Skyline to Change, Condo Ghetto Unlikely

Cadillac-Fairview development proposal rendering

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, but Bill 60 got in the way…

Cadillac Fairview corporation (the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the single best performing pension plan in the entire world) has announced their intention to invest about $2 billion redeveloping a significant portion of downtown Montreal. They’re already building the 50-floor Tour des Canadiens and the new 26-floor Deloitte Tower on either side of the Bell Centre, and as a result of apparently high demand for more condominiums in downtown Montréal, are now proceeding with the next two phases of their overall master plan.

Though Cadillac Fairview is cautious and are indicating, officially, that this is simply a proposal, they nonetheless appear confident the next phases will be realized. Phase II involves the construction of two 37-floor towers, one of which will be exclusively residential (with about 400 units) while the other will be mixed use, including a commercial base, a hotel and about 200 apartments. They’re to be built immediately south of the Bell Centre and will be feature a pedestrian bridge over St-Antoine Street.

Phases III & IV would involve construction of between four and five new towers on two plots of land on either side of St-Jacques between Rue Jean d’Estrées and Peel, in effect linking the downtown core with Griffintown. See the area here. While I would assume these are to be condominium towers, Cadillac Fairview senior vice-president Salvatore Iacono stated that he believes Montreal has a market for new office space in addition to urban residential properties.

I think he has a point too – we are lacking in class-A office space and most of our existing office towers were built in the 1960s, and most of our modern class-A buildings were built over 20 years ago. Aside from the Deloitte Tower currently being built, the Cité du Commerce Electronique and the Cité Multimédia are the last two significant office space developments, and those happened over a decade ago.

In any event, assuming all this works out Montreal’s skyline, and downtown, are going to change irrevocably, and with prudent civic involvement, for the best and for the city’s long term gain.

I find many Montrealers are sceptical of all the new condo projects going up, and there seems to be a somewhat prevalent concern the market is already over-saturated, and that these new towers are going to be half empty.

Perhaps our concern is unnecessary and/or is the result of massive construction in Toronto and Vancouver, two local real-estate markets regularly criticized for being excessively over-valued and unsustainable.

We should remind ourselves that what’s going up in this city pales in comparison to developments in the country’s other major cities. I think we might be proceeding more cautiously and sensibly than many would give this city credit for.

Consider this – most of the new towers that will soon redefine our city’s skyline are being built on unused land or parking lots; unlike a lot of other major downtown developments in our city’s history, nothing architecturally significant is being destroyed to accommodate these new towers.

Consider as well, these buildings don’t get built unless at least 70% of units are sold first.

So while there are many proposals, so far only the Tour des Canadiens, l’Avenue, Rocabella and Icone have past this necessary threshold to proceed with construction, though I’m not 100% certain both Icone buildings have been completely sold.

And consider as well that these buildings are going to concentrate a lot of high value residential property right in the heart of the central business district, assisting in the city’s efforts to repopulate the urban core. As long as people continue working office jobs downtown, there will be a market for these condos. And each of these new condos brings in more tax revenue for the city.

Nearly everyone wins.

From an environmental perspective, these developments may help us breathe a little easier. I think these new condos are going to appeal to new generations of young urban professionals who would rather live within walking distance of their office than spend several hours a day driving to and from the suburbs.

What’s more, these new condos are filling something of a gap in downtown real estate. Up until quite recently downtown real estate consisted almost exclusively of rental apartments of various prices and some of the most expensive homes in the city, without much in between. A lot of new condominiums coming into the market are affordable enough to be competitive with rental rates for similarly sized apartments in the city’s iconic inner-ring urban residential neighbourhoods. So it begs the question, why rent an apartment for $1200 a month when you can get a mortgage for less?

Suffice it to say, I think these new towers are going to appeal to a lot of people and I’m looking forward to seeing how the city evolves around all these new residents.

Now, that said, there are a few things the city can do to help see these projects realized, and to further help guard against the development of a ‘condo ghetto’.

What we want to avoid is too much of the same thing, and the city could implicate itself by mandating a certain number of ‘family-sized’ units be developed (though if you review the plans of a lot of these new towers, many of them incorporate a variety of unit layouts and multiple closed rooms) and can further work to secure the services necessary for so many new urban residents. We don’t just want to populate the downtown core with young professionals, we want families too (because they’re more likely to stay). Ergo, space needs to be allocated for clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, daycares, cultural and green spaces, community space and perhaps even a library and public school.

A large geographic area of this city is being completely redeveloped (basically the area roughly bounded by Bleury, Ste-Catherine, Guy and the Lachine Canal), I think the city would be wise to lead development by working to provide the services necessary to sustain a large and diverse urban population. Free market capitalism will take care of part of this problem, but ultimately the responsibility will rest on the city to make sure a diverse population takes up residence downtown and can be sustained living in an area which, up until quite recently, has been unfortunately underpopulated.

Further, the city could involve itself by developing new public green spaces, renovating the existing ones, and connecting as many of these new buildings directly to the Underground City. Being able to walk from your home to your office and back again without having to put on boots and a coat is going to appeal to a lot of people in this city.

And who knows, maybe all the sudden availability of thousands of new condominiums in the next few years will serve to lower rents (the logic being that thousands of people will choose to own downtown property, vacating thousands of otherwise desirable apartments).

My most immediate concern is that, despite all this new living space, there’s no cohesive affordable housing plan. Low-income earners have the right to quality, affordable housing, and this city seems to be lacking it. Now while none of these new condo towers are forcing anyone out of a home, to my knowledge they’re not providing any affordable housing space. If I recall correctly, there’s a provision in the local building code that stipulates new construction reserve a certain number of units to be classified as ‘affordable housing’ but there’s also a means by which developers can get around this, though the specifics escape me at the moment. From the looks of things, none of these impressive new buildings will feature subsidized housing, and affordable is an obviously subjective term.

In addition, 1180 St-Antoine will be demolished to make way for the next phase of Cadillac Fairview’s Bell Centre project. While the building is quite ugly, in my opinion, and I have no earthly idea what it was originally designed for, it has become a vital focal point for many Montreal musicians. There’s quite a bit of rehearsal and recording space in the building, and it’s well used mostly because it’s quite cheap. It’s also a decent enough DIY venue for small concerts, a means by which a lot of bands support themselves.

And as you might imagine, no plan to replace this lost space once the condominiums are built. It would be nice if someone stepped in and made the case that, whatever form this new mega-project takes, it include jam space at rock bottom rates. If for no other reason, it would be nice that the tradition of making music near the intersection of St-Antoine and Rue de la Montagne continue (back in the day this is where all the major jazz clubs were located, including the famous Café Saint Martin and Rockhead’s Paradise).

All this to say, the mayor’s been demonstrating a heightened level of civic engagement (surprisingly high for a Montreal mayor in my opinion) – hopefully he won’t leave major real estate development projects to market forces alone.

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