Cité des Familles

Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal - credit to Mario Faubert, 2012
Aerial Photograph of Old Montreal – credit to Mario Faubert, 2012

François Cardinal asks an important question – is the city wasting its time trying to prevent the exodus of families to the suburbs?

In the last ten years, during which time the city has ‘officially’ been trying to reverse this trend, annual losses have remained somewhat constant at about 20,000 people leaving the city for elsewhere in Québec, largely outside city limits but within the metropolitan region known as Greater Montreal.

Attracting and retaining families inside the city limits was intended to reverse this trend, but so far the city has come up short. When $300,000 can get you either a detached multi-room suburban home near a train station or, at best, a single room condominium closer to the city, young families in essence have no real choice but to move to the suburbs. Services for families, aside from the daycares increasingly integrated into office towers, are virtually non-existent in the city’s most heavily developed central core.

In response to Mr. Cardinal’s question, I propose a follow-up – has the city really done anything material to secure an influx of new families?

Because if the mandate was nothing more than to advertise the advantages of theoretically living in the city as compared with the suburbs, then I can only wonder what anyone actually expected the city to be able to accomplish. Bringing families back into the city requires a major investment in civic infrastructure and a lot of hyper-precise zoning regulations to make a new urban neighbourhood from scratch, as might be the case in Griffintown or the former parking lot adjacent to the Bell Centre. Branding and marketing is enough of an investment to attract young professionals, but families need a far greater commitment.

There’s been a lot of concern recently that the city’s near-total lack of involvement in Griffintown’s resurrection may have the unintended result of creating a ghetto of single and double occupancy condos and not much else. Similar criticism has been made of the new condo towers destined to occupy nearly every available open plot in the central business district. Montreal’s downtown is not a neighbourhood in and of itself, but seems to have identifiable communities all around it (be it the Plateau, NDG, Mile End etc). Everything inside the core is reduced to a single condo project’s ‘branded lifestyle’ identity of urban chalets and minimalist sophistication; community remains completely elusive.

I would argue the Tremblay and Applebaum administrations have both done the exact same thing – nothing – to actually facilitate family living in the city, or even the actual establishment of the bare services to make the city a place where one lives a more interactive existence. Current city living is capsule living, sanitized and overtly corporate. I would hate to think there are people who may live many years in our great city and believe, based on limited experience, that our downtown is emblematic of the city. It’s anything but.

The question is whether the city can mandate the construction of family-oriented real-estate, and develop schools, clinics and myriad other services without waiting for provincial ministries to green-light the various projects. It’s curious too – provincial authorities have failed to provide adequate public schooling options in both the new suburbs as well as the city centre. Real-estate development can and will occur much faster than the province can react, and the city is all too often excoriated (and rightfully so) for not taking a leadership role in trying to maintain what institutional space we actually have downtown.

So as the city scratches its head on how to encourage people to move into the city, local school boards announce the closure of public schools in urban communities. Library branches shutter. Hospitals are put on the auction block to be re-processed, likely into condominiums, retirement homes or student dormitories. None of this helps re-establish long-term residency in the urban core.

It boggles my mind how no one is seeing the obvious connections, or why the city administration wouldn’t make the argument it’s their responsibility first and foremost to intercede given their stated intentions of downtown densification.

It’s not just the buildings of one variety or another designed with multiple closed rooms, within proximity of the diverse services required by urban families that need to be mandated into being. Schools, community and cultural space, parks, playgrounds, sporting facilities and public pools would all have to be built by the city, putting capital up front to be paid back with the new sources of taxation the city is in the process of creating. If enough new residents can be attracted to a given area based on the services available, the city succeeds in building a new and better kind of revenue generator.

In sum, why can’t the city legislate neighbourhood creation. leaving that up to the private sector and provincial government has so far proven to be ineffective. Quite frankly, it’s well beyond either’s purview.

My argument wouldn’t just be why not, but more – isn’t that what a city administration is supposed to be doing in the first place? Creating and refining the built environment?

And for all the money spent just to study the effects of new private sector densification in the downtown real estate market, and all the rest spent studying how best to expand the public transit system, spent on branding initiatives and marketing campaigns, our elected officials have come no closer to actually implementing anything. What’s spent studying potential future cityscapes could be be answered by any of the urban planners teaching at any of our universities. What’s spent on studies could build the schools or help finance the small businesses real communities desperately need.

