The old economy making way for the new can have a significant impact on neighbourhoods and the people who live there. Factor in the arrival of a sprawling new university campus and you’ve got the potential for major disruption.
Several adjoining Montreal neighbourhoods are feeling the pressure these days – socially, economically, culturally – as, in their midst, a budding artificial-intelligence hub emerges, a hot real estate market continues apace and a satellite campus is set up by the land-starved University of Montreal.
In the first phase of a multiyear project, the university is building a huge new science complex on the former CP Railway yards on the northern boundary of the tony community of Outremont. The $348-million project includes decontamination of the land; the redirection of a rail corridor; the demolition of some old industrial buildings; new condos; creation of four new parks; a spacious public plaza; and street extensions intended to help integrate the campus into its surrounding communities.
The districts affected include trendy Mile-Ex and multiethnic Park Extension; the latter has been described as one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.
Observers and community activists say fallout from the new campus and the incursion of outside institutions and AI/tech players – notably Microsoft Corp. – includes rising rents that are squeezing out low-income families and a reduction in the availability of affordable housing as high-priced condos and rental units sprout.
The university says it is sensitive to the impact the new campus will have on the local citizenry; the site will initially serve about 2,200 students, professors and staff, a number expected to grow to about 10,000 over the next 20 years or so.
“That’s something we worked on closely with the city,” University of Montreal spokeswoman Geneviève O’Meara said. “A university campus in a community is a positive development. That’s been scientifically documented over the past few years.”
Some published studies, however, indicate that so-called “studentification” of host neighbourhoods can have a negative impact on the social and economic fabric of an area, with the local economy shifting to more student-oriented offerings – such as bars – rents going up and student “ghettos” forming that are not well integrated into the community.
Will Straw, professor of urban media studies at McGill University, says he’s not overconcerned by what the new campus will do the existing urban dynamic in the area. “I’m not so opposed to these kinds of developments because, in a way, I see them as winning space for public institutions and attracting relatively varied populations and workers and students. I’m more worried about the movement of Microsoft and other artificial-intelligence companies into Mile-Ex, and the opening of more and more businesses (foodie restaurants and cocktail bars) that cater to their workers,” he said in an e-mail.
Microsoft recently announced the move of its Montreal research lab to the AI hub, close to the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, an innovative AI facility in a refurbished textile factory that brings together students, researchers and established AI companies as well as startups.
Things are becoming a bit too trendy and gentrified for the locals, says André Trépanier of the community group Comité d’Action de Parc-Extension. “The real estate market is moving very fast,” he said.
Faiz Abhuani, the director of Brick by Brick – an affordable-housing non-profit in Park Ex – says there are not enough programs and measures in place to assist low-income residents, many of whom are recent immigrants from South Asia and Africa, in facing these new challenges.
“The prices are really exploding. There’s a lot of speculation,” he said.
Government programs providing subsidies for social and affordable housing are “extremely underfunded” and often not responsive to the particular needs of inner-city residents, Mr. Abhuani said. Brick by Brick has launched its own community housing project, issuing community bonds as part of the financing.
A rallying point of opposition for residents of Park Ex has been the recent forced departure of small businesses, religious spaces, community groups and tenants from the five-storey, multipurpose Plaza Hutchison building. Real estate developer BSR Group, which bought the building, plans to transform it into a 61-unit, high-end apartment complex. The company’s website says the new tenants will enjoy apartments “fully loaded with amenities” and describes the area as “culturally diverse, trendy and artistic.”
Protesters have staged demonstrations to voice their opposition to the gentrifying tendencies they say the project represents; they also claim BSR illegally evicted tenants in the building.
Ron Basal, project manager at BSR, said it’s unfair to be targeted and “bullied” in this way. The area is due for a makeover and the transformation of Plaza Hutchison is the ideal project for it, he believes.
“Will a [gentrification] trend start? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful area. It should have started 10, 15 years ago,” he said in an interview, adding that moving the existing tenants out was done legally and fairly.
In proceeding with the project, BSR is only following the market forces at work, he added.
“It’s all gentrification. People are blaming me, the developer in a lower-income city. I’m basically building in a beautiful location.”
BSR also intends to contribute to good causes in the neighbourhood, he said.
Meanwhile, the City of Montreal’s efforts to soften the impact of the new campus include the establishment of 225 social-housing units, spokesman Louis-Henri Bourque said. In addition, of the 1,300 new housing units being built by the private sector, 15 per cent will be affordable and 15 per cent will be social, he added.
There were no studies conducted to assess the potential impact of the satellite campus on the housing situation in the surrounding area, Mr. Bourque said. But the city has an economic- and social-development plan in place to manage the direction and shape of development in the neighbourhoods adjacent to the campus. And there are already existing programs for home ownership that offer financial assistance to condo buyers with limited means, he said.