Like Ste-Catherine Street – Montreal’s downtown commercial artery currently undergoing a belated makeover – the city itself is due for a big-picture reboot.
The municipality’s current Master Plan, the blueprint for future growth and development, dates back to 2004. Most key players and concerned citizens agree that a major revamp is in order.
Montreal, for example, now enjoys official status as the province’s “metropolis,” which gives it more autonomy in such areas as housing, economic development and public health thanks to the recent transfer of certain powers from the provincial government. Ideally, a new urban plan would clearly spell out the details of how and under what specific conditions those new powers can be used.
The city is also trying to deal with significant transportation issues, including the role and impact of the new light-rail system being built – the Réseau express métropolitain (REM). A forward-looking vision for all public transit in the city and its role in offsetting urban sprawl and encouraging urban densification is also high on the list of priorities. And some activists want to see a greater emphasis placed on public consultation and citizen participation in the decision-making process at city hall. The new left-of-centre government of Mayor Valérie Plante and her Projet Montréal team has come under fire over the past few months for what critics said were unilaterally made decisions – such as a pilot project banning through traffic on Mount Royal – that lacked citizen input.
Projet Montréal is “a party that lays claim to being democratic – in its campaign promises, for example – but doesn’t give much prominence to participatory democracy,” said Laurence Bherer, a political science professor at the University of Montreal whose fields of study include urban politics and public consultation.
The Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM), the independent body that holds public audiences and makes recommendations on major urban issues and projects, could play a central role as an enhanced mechanism for public consultation, Prof. Bherer said.
Long-time advocacy group Heritage Montreal says the existing urban plan no longer reflects the realities of the municipal territory of the city or its new responsibilities arising from its status as a metropolis. One key challenge that needs to be addressed in a coherent and publicly relevant manner is the transformation of several disused institutional, industrial and commercial buildings – such as the old Royal Victoria Hospital and the historic Molson brewery facilities – the group says.
Heritage Montreal’s policy director, Dinu Bumbaru, says a new plan must be more sensitive to the need for finding new uses for historically important buildings such as the Royal Victoria and Hôtel-Dieu hospitals. And he deplores the loosening of height and setback restrictions in the downtown that have resulted in the construction over the past several years of numerous cookie-cutter condo towers. “We’re paying the price today,” he said. He cites negative outcomes for pedestrians such as blocked sunlight and aggressive wind gusts, not to mention inadequate social services – notably schools and daycare facilities – to go with the influx of thousands of new residents.
“We’re in a period where there is tendency to find shortcuts in urban planning. Implementing a new urban plan is important and it has to be done right. It’s been a long time since it should have been updated,” he said. “Planning is not just zoning.”
At the same time, a new urban plan shepherded by the Projet Montréal administration must steer clear of potentially dampening economic and housing development with too much regulation and taxation, said Mario Polèse, professor emeritus at Montreal’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique. Urban planning in a restricted space such as the downtown has to intelligently integrate construction of relatively tall towers, he said. “If we want to keep the downtown strong, just like Manhattan, we’re going to have to allow people to build up,” he said.
One of Projet Montréal’s key promises in the municipal election last year was to get developers to include more social and affordable housing in their residential real estate projects. Montreal, as with many other North American cities, remains locked into too-high a dependence on property taxes for its revenues. Finding new revenue sources to keep up with municipal budgets that keep rising every year could well make its way onto the agenda for debate over a new urban plan for Montreal.
Options that might be looked at include user fees for certain services, a toll on the new Champlain Bridge linking the South Shore to Montreal and land-use taxes to limit urban sprawl.
Another course of action – one that has been proposed in the past – is for the city to take a cut of the provincial sales tax, although that is a long shot given Quebec’s reluctance to transfer some of its revenues to other levels of government.
City officials have so far kept their cards close to their chest as to how the new urban plan might be shaping up. “We want the revision of the urban plan to be subject to a large-scale public consultation, in order to engage Montrealers in a real discussion about their aspirations for the city,” Youssef Amane, a spokesman for the city, said in an email.
Olivier Roy-Baillargeon, an urban planning consultant with public interest organization Vivre en Ville, said renewal of the master plan is the ideal opportunity to highlight the need for the transformation of older legacy buildings, such as the Royal Victoria Hospital, into social and affordable housing.
Better co-ordination among the various municipal, regional and provincial agencies, as well as between the city and the boroughs on the Island of Montreal, is another issue of concern.
Some observers have singled out the lack of consultation by the developers of the new REM light-rail network with existing transit players such as the Greater Montreal region’s commuter-train service.
Questions have also been raised over what can be done when a development project in a suburb is seen to have a potentially negative impact on the city of Montreal. Politicians from Projet Montréal and from other parties voiced concerns earlier this year that a mega mall planned for town of Mount Royal – north of the city – would divert retail business away from the downtown as well as add to Montreal’s traffic congestion with shoppers on their way to the new retail destination using city streets to get there.
There has been some confusion over whether municipalities such as Mount Royal have exclusive jurisdiction over zoning matters or if broader consultation with the other municipalities of Greater Montreal on such major projects is required.