Benny Farm was first developed in the years immediately following the Second World War. Returning veterans needed homes for their families and the country needed housing to deal with the impending baby boom. In the Late 1940s the Canadian government built a number of apartment buildings on the site of what was then a former farm on the western edge of Montreal. The project was, and remains one of the largest government housing projects ever undertaken in the country. The property and the apartments were maintained for a number of years under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and then by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, (CMHC).
In the 1950s and 1960s thanks to most residents being of the same age, community life at Benny Farm thrived due the prevalence of many young families (hello baby boom!) Historical accounts suggest that during the 1950s there were over a thousand children on the property. However in the 1980s the age homogenization began to work against Benny Farm as the mean age of residents rose to 70 years. Most of the buildings had not been well maintained, and the post-war three story walk ups with no elevators or air-conditioning were increasingly difficult for elderly residents.
In the early 1990s the the CMHC announced plans to redevelop the property with more accessible units for the aging population and reopen the door to new tenants in more modern units. In order to finance the redevelopment the agency planned to have the private sector develop the rest of the property. The scale of the private development; 1200 units in a number of 6 story buildings, the destruction of the existing post war buildings, and a fundamental change to the social role of the site caused an outcry from members of the community. What ensued next was a 20 year battle over the future of the Benny Farm site.
Arnold Bennett, and Jason Hughes helped spearhead the battle to keep Benny Farm affordable, arguing for public and affordable housing rather then private development. For a long time it seemed that the site would end up going to private developers who would build standard condo style units that would price many area residents out of the market. While there are many people and events that were responsible for making Benny Farm what it is today, the eureka moment came when the team realized that nothing was stopping the the Habitations communautaires NDG, (HCNDG) a community-run non-profit corporation, from bidding on the parts of the site that were open to the private sector. The idea was to create a non-profit, community-run organization that would offer and manage the units at a below market rate. The proposal went over very well with the community and over 80 people had signed statements of interest by the time the HCNDG submitted a bid to the Canada Lands Corporation for three sites, with a total of 74 units. The ‘Affordable Home Ownership Initiative’ was awarded the sites after beating a number of private developers who submitted more traditional site concepts.
Claude Cormier Landscape Architects was selected to develop the master plan for the Benny Farm Housing project and created a network of promenades that ties the paths, and semi private courtyards of the project into the surrounding neighbourhood streets. An orchard of 170 ornamental crab apple trees is also distributed throughout as a nod to the sites agricultural past.
The new Benny Farm site includes a diverse mix of housing types, over 200 rental properties, a public health clinic, recreation centre, community garden, daycare, and other neighbourhood services. The property was also developed with sustainability in mind and features; Geothermal heat exchange, hybrid glycol/electric solar power, air- and water-based heat recovery. There were plans for grey-water and storm-water reuse, wetland treatment and sub-grade water-table recharge, but news reports indicate that the water reuse was never installed and I was unable to spot evidence of a wetland on my site visit. A non-profit, community-run utility owns and manages the energy infrastructure as well as continued re-investment in sustainable construction for this infrastructure. The utility was set up with a legal structure similar to that of a cooperative housing development. Green Energy Benny Farm (GEBF) is owned and controlled by a voluntary, user-driven board, and the project has won at least one award; The Bronze Prize at Global Holcim Awards.
Of course most of this was laid out in the planning stage so what about now? As the pictures show, Benny Farm isn’t just a concept anymore, it is once again a living and working community. It appears that being at the cutting edge of sustainability in a non-profit housing complex has its risks. Hour.ca published an article in 2007 that reported problems with leaking geothermal pipes, that combined with other leaks have lead to a serious mould problem in one of the Co-ops, and some solar panels have leaked glycol, while some of the radiant floor heating systems didn’t balance, resulting in some residents freezing while others boiled. Some blamed a low-bid contract process while others suggested that there was not enough co-ordination between the parties involved in merging the green technologies. Most news reports on the project and issues stop after 2007 so presumably the kinks have been worked out.
While the process was long and contentious Benny Farm is considered a success for sustainable, affordable housing, and community renewal. I took a walk through Benny Farm in the fall and was very impressed with the site design and landscaping in particular, while a lot of modern buildings can look very similar and repetitive each area felt different enough from the others to make each seem distinctive while still maintaining a connection with the project as a while. There is also clear evidence that the kids are back with all the toys that were scattered about. So was Benny Farm a success? I’ll let the photo’s speak for themselves and you can make up your own mind.
For a great photo-spread of the property before its renovation, take a look at The Benny Farm Condemned Housing Projects @ Citynoise. Also check out our related gallery, Cave Art (ok not really) of Benny Farm. Reference links and other great places to visit for information about Benny Farm. Story Telling At Concordia Benny Farm Calgary Housing Action Initiative, Alternative Housing Models: Benny Farm. Canada Lands Company: Community Success Stories: Benny Farm