Once a world-renowned centre of pioneering medical research and practice, the old Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) has been standing dormant since the hospital transferred to the Glen Site in April 2015. But, if things go according to McGill’s ambitious plan, the iconic “hospital on the Hill” will serve as the catalyst to propel the University to the forefront of one of the most critical issues of our time – sustainability.
Currently, the entire RVH site, which includes the main hospital building, surrounding pavilions, the Allen Memorial Hospital, and all the grounds, are owned by the McGill University Health Centre. Soon, however, the site will be transferred to the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), a branch of the Quebec government. The SQI is developing a Master Site Plan to oversee the transformation and requalification of the RVH site.
Working in conjunction with the SQI, McGill has developed a dossier d’opportunité (DO), or a feasibility study, outlining McGill’s request to restore, renovate and reimagine the main RVH building as a centre of multidisciplinary education and research. On September 1, McGill submitted the DO to the Quebec government. The DO will be evaluated, with the government’s response expected to come by year’s end.
If approved, the project will usher in a new era of integrated use, in which the entire University community – and its neighbours – will benefit from a design that would bring people together to learn, live and conduct research, while also acting as a gateway to Mount Royal.
The New Vic will serve as a model for how heritage buildings can be responsibly re-purposed, with new buildings that will feature the most advanced standards of sustainable design and construction. To achieve this, special attention will be paid to the balance between functionality, nature, heritage and recognition of the Indigenous history of the land.
McGill has long faced challenges when it comes to physical space on its downtown campus. With over 50,000 members of the McGill community – students, staff and faculty – quality space, especially in downtown Montreal, is hard to come by.
In its completed state, the New Vic pavilion represents 51,500 gross square meters. That, combined with the fact that the site is situated in McGill’s backyard, makes it a natural extension of the downtown campus. The New Vic is an integral component of McGill’s Master Plan and part of a larger plan that will lead to a transformational renewal of liberated spaces and the campus as a whole.
But the vision behind the New Vic project extends well beyond the question of square footage.
In 2015, as the RVH was transferring its operations to the new Glen site, McGill struck the Principal’s Task Force on the Academic Vision and Mission of the RVH Site in order to create a plan for the site. Even before it was vacated, the University began to explore the potential of the RVH site.
Following extensive consultations with members of the McGill community in 2015 and 2016, the Task Force formulated six principles with which to guide an RVH project: to foster flexibility and innovation; to support internal collaboration; to nurture external collaboration; to stimulate multidisciplinary research and learning; to promote the use of shared discovery and service hubs; and to build strategic capacity.
From these guiding principles two themes arose – Sustainability Systems and Public Policy. These have become the pillars of the New Vic project. The Public Policy pillar will be anchored by the Max Bell School of Public Policy, while the Sustainability Systems pillar will be composed of Molecular/Materials Systems, Earth Systems, and Urban Systems.
The New Vic will feature spaces for state-of-the-art research, events, quiet and group study, as well as a major classroom hub, an event space, a library branch, and a food venue.
In noting the focus on sustainability and public policy, Bruce Lennox, Dean of the Faculty of Science and the University’s Academic Lead of the New Vic project says “This is truly a transformative project, for McGill, Montreal, and perhaps the World. The COVID-19 pandemic has handed us a very realistic, time-compressed dress rehearsal for climate change in terms of the anticipated levels of disruption worldwide. If we don’t figure out climate change and sustainability, things are going to look a lot like the COVID world in terms of disruption. The New Vic will play a critical role in mapping a path for a sustainable future.”
A project of this scope will have an impact on McGill and Montreal, especially the University’s immediate neighbours. With this in mind, the University held a series of events in 2017 to encourage the community at large to collaborate on ideas about how to build a mixed space that will best serve the entire community.
A model of urban integration, the completed project will honour the famed 19th Century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for the mountain as being the “green lungs of the city.” A welcoming site and portal for citizens, it will prioritize public transit and pedestrian access.
As well, the New Vic will boast public pathways to Mount Royal, informal meeting spaces and an event space that can be used by the community.
But the impact of the New Vic will be felt beyond the immediate neighbourhood.
“Sustainability and public policy are critical to the future of Quebec and Canada,” says Lennox. “Montreal is one of the world’s centres for biodiversity and sustainability research. The transformation of the RVH into the New Vic is incredibly important to Montreal to attract local, Quebec, Canadian, and international partners to these themes.”
The three buildings adjacent to the RVH – the Ross, the Women’s and the Hersey pavilions – will remain under the ownership of the SQI. Lennox says that the SQI is developing its own plan for those structures that include finding tenants who would align with the New Vic’s vision.
“To use shopping centre terminology, we’re a dream anchor tenant,” he says. “We have two themes that work both publicly and privately. We’re going to have 900 graduate students working on sustainability and public policy challenges, more than 150 professors, and 3,000 or more undergraduate students each day on the site. It’s a dream for industries like CleanTech or relevant government ministries to be part of that ecosystem.”
Preparing the DO for the government was no small feat. Taking two years to produce, the final submission weighs in at “thousands of pages,” says Yves Beauchamp, Vice Principal (Administration and Finance) and Executive Sponsor of the New Vic Project Office.
“In the DO, we have presented the government with 15 per cent of the project’s design – the big lines of the project,” says Beauchamp. “But we also demonstrated that we have examined several options prior to determining that this one is the best.”
Over the next several months, the Quebec government will evaluate McGill’s DO and, by end of year, is expected to deliver its decision on what level of financial support it will provide.
“Our goal is to have the government partnering with McGill and committing financially to this important and impactful project for Montreal’s research leadership in sustainability,” says Beauchamp.
If the DO is approved by the provincial government, the University’s Board of Governors will be asked to confirm to begin preparing the final dossier d’affaires (DA), or business case. This is the phase when the University and architects will work on the more detailed design.
“In the DA we bring the design up from 15 per cent to 65 per cent. While the government reviews the DA and delivers a decision to proceed with the construction phase or not, the specifications and drawings will be completed,” says Beauchamp.
“That’s the blueprint phase,” says Lennox with a smile. “Every pipe, every wire, every fumehood, everything specified.”
Work on the DA will be carried out from 2021-2022. But there will be activity on the New Vic site during that time, beginning with the decontamination process.
“We will also begin a pilot project to renovate part of the building,” says Beauchamp. “This is an old structure and we don’t know what kind of challenges are hiding behind the walls. This will give us a better understanding of the task ahead, so we can fine tune the budget.”
If the DA is accepted and approved by the government, the ownership of the buildings will be transferred to McGill “and we get the green light to begin construction,” says Beauchamp. “Probably sometime in 2023.”
Beauchamp says the construction will take five years, with the doors of the New Vic scheduled to open in 2028. And while it is a moment he is eagerly anticipating, he is clearly enjoying the process.
“This project is very rewarding because we are helping realize something unique,” he says. “It is probably the most beautiful project in Montreal. Yes, there are lots of wonderful buildings being built, but we’re taking this incredible old castle and hospital and bringing it back to life for an important purpose.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to transform McGill, Montreal and Quebec.”