It’s a sure sign of the intensity of downtown Montreal’s building boom: developers vying for bragging rights over who has the highest residential tower.
Brivia Group recently announced plans for a new 61-storey condo tower in the Phillips Square area of the city centre. That would make it the tallest residential building in Montreal, beating out rival Devimco Immobilier’s twin-tower Maestria condo project in the nearby Quartier des Spectacles, which boasts 55 and 58 storeys.
Condo-tower developments, not to mention new office and mixed-use projects, continue to sprout at a seemingly frenetic pace in Montreal, with the tallest and most prestigious venues concentrated in the increasingly tightly packed downtown. A major reshaping of the cityscape is underway.
Montréal du futur, a recent exhibit in the lobby of a downtown Montreal office building, highlighted the many projects that are either proposed or proceeding. The area around the Bell Centre, home to the Montreal Canadiens NHL hockey team, is a particularly busy hive of activity. Phase 3 of the Tour des Canadiens will top out at 55 storeys. The two towers that preceded it came in at 50 storeys. The developers are Toronto-based Cadillac-Fairview Corp., Canderel Group of Montreal and Club de hockey canadien. Just west of that sector, the 36-storey QuinzeCent condo tower – also a Brivia undertaking, with Tianqing Group – is going up.
Consortium QMD-Ménard, meanwhile, is betting on its 44-storey Solstice condo project on nearby Rue de la Montagne.
Buying air rights to build a tower over an existing structure is a concept that is increasingly being tapped into. Devimco, for example, struck a deal with the owners of the storied Club Sportif MAA on Peel Street. The fitness club, located in a historic four-storey brick building, is the former Montreal Athletic Association, founded in 1881. Terms of the agreement call for the club to undergo a major upgrade while the façade will be preserved. Devimco’s luxury condo tower will rise 44 storeys above it.
“Montreal’s economy is in good shape. At the same time, there is some catching up going on,” says Robert Vézina, president and chief executive officer of RJV Communications and the founder and chief organizer of Montréal du futur. The city experienced a relatively long slump in major-project construction not so long ago and the current boom is helping make up for the drought, he said.
One factor contributing to all the bustle is the City of Montreal’s policy of encouraging the transformation of the city centre’s open-air parking lots into zones suitable for development, making for a more densely populated and – it hopes – more livable downtown.
At the same time, the city is trying to address concerns that the construction upswing is too heavily centred on high-priced condos aimed principally at professionals and singles or couples, leaving out families, renters or lower-income residents.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante recently unveiled a proposed bylaw that would require developers to set aside 20 per cent of all new downtown units for social housing or else pay an in-lieu fee to the city. New projects would also have to offer 10 per cent to 15 per cent of units built as affordable housing. Developers could opt out by offering land to Montreal for social-housing construction. Finally, 5 per cent of all units would have to be family housing, meaning housing with at least three bedrooms. An opting-out clause would allow developers to make an equivalent contribution to the city.
Ms. Plante’s party, Projet Montréal, promised in 2017 to create 12,000 social- and affordable-housing units by 2021. A spokeswoman for Robert Beaudry, the Projet Montréal city councillor responsible for housing, said the city is on track to put in place a more inclusive housing policy.
The city administration insists the new rules will be sufficiently flexible and won’t put a damper on the building boom. Some players in the development community, however, have warned that investment money in new projects could dry up if the constraints are overly stringent. They point out that the downtown condo market is different than that in other sectors.
Sylvain Gariépy, president of the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec – the provincial urban planners’ association – says that, on the whole, he’s pleased with the evolution of downtown Montreal development. Attracting residents to the city centre helps make it a livelier place, he said. But he would like to see a more pro-active stand by the city concerning public infrastructure. “There’s a tendency to be reactive when it comes to planning infrastructure.”
Jean-Philippe Meloche, associate professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the Université de Montréal, says he doesn’t believe that developers are being overly aggressive in their condo construction. The towers are clearly meeting a need as more people seek to live closer to their places of work, he said. But he agrees that more thought should be put into planning ahead for the needs of residents living in the downtown, such as ensuring that public parks include not only fountains and benches, but swings and playgrounds for kids.
Mr. Vézina says he’s well aware of the importance of avoiding a “condo-ization” of the downtown, where ordinary folk get squeezed out of a too-expensive market. “I perfectly agree it can’t just be condos,” he said. “I’d like to see it more inclusive in the future.”
As to the new towers’ ever-loftier heights, the city continues to forbid the construction of buildings that exceed Mount Royal’s highest point, 233 metres above sea level, although it has loosened height and density restrictions in some sections of the downtown and Old Montreal as part of efforts to attract more real estate activity.
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