Gutting the City

Dix-30 aerial photoAn aerial view of Quartier Dix-30 in Brossard. Not my work. Ceci n’est pas une ville.

We need a Dix-30 styled “innovative multi-use urban project” like we need a gaping hole in the head.

For one, there’s nothing innovative about shopping malls.

For two, TMR’s industrial park is hardly urban.

For three, it’s projects like these that lead to boarded up windows on Saint Catherine or Saint Lawrence.

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Let’s back up a bit.

There’s a firm that’s aiming to build a massive brand new shopping, entertainment, hotel and office park at the intersection of highways 15 and 40 in the Town of Mount Royal’s industrial park.

They’re calling it 15/Quarante and so far have refused to go into anything but the absolute vaguest of details. It’s the same company, Carbonleo Realty, who’s responsible for the Quartier Dix-30 shopping mega complex built in Brossard to much undeserved fanfare a few years back.

Now this same company is looking to repeat its success on island, on a significant portion of real estate currently occupied by factories and warehouses.

And who needs that right?

Instead they plan on replacing the means of production with the means of mass consumption and build big box stores.

They’re also indicating office towers and – get this – a concert hall – are all in the works.

I’m telling you right now: there will never be a concert hall located in TMR’s industrial park. That’s bullshit right there. Multiplex movie theatre – sure, why not, that could happen.

But concert hall?

Nope. Not ever.

For one there’s no way public money would serve to build in TMR what has just been built in a more sensible location at Place des Arts.

As to office towers, again, I’m very skeptical. A landing corridor passes right over that highway junction and it’s debatable whether Montreal on the whole needs more office space.

I can imagine there’s plenty of reason to suspect a mega mall in the style of Dix-30 would work (in that it would make money for the Town of Mount Royal and for the developer); there’s already a lot of that in that area anyways and there’s interest in redeveloping the old Blue Bonnets race track into a large residential project. The mall proposed would thus be located close to a large body of people and at a major traffic junction. How could it fail?

This is precisely what the people at Decarie Square, Place Vertu, the Cavendish Mall and that other short-lived mall further south on Decarie (that was abandoned throughout much of the 1990s) were thinking. The rules of retail and real estate are the same – location, location, location. And superficially it makes sense they would choose to locate the mall in the area they’ve chosen.

The first problem I see is that adding a mega mall will only exacerbate congestion. Without a considerable public investment in redeveloping the surrounding roadways the proposed mega mall runs the risk of being inconvenient to get to despite its proximity to major traffic systems and residential areas.

The second and bigger problem is that projects of this size wind up destroying independent businesses and obliterating established commercial thoroughfares. If we want more successful small businesses on The Main, on Saint Catherine, on Saint Denis, Queen Mary and Notre Dame West, we can’t allow for more big box stores and shopping malls. It’s really just that simple. I think the single greatest economic challenge to Montreal in the last forty years is the threat posed by large multi-national retailers who sell high-volumes of attractive garbage at unbeatable prices. We should have legislation on the books to keep such companies out of our city simply to maintain competitiveness and entrepreneurialism.

Simply put.

If you are a capitalist you should be against projects like this and just about every ‘big box’ retailer operating in our city.

They are literally undermining the economic foundations of our city.

Yes, it’s true the Economist ranked Montreal as the world’s second best city to live in (absurdly taking a back seat to Toronto, the city fun forgot).

THIS DOESN’T SPEAK VERY HIGHLY OF OTHER MAJOR WORLD CITIES.

As much as I love Montreal, we need to face reality and acknowledge we got the high rank simply because it’s cheap to live here and broadly speaking we enjoy a high standard of life. It was not because of any local economic or political dynamism, that’s for sure.

A Brookings Institute study that came out roughly around the same time as the Economist report put Montreal in 285th place out of 300 major world cities in terms of economic productivity.

And more locally the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses put Montreal dead last in terms of best cities for doing business in Canada.

Given the state the world’s in right now, sure, Montreal’s a great place to live to ride out the storm.

We know we have an enduring economic problem in this city, and have been particularly vocal of late, bemoaning job losses, folding restaurants and boarded-up windows.

And yet, we do nothing to fight that which is driving these failures. The answer to some of our economic problems lie in protectionist legislation at the municipal level.

Every time a new McDonald’s, a new Starbucks, a WalMart, Home Depot, Tim Horton’s or Target opens up, small businesses fall by the dozens, and with it goes a crucial component of our city’s economic foundation. The city needs to stand up for competitiveness, choice and entrepreneurialism by promoting small business over volume retailers and corporate chains.

It’s the highly localized investment capital generated by small businesses that form the real backbone for long term economic growth, as family run businesses are passed down from generation to generation and local legacies are established. In the long run the city benefits from the regular returns of these businesses far more than could possibly be expected from high volume retailers and franchises that are notorious for short shelf lives.

In sum, malls die and are emblematic of unsustainable economic policies. The downtown core has already demonstrated the adverse effects of ‘chain and franchise’ dominance, and as a result feels increasingly alien. Sainte Catherine is more a poor man’s Times Square than something iconically Montreal; the neon used to advertise theatres, cabarets and restaurants. Today it advertises the exact same stores I find in the shopping malls of suburbia or the Underground City.

And it’s for that reason that I rarely find myself on Sainte Catherine or shopping downtown. Too little choice.

The last time I can recall spending an afternoon ‘out shopping’ was last summer on Bernard in the Mile End. I went across town from where I was living at the time and walked along the street, stopping in several stores (all independently owned) and making a variety of purchases, some planned, others more spontaneous. Then I got a bite to eat at a local bistro, had an espresso and then met up with a friend to have a drink on a terrace.

Yes, conceivably I’ll be able to do all this, and possibly more, at the proposed TMR Mega Mall.

But I wouldn’t on principle no matter what kind of branded lifestyle or savings it promises.

I don’t think I’m alone either.

In any event, I don’t know how to close this, so here’s Glenn Castanheira of the Saint Lawrence Merchant’s Association discussing why he thinks it’s a bad idea on CTV Montreal… and Castanheira again in debate with the Mayor of the Town of Mount Royal, Philippe Roy.

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