On stage, they were a study in contrasts: Denis Coderre in a sober business suit and thick-framed glasses; Valérie Plante smiling broadly in an informal pink button-up shirt.
In an hour of rapid-fire debate, the city’s leading mayoral candidates showed their stripes: Ms. Plante, the famously cheerful current mayor, offered a program heavy on affordable housing, bike lanes and expanded parks. Mr. Coderre, the more severe former mayor, emphasized density, security and cleanliness.
But despite their different programs and personalities, the top contestants in this anticipated political rubber match had something deeper in common: They have presided over a recent golden age for the city. In the past eight years, across each of their administrations, Montreal has been on a roll. Economic growth and political stability have returned to a place that was plagued for decades by their opposite.
Both candidates have had something to do with that winning streak, but larger factors are at play, and regardless of who wins on Sunday, few observers expect the boom times to end soon. As the Chamber of Commerce president Michel Leblanc acknowledged days after the debate he had organized, “If Denis Coderre wins, it’ll be fine. If Valérie Plante wins, it’ll be fine.”
Since the 1970s, Montreal has struggled with a series of peculiar crises: anglophone flight, biker wars, Olympic white elephants, independence referendums and well-publicized corruption. The city developed a reputation for decay and mismanagement. Today, its main concerns are closer to those of other prosperous cities: housing affordability, mobility, climate change. Montreal doesn’t lack for problems, said Mr. Leblanc, but they are finally “rich people problems.”
The city’s new bullish mood is reflected in provincial economic statistics – Quebec had its lowest unemployment rate since 1966 and its healthiest public finances in a generation before the pandemic – but equally in cultural signs of the times.
Last week’s fire that consumed the facade of Super Sexe, a seedy former strip club on Sainte-Catherine Street, was a symbol of the city’s changed fortunes. Although the flamboyant sign was a minor landmark, it also represented a fallow period for the local economy: The business opened in 1978, shortly after the election of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, which sparked a devastating flight of capital and anglophone Quebeckers.
“When Montreal lost its status as a metropolis, it became a city of vice,” said Glenn Castanheira, executive director of Montreal’s downtown business association, in an interview before the fire. “We’ve moved beyond that.”
The arrival of gaming giant Ubisoft in 1997, two years after the close call of Quebec’s last referendum, marked a turning point for the city. The French company’s red-brick headquarters in a former textile factory became an anchor of the hipster neighbourhood par excellence, Mile End, just when Montreal needed an injection of economic animal spirits.
Rivers of tech money now flow through the city, and its zeitgeist. One of the buzziest plays of the season, Manuel de la vie sauvage, satirized the local startup scene; in the American TV show Mythic Quest, an office comedy about the video game industry co-produced by Ubisoft, the scary corporate headquarters are located in Montreal.
A deep malaise about urban governance persisted until more recently, writes Daniel Sanger, in his much-discussed new book Saving The City: The Challenge of Transforming A Modern Metropolis. The journalist and former staffer for Projet Montréal chronicles the rise of Ms. Plante’s lefty, ecofriendly political party amid the demoralizing spectacle of the Charbonneau Commission, which revealed widespread corruption in city contracts.
Asked their feelings about local politics in 2013, city residents were most likely to describe themselves as embarrassed, angry and pessimistic, Mr. Sanger notes. That same year, Mr. Coderre was elected mayor and promptly created the position of inspector-general to clean up city hall – the one accomplishment for which Ms. Plante begrudgingly praised her predecessor at a recent press conference.
When Projet Montréal insurgents unseated him in 2017, they set about implementing an urbanist vision centred on the almost totemic figure of the bike lane. The party had already governed the bourgeois-bohemian borough of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal for years with an aggressive program of narrowing streets, removing parking and otherwise reorienting life toward cycling and walking.
Projet’s transformation of the Plateau also made it a more attractive home for the knowledge workers flooding into companies such as Ubisoft. That drove up housing prices to previously unimaginable heights in what was once a working-class neighbourhood dominated by renters. “We were well aware that many of our efforts to make the borough greener, safer, and healthier were fuelling its gentrification,” writes Mr. Sanger.
Eight years of clean and green governance under Mr. Coderre and Ms. Plante have exported the Plateau model to the city as a whole. Montreal is in the midst of what is routinely referred to as a housing crisis: After decades of relatively stagnant real estate values, the median price of a single-family home in the Montreal area virtually doubled from 2013 to more than $500,000 this year. Condo developments have turned neglected industrial neighbourhoods such as Griffintown into forests of gleaming towers. In the mayor’s home neighbourhood of Rosemont, it can be hard to find bike parking outside the trendy new wine bars.
Ted Rutland has seen this sometimes-unsettling transformation up close as an associate professor of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University. “It’s become a cleaned-up, more aesthetically pleasing city,” he said, “at the expense of some character, and affordability.”
How to grapple with too much of a good thing has become a defining theme of the election campaign. More density is the crux of Mr. Coderre’s answer. He briefly proposed allowing the construction of buildings taller than the city’s beloved Mount Royal before backing down. For her part, Ms. Plante has promised to spend $800-million over 10 years buying land for affordable housing.
The challenge for the next mayor, said Mr. Leblanc of the Chamber of Commerce, is to manage the inequalities produced by Montreal’s flush of prosperity. “Montreal was historically a poor city,” he added with a smile. “I’d rather have these problems.”
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