As an example, the PQ has announced it will spend $28 million to study the feasibility of including a light-rail system to run on the new Champlain Bridge, which is supposed to cost anywhere between three and five billion dollars and may be completed by 2021, eight years from now if the project ever actually gets off the ground. That money could fund the creation of a public school as well as pay for its staff, something that would most certainly attract the attention of urban dwellers thinking of splitting for the burbs.

And furthermore, what needs to be studied? It’s common sense that a light-rail system, which may be able to haul 100,000 commuters at rush hour in twenty-minute runs from the South Shore to Downtown is a good idea worth implementing. As to how it’s to be built into the bridge, leave that up to the engineers who design it. As to cost, let it be folded into the total. If the Fed is hell-bent on financing such a ludicrously expensive bridge we may as well design it to incorporate a public transit system that can haul so many people so quickly and efficiently. It will doubtless spur a major population increase in the South Shore suburbs, and better still, will likely also serve to improve public transit access in the first-ring suburbs immediately south of the CBD, namely Griffintown, the Pointe, Technoparc, Cité-du-Havre and Nun’s Island areas. It is precisely here where the city should focus services for families, as there is room for growth favourable to urban families. There’s enough open land and low-use industrial areas we could be better off without, and the proximity to the city is really justification enough alone for the civic administration to push for redevelopment to be concentrated in this sector.

There’s no question it would sell, the question is what the city decides to sell.

Do we want condos or communities?

***

Another thought.

If you were to walk around any of the current, established, urban neighbourhoods and first ring suburbs you’d find some common housing types – notably the limestone triplex and its many derivatives, intermixed with modern apartment towers and turn-of-the-century apartment blocks, with duplexes and triplexes being by far the most common type.

In nearly all cases these buildings are comparatively old – the younger ones are approaching their centennials. Many have been renovated extensively throughout the years, some less so but well maintained nonetheless. Either way, through direct civc action to preserve our architectural heritage, coupled with an enduring public attachment (between the progeny of so many generations of working class urbanite locals) we’ve managed to protect, preserve and promote much of existing, heritage, built-environment.

Condo towers are very new in Montreal, especially in the most urban core. Up until about a two decade ago city condos were limited to buildings such as the Port Royal or Westmount Square, and with time development in that sector generally focused on converting old industrial properties into condominiums. About a decade ago buildings such as the Lepine Towers, Roc-Fleury and Crystal de la Montagne went up, leading to today’s boom.

Point is, all this is recent, and despite all the new construction, we can for the moment relax – we’re not going to look much like Vancouver or Toronto anytime too soon.

But to really guarantee against this we can’t redevelop every unused or underused property in the city into a shiny glass tower or a big brown box. We should save some space for new versions of the city’s iconic limestone triplexes.

I don’t think it’s so nutty an idea. It’s a building design that works – it has for a hundred years. Perfect as a flop house for students inasmuch as a three bedroom home for an urban family. I’ve lived in several such buildings over the years, and have spent time in countless more.

Why not build newer versions of a proven design?

You could live your entire life in Montreal duplexes – from your student days in a rented basement room, to starting out in your first full apartment occupying the upper floor, to swallowing up an entire duplex with your family until you eventually live upstairs in your retirement, renting the bottom floor to supplement your income.

There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Montrealers who have done just this over the past few generations.

It occurred to me, walking down Bleury from Boul. de Maisonneuve the other day, that we should maybe try to focus urban residential development to favour a re-introduction of this building type, though perhaps a four or five-floor model complete with a storefront base (designed for independent businesses owned and operated by residents). Bleury is but one example of an unfortunate phenomenon we have here in the city of urban streets that have lost buildings to parking lots, often leaving the tallest building on a given block still standing (in Bleury’s case a monolithic building stands completely abandoned on a prominent public space, but I digress). Rue Guy is still disfigured by the sea of parking spaces lapping at the base of the Tour Guy. Mansfield has the double problem of being largely defined by an open parking lot and the ass ends and loading docs of so many monolithic buildings. And in all these cases more traditional buildings stood not a half century ago.

Convincing real-estate developers to construct such buildings may not be an easy proposition at first, but legislation could make it a requirement. Buildings like these could not only help re-populate the urban core, but further still, offer truly unique examples of multi-functional building design, one that could accommodate much needed families.

One thought on “Cité des Familles”

  1. Though you might be interested:

    The Merger Delusion
    with Peter F. Trent, Mayor of Westmount
    Tuesday, May 28, 2013 @ 7 p.m.
    1455 de Maisonneuve W.
    Hall Building, room 1220

    It’s a open to everyone and free.

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