubious long-term value. That’s over and above municipal buildings in need of serious upgrades or outright replacement. There’s the old town hall, built in 1909 and in critical need of everything from structural brickwork to new windows. McNaughten Hall is one of three officially designated heritage buildings in town (539 and 541 Main are the other two). The public works garage dates back to the ‘50s and can’t begin to house all the vehicles, tools and equipment needed for a town of 5,500. Even the firehall and the Community Centre, the town’s two newest structures, have proven to be relatively expensive to maintain.
Most are heated with oil and require regular cash infusions to keep them operational. The worst is 64 Cedar, originally acquired as a stopgap teardown. Now being used as the town’s administrative hub (where rodents, freezing temperatures and humidity threaten the servers and other electronics in the basement) the land it stands on would have provided municipal parking to replace the existing lot where a previous council proposed to build a modern town hall annex to house most of the town’s departments, now spread over eight buildings. In other words, the town needs more geriatric buildings like taxpayers need a 5% tax hike. 
There’s no proof that Hudson’s no-demolition-without-replacement policy works. Six years after the fact, there’s still no replacement for the old cottage and former Medi-Centre torn down for a condo project on Cameron. This council finally approved a setback-to-setback replacement for a lakeside cottage at 570 Main despite blocking lake views supposedly protected by Hudson’s highly subjective architectural protection bylaws.
The previous council (I was District 5 councillor and one of two elected TPAC members) was sufficiently concerned about the precarity of Hudson’s heritage structures that, led by then-councillor Hutchison’s efforts, we met with UQAM architecture professor Luc Noppen, the founder of the Canadian research chair into urban heritage. Under Noppen’s guidance, a research assistant was hired to compile an inventory of Hudson’s architectural heritage. 
Council’s aim was to incorporate Noppen’s heritage-property inventory and a companion catalogue of Hudson design elements into a guide available to developers and property owners so that they would have a starting point for their proposed projects. It never got past the idea stage.
One could pin the blame on a slew of villains, ranging from the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s density yardsticks, to Quebec’s opaque municipal legislation, to previous administrations, to developers whose aim was to build the most units possible on a given site, to Hudson’s master plan, to administrative shortcomings. As a witness to the process, I’d say it was all of the above and a lot more.  
Given all this baggage, one understand why Mayor Hutchison is frustrated at not being able to do what she promised in her election campaign. That frustration is increasingly evident in her question period replies. At the April meeting, she was asked when property owners might expect the lifting of the interim control measure (RCI) adopted in November 2021. She conceded that it might take until the end of this year, perhaps longer. 
At the May meeting Hutchison told a questioner residents might expect yet another freeze, this one on new construction in the core, possibly as early as the June meeting. Asked later to elaborate, Hutchison fudged her response. “All options are open…it may or may not happen. At this point it is really a reflection on the next step…we haven’t had a chance to talk about this yet.”
She continued: “we know it’s time for Hudson to revamp the master plan and also its needed bylaws, so to do it properly depending on the schedule and the pressures we’re already hearing, something I’m considering is […] a strategy of bringing a second freeze.” 
Hutchison’s bylaw overhaul is so far behind schedule that she’s toying with alternatives, including a programme particulier d’urbanisme, or PPU — a master planning tool that gives an administration the power to bypass most of the public consultation process and deal directly with one or more developers to redevelop a specific sector. (To get a better idea of what a PPU can achieve, consider Vaudreuil-Dorion’s de la Gare sector, where residents were told their opinions were irrelevant.)
Given the mayor’s meeting with several developers in April, I’m left wondering whether a PPU — “an interesting and valuable tool,” quoting the mayor, might be the shortcut she’s seeking. To whose benefit remains to be seen, but at this point, anything is better than those eyesores on Main.