Montreal’s seemingly insatiable appetite for new condominium towers continues apace as the city’s venerable old Children’s Hospital is knocked down to make way for a $400-million development project in the city’s west end.
The sprawling new venture, dubbed EstWest, will include two 28-storey condo towers. Eventually, the project will comprise office space, social housing, a park and community centre. The vast majority of the mixed-use complex will be within City of Montreal boundaries, but a tiny part of it – the former nurses’ residence, built in 1919 – spills over onto City of Westmount territory. And for some, that’s just shy of too close for comfort.
Stately, sedate Westmount – well-worn clichés about its status as an Anglo-Saxon redoubt of wealth and privilege aside – is not known for its receptivity to high rise condos.
This community of quiet, leafy residential streets and mock-Tudor homes has a long history of staunch commitment to the preservation of its rich stock of heritage houses and continues to cultivate a high-rise phobia; it has some of the most stringent development-curbing bylaws and zoning regulations in North America.
Indeed, EstWest’s promoters appear eager to borrow some of Westmount’s low-rise, British Home Counties aura. “Here, life is driven both by the cosmopolitan effervescence of western downtown, while offering the prestige and tranquility of Westmount,” developer Devimco Immobilier’s website trumpets.
Westmount was once touted as “Canada’s model city,” former mayor Peter Trent says in his 2012 book The Merger Delusion. A more recent feather in its cap was being designated a national historic site of Canada in 2009; Parks Canada singled out “its characteristics of the City Beautiful and Garden-City movements.”
Other burgs on the Island of Montreal have borrowed from Westmount’s urban planning playbook, notably Outremont and Mount Royal.
“In many ways the original intent of the city founders to create a model city based on garden suburb aesthetics, civic pride, and principles of good governance continues to be honoured by Westmount residents,” says a January, 2011, baseline study of the city by a team of researchers from McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.
About 20 years ago, Westmount was subdivided into 39 “character areas,” and each area’s heritage buildings were identified and rated on a scale from “exceptional” to “neutral.”
Mr. Trent is a fierce defender of Westmount’s protective urban planning philosophy, which is in stark contrast to that of other municipalities across Canada that have welcomed high-rise condo development with open arms over the years.
“We can offer a very special place to live that is not replete with high-rises right across the city.
“Because Montreal is moving – downtown at least – in the direction of putting high-rises everywhere, seems to me a good idea to have one isolated area that has this wonderful heritage architecture that no other place in Quebec has, not even in Canada,” he said in a recent interview.
But it’s not only a question of high-rise versus low-rise for the 3.9-square-kilometre town of close to 21,000 people that sits so prettily on the southwestern flank of Mount Royal.
Westmount officials are not oblivious to the growing movement in North America calling for a loosening of zoning laws in enclave-type neighbourhoods that make it difficult if not impossible to build a variety of housing types to accommodate new generations with different needs than just expensive single-family residences.
In Westmount, for example, subdivisions of existing single-family homes are frowned upon, height restrictions on average limit construction to six stories and there is precious little new ground on which to build.
And home renovations are subject to stringent oversight.
“We still have very strict heritage policies, some might say too strict,” Westmount director of urban planning Tom Flies said. But he adds that such an approach contributes to helping protect and maintain real estate values. Westmount’s property values are among the highest in Quebec; the limited stock of housing, the lack of vacant land to build on and careful control over the materials and architectural details used in home upkeep and renovation – combined with the lid on new construction – contribute to maintaining their lofty levels.
At the same time, there is a recognition of the demographic, social and economic changes taking place, Mr. Flies said. “We need to re-evaluate those [existing] orientations.”
Finding ways to make room for residential densification is on the agenda, Mr. Flies added.
“That is definitely a challenge that the city has. We need to find creative ways,” he said.
“The zoning right now is very strict, so you can’t really densify a lot.”
Among options, city council wants to look at are the subdivision of lots, the use of residual space and the transformation of coach houses into granny flats, Mr. Flies said.
But attracting and retaining young families in a high-priced neighbourhood is not easy, he added. An added challenge is the trend of empty-nesters who want to leave Westmount, he said.
Former mayor Mr. Trent – who retired last year – insists that Westmount is in fact a high-density city, with a plentiful supply of row houses. “We can arrive at pretty dense development even with three stories. Most housing in Westmount is very dense. It’s a very good use of surface area.”
Founded in 1874, Westmount has not always presented so robust a stance against major development initiatives. In the 1960s upzoning allowances were made for the construction of two high-rise office-residential-shopping complexes that clashed jarringly with the existing built environment: the Alexis Nihon plaza, on Atwater Avenue, just up the street from the Children’s Hospital where the EstWest project is currently going up; and Westmount Square, by iconic architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in his trademark smoked glass International Style, on Greene Avenue several blocks west of Atwater.
“No level of government can claim the high ground when it comes to land-use planning. Fifty years ago, the City of Westmount generously up-zoned to permit such massive high-rise developments as the Alexis-Nihon complex and Westmount Square,” Mr. Trent wrote last year, as mayor, in a city brief slamming the Children’s Hospital redevelopment.
“And, it must be said, in our enthusiasm for such overbuilding, we condemned a hundred heritage houses to the wrecking ball.”