The World’s Largest Holiday Inn

A rendering of the new Holiday Inn, to be located at René Lévesque and Lucien L'Allier on the  Overdale block
A rendering of the new Holiday Inn, to be located at René Lévesque and Lucien L’Allier on the Overdale block

If you’ve been walking down René Lévesque around the Bell Centre of late, you’ve doubtless noticed our city’s in the midst of a building boom.

And it’s not all condos either. The new Deloitte Tower, located between the Bell Centre and ‘surrounded’ by Windsor Station, has topped out and should open later this year, marking the first major office tower built in Montreal since the Cité du Commerce Electronique (CCE herein) was completed just over a decade ago (and about half a block away).

And just on the other side of Lucien l’Allier street from the CCE is a big gaping whole in the ground where our city’s new Holiday Inn will soon stand.

At first glance of the rendering (shown above) you might think this city’s about to be graced by the world’s largest reasonably-priced hotel, but alas the hotel will only occupy the first ten floors (and offer 250 rooms). The other thirty floors are intended for high-end rental apartments (you’ll also notice the rendering doesn’t show the full height of the intended project).

Hard to believe what used to be the site of a dilapidated parking garage/ 24-hour brochette restaurant may, within three years, be a forty floor tower with hundreds of residents on top of a full service hotel.

And here’s something to consider. Just two blocks away stands one of the last major hotel towers built in this city, the Sheraton Centre, completed in 1982 after being left abandoned (and half built) for six years.

It was originally intended to be the world’s largest Holiday Inn.

This was supposed to be the world's largest Holiday Inn
This was supposed to be the world’s largest Holiday Inn

In the 1960s and 1970s several high-rise hotel towers popped up in Montreal, most notably the Chateau Champlain across from Windsor Station (originally built for Canadian Pacific Hotels to rival the Canadian National-owned Queen Elizabeth Hotel, itself adjacent to CN’s Central Station). The Hotel des Gouverneurs at Place Dupuis, the OMNI Montreal on Sherbrooke and the former Delta adjacent to the Tour de la Bourse are just a few other examples of the same basic idea – luxury high-rise hotel towers that looked often too much like the office towers they adjoined).

In addition to the Chateau Champlain, Canadian Pacific also owned the Laurentian Hotel, located at Peel and René Lévesque and offering 1,004 rooms at some of the lowest respectable rates in the city. The Laurentian was prized by business travellers, budget travellers and perhaps most importantly, the city’s convention bureau, simply because it was a genuinely nice and inexpensive hotel in a choice location. The hotel returned about $1.8 million to CP annually in profit during the time they owned and operated it, between 1969 and 1976.

Canadian Pacific demolished the Laurentian two years later.

It was a move that baffled people. The hotel was large, fireproof, only thirty years old at the time of its demolition. It had been remodelled as recently as 1975-76 and was still popular and respected when it closed its doors for good.

So why demolish it?

It turns out that the competition between Canadian Pacific and Canadian National took an interesting turn once CN completed the Place Ville Marie project in 1962. If CN could remodel a massive section of the urban core, surely CP could do it too.

And so CP planned an absolutely massive project intended to rival and mirror Place Ville Marie. It was to be more than twice as large in surface area and feature a sixty floor office tower as centre-piece, and a major national bank (in this case the Bank of Montreal, rival to the Royal Bank over at PVM Tower I) as main tenant. An additional tower would serve as CP’s headquarters, and other towers were envisioned as well, notably a luxury apartment tower and a luxury hotel tower to round things out.

So why demolish the Laurentian Hotel?

There was considerable public opposition to the plan, yet Canadian Pacific argued nonetheless that in order to fully realize their vision they would have to clear out the space of its existing buildings (including Windsor Station). They said the Laurentian Hotel blocked CP-owned lands further west from access to (what was then known as) Dominion Square (today’s Place du Canada/Dorchester Square), and thus had to be eliminated so that the new project could have a prestigious address, and access to one of the city’s most iconic urban public spaces (for a complete analysis, check out Michael Fish’s essay on the public fight to save the Laurentian Hotel from the wrecking ball).

And so despite considerable and vocal public opposition Canadian Pacific demolished the Laurentian in 1978. A pity too; it was one of three prominent Streamline Moderne styled buildings built in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s designed by Charles Davis Goodman (the other two being the Jewish General Hospital’s main pavilion and Ben’s Delicatessen, also since demolished).

At the same time the Laurentian came down, the hotel CP said would replace it stood abandoned across the street. The railroad had managed to convince Holiday Inn to build the largest hotel in its chain here in Montreal, in time for the 1976 Olympics. It was intended to be a 900-room luxury hotel tower and was to have featured multiple exterior elevators (a design quirk fashionable at the time). The project was estimated to cost $30 million, and Holiday Inn had spent that much by the fall of 1976, with only a partially completed tower to show for it and too late to profit off the tourism boost of the Olympiad. The company realized it was unlikely they’d quickly re-coup their investment, and the political and economic situation in Montreal towards the end of 1976 wasn’t optimistic to say the least.

