Rising from the ashes

Standing outside the three-storey structure that looks onto the intersection of Duluth Avenue and Drolet Street in Montreal’s trendy east-end Plateau Mont-Royal district, one could not imagine the scene that took place seven years prior.

On a sun-splashed September afternoon in 2015, at what was then the Lotus Bleu restaurant, an unfortunate robbery took place which sent the owner to hospital with serious injuries.

That’s the day the Vietnamese restaurant, which had been a fixture on Duluth Avenue for two decades, closed its doors for good. It would remain shuttered for two years, the structure falling victim to neglect – until one day in May 2017, when the 142-year-old building caught the eye of Montrealer Adam Chaimberg.

“Living on the Plateau for many years, I’ve always appreciated Duluth, as I see it as a pedestrian bridge between two beautiful parks,” says Chaimberg, who is Chief Merchandising Officer with Montreal-based Globe Electric. “And so on that day, the building stood out to me. I saw the potential for what was happening on Duluth.”

Investing in the future of a vibrant community

Five years and some stresses later, 43-year-old Chaimberg is standing outside what he calls his “forever building” (he also purchased the two attached duplexes on Drolet), while talking to a client on the phone and directing traffic for a delivery truck trying to negotiate the tight intersection.

It’s no wonder that one of his many skills is multi-tasking – a skill that came in handy when he purchased the semi-commercial property in 2017 and began the immense task of bringing life back to the historic building. The dream: to create a stylish commercial space on the ground floor, two condo-style apartments, and a rooftop terrace overlooking Mont Royal. Patience also became a virtue as Chaimberg discovered the world of permits, municipal preservation policies for heritage buildings, and the endless pit of bureaucracy with the City of Montreal.

“My dream was always to have a business there that would be of service and added value to the community,” he says. “I saw it as a gathering place, a destination, a place in service of the neighbours.”

Chaimberg says he regrets nothing, adding: “I really believed in the street, and still do. I knew for a business to be successful on Duluth, it can’t be catered to tourists, you need to have the loyalty of the hood. The local merchants were amazing. I cried on their shoulders many times – they were so supportive. And, despite the stress and fatigue that the project brought on, it was an amazing learning experience of what developers go through to achieve their dream.”

Partnering through the pain of permits and other pitfalls

Teaming up with Newsam Construction’s Paul Schapira was key to the success of the project, Chaimberg says, as the duo collaborated and leaned on each other, especially during the most trying moments when naysayers would tell Chaimberg that his renovation project was too ambitious and that he was out of his mind.

“Agents would tell me I’ve overbuilt, your project is too high-end, you made it too nice, Duluth is not a nice street, you’ll never get your money back – I heard it all,” he says.

“When it comes to general contractors, you usually hear horror stories, but with Newsam, I would not have been able to finish the project if it wasn’t for Paul and his team,” says Chaimberg. “Paul believed in me and in the project.”

Chaimberg recalls those dark, early days in late 2017 when surprise after surprise would spring up, beginning when he first toured the building with inspectors to take note of what work needed to be done.

“It’s when we ripped up the Lotus Bleu kitchen that we saw horror stories,” he says. “The kitchen was disgusting. We found frying oil that had been there for years.”

Meanwhile, the two-floor unit upstairs was occupied by squatters who were using wood pallets as beds. Instead of evicting them, “I told them they could stay for free until we began the renovations.”

Schapira explains that Chaimberg reached out to Newsam, after the firm was hired 25 years ago for a factory expansion project on St. Patrick Street. “In fact, it was a coincidence that we connected,” says Chaimberg.

A most challenging project…

“This was not an easy project,” admits Schapira, adding that obtaining permits from the city was a bit of a nightmare. The actual renovation work didn’t begin until the fall of 2018, and lasted over a year and a half, he says. “This ranks right up there as one of the most challenging projects I’ve been involved with. It’s not the largest, but one of the most technical.”

“The biggest issue of any project is the structure, the shell,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the pipes, not electrical, but the foundation work – putting two buildings together and respecting the city property line. We are on Duluth, it’s winter, you’re pouring concrete, there are deliveries being made, logistics, parking, neighbours, noise, dirt, sewage, major structural challenges, working with the city – there wasn’t one normal thing about this job. When we went on the roof and removed the cornice, for example, the bricks were disintegrating, so we had to completely redo the cornice requiring a special permit.”

Working closely with architect Ian Nataf, we were able to transform the dilapidated building from an eyesore into a compelling, mixed-use structure. His creative design and attention to detail made the most out of a tight space. His positive attitude and ability to find solutions were instrumental in helping to navigate this challenging project,” explained Schapira.

For architect Nataf, the idea was to develop the site to its fullest potential within the limits of the existing zoning bylaws. 

“The project followed the natural course of all redevelopment projects,” he says. “We went through a number of design concepts and negotiations with the city, and through this iterative process, the final concept took shape. The main intention was simply to return the existing corner building to its former glory and to partner it with an addition of equal stature.

Chaimberg says he selected Nataf and his firm “because he had a clear vision for the project as soon as he saw it!  He is one of the most exciting young architects in Quebec, and even Canada, helping evolve the city.”

“Ian’s tenacity and bold vision (the city called it audacity) made the project possible,” says Chaimberg. “Without his diligent work in collaboration with the city and CCU, the building would not have been possible.”

As construction went into high gear, local merchants and residents started to take note, as the rundown white brick building began its transformation. Even local city councillor Alex Norris started to see the magic unfolding. “I do like the work that was done to that building and even posted about it (on social media).”

The C word…

With construction finally completed in May 2020, Schapira and Chaimberg had to deal with a new challenge: COVID-19. While Chaimberg moved into the unit upstairs, the brand-new commercial space on the ground floor needed a tenant. And with a province-wide lockdown in effect, and businesses closed, Chaimberg was facing yet another obstacle.

“The pandemic hit, and I had not yet found someone,” he says. “I actually kind of accepted failure, and that this space could be vacant for many years. I was actually letting a friend leave their furniture in that space.

“But then the universe conspired in my favour. I got a call one day from these incredible women.”

By “incredible women”, Chaimberg is talking about Laurence Côté, Audrey Robitaille and Maude Giguère, owners of Alma Plantes and Bar à Plantes MTL – two young companies which today occupy that very space. 

“We found the place by chance while walking on Duluth Avenue,” says Côté, adding that Alma Plantes was launched in 2017 as an online plant boutique. “We fell in love with the large windows that let in the beautiful light. We also liked the size of the space, which allowed us to sublet a section to another business and friend (Maude from Bar à Plantes MTL) and to offer a large selection of plants and horticultural products.”

On September 9, 2020, Alma Plantes opened its doors, and while the pandemic was annihilating countless local stores and businesses, somehow Alma thrived.

“The demand for plants during the pandemic exploded,” says Côté. “During the lockdown, people needed plants to add green to their homes. There really was a need to return to our sources and bring nature back into our lives.”

And when it came time to sign their lease, Chaimberg made the young entrepreneurs two offers they could not refuse: a full-year lease at half price or six months free. “They opted for the half price deal and signed their lease. It was generosity, but it was also to incentivize the business. I am a long-term thinker.” 

Côté says the support offered by Chaimberg allowed them to focus on building their brick-and-mortar business. “We were able to count on Adam’s collaboration, his openness to all kinds of ideas and his support during the first months. Setting up the store was done at the same time as the end of the construction work on his building. He and Newsam were very collaborative and attentive to our needs.”

As for Chaimberg, he hopes that with the easing of COVID restrictions and the economy on its way to recovery, Duluth Avenue will once again rise from the ashes.

By Frederic Serre