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Rendering of the Royalmount project in the Montreal suburb of Town of Mount Royal.

Carbonleo/Carbonleo

An ambitious plan to build a sprawling mega-mall on industrial land in the Montreal suburb of Mount Royal has put the spotlight on the way high-impact projects can not only transform a city’s landscape, but also severely test the urban-planning process.

Montreal real estate developer Carbonleo won over the Town of Mount Royal’s city council with its proposal for the multibillion-dollar Royalmount complex, a veritable city-within-a-city that would include 1.5 million square feet of retail, six office towers, more than 100 restaurants, five hotels, two theatres, an aquapark, an 8,000-vehicle parking lot and up to 6,000 housing units.

The site chosen is an aging industrial strip near one of the busiest interchanges in Canada, the intersection of Highways 15 and 40.

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Town of Mount Royal (TMR) is an affluent suburb with a population of about 20,000. The town stands to benefit from a huge jump in tax revenues from Royalmount.

TMR Mayor Philippe Roy believes Royalmount is the ideal project to offset the de-industrialization taking place in the area. Critics, however, have raised several concerns over the proposal; they cite a study released by the City of Montreal indicating that the mega-mall would boost afternoon rush-hour travel time by up to 30 minutes for commuters using the already heavily congested highway system nearby.

Increased traffic would also mean higher levels of airborne pollution. And, though Carbonleo’s plans include a pedestrian bridge linking Royalmount to a nearby subway station, with the developer also recently adding a proposed electric-bus shuttle, skeptics say the project is still too car-centric and that the proposed amenities to encourage transit use, as well as walking and cycling, are inadequate.

There is also the issue of how much business all of that new retail activity will take away from existing commercial arteries such at St, Catherine Street in downtown Montreal and the north-south axis of St. Denis Street. Another matter of concern that has been raised is the potential cannibalization of entertainment dollars from venues in Montreal and other municipalities in the region.

The developer touts Royalmount as a world-class tourist and retail destination with a well-integrated residential component, not to mention a welcoming public space and pedestrian street that will boast a vibe similar to that of New York City’s famous Highline elevated linear park.

Besides the hundreds of jobs created, the complex will also provide a big boost to efforts to stop the flight of consumer dollars off the Island of Montreal to suburban mega-malls, the developer says.

As for the presumed 30-minute lengthening of the afternoon commute, Carbonleo and its partners cite independent research indicating only a two-to-five-minute additional wait.

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“Town of Mount Royal has chosen the path to the future,” Mr. Roy recently told the Montreal agglomeration council’s standing committee on urban and economic development and housing.

Not everyone shares that positive outlook.

The provincial government, which has jurisdiction over the highway infrastructure in the area, has expressed concerns over the potential traffic slowdown.

The not-for-profit Conseil régional de l’environnement de Montréal has called on Quebec to intervene and put the project on hold, given the massive impact it will have far beyond TMR’s boundaries.

Indeed, urban planning experts and architects have deplored the fact that tiny TMR can, on its own, greenlight a development with such far-reaching consequences for neighbouring municipalities and the entire region.

Ron Rayside, of Montreal architectural firm Rayside Labossière, told the committee that a much broader, more inclusive consultation, involving all those affected by the project, should take place.

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In his presentation to the committee, Jean-Claude Marsan, professor emeritus of architecture at the Université de Montréal, characterized Royalmount as an “impending disaster” on many fronts, not least because it blatantly flies in the face of the City of Montreal’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable-development advocate Richard Grenier said in his presentation to the committee that Royalmount “has a regional impact and should be evaluated based upon its regional status,” adding that there is a “deficit” in the existing urban-planning laws in Quebec when it comes to measuring the impact of mega-projects.

Raphaël Fischler, dean of the school of urban planning at the Université de Montréal, said in a written brief to the committee that the mega-mall would have “the intended effect, if not the explicit goal, of weakening existing main streets, shopping centres and theatres so this private project can make money. In a few years, it could undo decades of efforts to inject life into downtown and neighbourhoods.”

In the end, the committee recommended that Carbonleo should go back to the drawing board and that a more concerted urban planning effort be made, one that includes all of the players who will be affected by the project and that fully addresses environmental, social, transit and other issues.

The committee also recommended that the number of parking spaces be substantially reduced.

If an agreement cannot be struck with the developer, the city should make use of every legal tool at its disposal to suspend the project, the committee said.

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Although Carbonleo has all the required permits and work on the project has begun, municipal or provincial governments have different options to stop it, including refusing to make the required highway infrastructure adjustments.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante welcomed the recommendations and said there needs to be a wider, more inclusive consultation process.

“If we want it to be done well, if we want it to be socially acceptable, thought needs to be given to the retail on offer, there must be an assessment of how to avoid cannibalizing [existing businesses],” Ms. Plante said.

Carbonleo says it’s receptive to calls for comprehensive discussions and remains open to constructive input that can help improve Royalmount, but that a delay is not necessary given that the project is already in compliance with “all applicable laws, regulations and planning rules.”

The committee is expected to table its report on Royalmount before Montreal city council sometime this month. The city’s executive committee then has a six-month period to study the report and issue its decision.

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