And so they walked.

It would take another $20 million before Sheraton finally completed the tower and outfitted the hotel six years later, and to this day the building seems boring and otherwise out of place (if it weren’t for the fact that it’s part of a cluster of tall buildings).

Despite this and other major setbacks (the Bank of Montreal pulled out in the mid-1970s, opting instead to put the bank’s operations in the tallest building in Toronto, First Canadian Place), CP pressed on with its plan to build a massive office and residential complex on the 14-acres or so of land it owned west of Peel.

And ultimately nothing came of it. After acquiring 14-acres of land, CP would change course in the 1980s, first selling the site of the former Laurentian Hotel to be developed into the new head office of the Laurentian Bank, and then selling off the rest of their land holdings piecemeal over the subsequent thirty some-odd years.

The lasting effect of CP’s plan was a lot of undeveloped or under-utilized land immediately west of the city’s Central Business District from the late 1970s until quite recently. To put things in perspective, between 1978 and 1987 you could see the entirety of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral (which is on the east side of Place du Canada) from as far west as Guy Street. In other words, for nine years there wasn’t much more than open lots, a few abandoned buildings and several large parking lots stretching half a kilometre along the south side of René Lévesque.

Montreal 1978
Montreal 1978

In a curious way I find all that open space impressive in its desolation. A massive hole in the urban fabric.

In any event, all that said, the current Holiday Inn project couldn’t be more different from what CP had planned in the mid-1970s.

The developer, Canvar, is going for it’s third iteration of an already successful hotel base and apartment tower design they’ve already introduced to the city.

Take note: not condos, luxury apartments.

Canvar also erected the Hilton Garden Inn on Sherbrooke and the V on Bleury & René Lévesque (which features a Marriott Courtyard at its base). Also worth noting, this will mark the return of Holiday Inn to Montreal’s Central Business District, as the former location on Sherbrooke was converted into a private student residence last year. The former Marriott Courtyard was located next door and was converted into a McGill student residence a few years earlier, and Canvar’s Hilton Garden Inn project lies immediately next to those and was completed in 2008.

So here’s an interesting phenomenon: on the one hand the old university-adjacent hotels on Sherbrooke were repurposed and converted into student housing, and on the other hand the former ‘hotel cluster’ has been unpacked and ‘regenerated’ elsewhere in the city.

Canvar boasts the V building was 85% occupied within six months. If that’s accurate then this tower will likely be completed on time and, barring any unforeseen quick downturns in the local real-estate market, may very well expect similar results. When the project was announced in November of last year, Canvar estimated the hotel would be completed within two years (in time for the anticipated 2017 tourism spike) and the whole project finished within three. Given their recent successes I don’t doubt they’ll do it again – the idea works.

The concept of pairing a hotel base with a residential tower is advantageous for multiple reasons. First, it’s unlikely a medium-sized Holiday Inn will fail with such a choice address. Second, the tower can be scaled down (or eliminated) if there’s a major shift in the market. Third, the pairing of high-end apartments and a hotel in the high-density business core of the city is efficient and immensely practical for the range of business tourism needs in Montreal.

The new Holiday Inn will be built next to the YUL project, which includes two 38-floor towers featuring 800 condo units (excavations for which have begun) as well as 17 townhouses and the renovation of the Lafontaine Mansion into a single-family home (!!!). Within five years there’s a pretty good chance the entirety of the Overdale block will be redeveloped, with thousands of new residents living in a space that had been vacant or underused for the better part of twenty five years.

Opinion isn’t unanimous as to whether Montreal can support the number of condo projects currently under construction, and there are some who are warning of a potentially disastrous shift in the market, particularly in smaller markets with less than stellar economies, that may be very difficult to absorb. However, these warnings have been repeated ad infinitum for several years (a decade ago people were worried about too many condos, some things never change). The developers are bullish, I think at least in part because the new generation of homeowners simply won’t have too many other options: on-island house values are very high, and sprawl has pushed ‘affordable suburbs’ to the very edge of what most are willing to endure in terms of a daily commute. Congestion on our roadways, coupled with major construction projects and the high costs associated with car ownership all make urban condos that much more attractive and infinitely more practical to young professionals.

And then there’s the fact city living is infinitely more rewarding simply in terms of accessibility to all the fun stuff the city has to offer. If all these new residential projects come to fruition, the city will be able to offer thousands of people quality housing with a strong re-sale value and all within walking distance of every conceivable service, major cultural institutions and entertainment, retail and leisure districts, not to mention the majority of the city’s major employers.

An attractive offer, and with plenty of variety to suit diverse tastes and lifestyles. Even if branded lifestyle condo-dwelling isn’t your bag, it may serve the needs of tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of which would become property owners and tax payers to the City of Montreal.

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