At the turn of the 20 th century, Montreal's Lachine Canal was a North American industrial powerhouse with sprawling factories packed shoulder-to-shoulder along the narrow waterway.
By the 1970s, the flour and textile mills, breweries, iron works and other manufacturers were moving away or shutting down as activity shifted elsewhere and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway diverted shipping away from the canal.
Left behind was a unique urban footprint: a postindustrial landscape of derelict warehouses, abandoned malt silos and empty red-brick hydraulic works. In the 1990s, the area – southwest of downtown Montreal – was being reclaimed as a recreational and tourist destination.
The canal was cleaned up, Parks Canada had taken over and built a popular network of bicycle paths and the sector was declared a historic site. Aging 19 th-century industrial buildings began to be transformed into trendy loft and office spaces.
Today, the Lachine Canal is in the throes of another transformation. The district has been turned into a condo developer's paradise, with dozens of mid-priced to luxury buildings going up along the landscaped banks and on nearby streets.
With its proximity to the downtown, scenic tree-lined paths and easy access to public transit as well as such amenities as the nearby Atwater Market and a burgeoning number of local trendy watering holes and eateries, the location is one of the city's busiest sites for residential – mostly condo – construction.
Clearly, the revitalization and redevelopment have been a boon for what was an economically depressed sector that witnessed an exodus of the mostly working-class residents once employed by the thousands in the factories. There is a return influx of people and city governments are more than pleased at the expansion of their residential tax base.
But there has also been pushback by local residents who feel the condo development has gone overboard, with too little social or affordable new housing and not enough emphasis on building new schools, parks, grocery stores and social services.
The canal district is a living laboratory in the dynamics of urban planning amidst runaway private residential development. The stunning victory of the left-of-centre Projet Montréal municipal party in the citywide November mayoral contest raises the stakes for developers: the new mayor, Valérie Plante, is committed to building more social and family-oriented housing in the city and putting the brakes on construction of the typical one- or two-bedroom condos primarily targeting the professional class.
Condo developers in the canal district say they are open to the idea of a new urban game plan more receptive to the needs of the community.
"Montreal's southwest is sort of ground zero for a lot of debates on gentrification and deindustrialization," Concordia University history professor Steven High said. Condo construction has "been proceeding at a tremendously rapid pace without a lot of thinking."
"There are a lot of pluses about densification, but a lot of questions about what kind of place is being created there."
Denis Robitaille, president and founder of developer Conceptions Rachel-Julien, is putting up Phase 4 of the company's Bassins du Havre condo project in Griffintown on land formerly occupied by a Canada Post sorting facility; the project is in partnership with real estate developer Le Groupe Prével. "We're quite comfortable providing affordable housing," Mr. Robitaille said. "We don't have any concerns over that."
Of the 550 units in the 20-storey Bassins du Havre tower, 15 per cent will be in the affordable housing category – in the $280,000 range – Mr. Robitaille said.
Some of the project's features are meant to tap into the themes of water and the canal's rich industrial history: There are private terraces made to look like docks, as well as rooftop pools and spa services.
The old Canada Post site is also the location for a publicly funded social-housing project. A municipal agency in the Sud-Ouest borough has a partnership agreement with non-profit organization Bâtir son quartier for the development of 235 rental and 78 condo units, slated for delivery in 2019. Condo availability is limited to first-time home buyers or families, spokeswoman Leslie Molko said.
The project will include shops on the ground-floor level.
In the nearby Saint-Henri neighbourhood, the abandoned, graffiti-covered Canada Malting Silos facility – whose first phase was built in 1905 – is the focus of an ambitious mixed-use and restoration project by Renwick Development. Besides family-oriented residences, there are plans for commercial space, a section for artists' studios and exhibition quarters, public green spaces with access to the canal, an early childhood and autistic rehabilitation centre and an observation tower. The property – containing 240 to 260 residences – will make room for 65 to 80 social-housing units, Renwick founder and president Noam Schnitzer said. "Development in the southwest needs to be community oriented. This, for us, is Canada Malting.
"We want to bring the site back into the community in a very meaningful and sustainable manner."
Shannon Franssen, a spokeswoman for À nous la Malting, a community group opposed to the Canada Malting redevelopment as envisaged by Renwick, says the project doesn't sufficiently address the neighbourhood's serious affordable- and social-housing needs. "It's one of the last sites that's available for social housing along the Lachine Canal," she said. "Many low-income residents are being forced to move out because of gentrification" and Renwick's proposal is essentially a luxe condo project with a bit of window dressing to address community and social housing needs, she said.
The group wants municipal authorities to acquire the land and come up with plans for a public only project with a much higher ratio of social and affordable residences.
"I understand their position. I understand where they're coming from," Mr. Schnitzer said. "But this is a project that addresses the needs of the community."
Montreal and New York City architect Karl Fischer says his firm has prepared "a comprehensive design package for the revitalizing of Canada Malting and including social housing." The proposal has been submitted to the city for review, he said. Mr. Schnitzer anticipates the approvals process to resume in January with groundbreaking tentatively scheduled for October, 2018.
Whatever shape the former malt works ends up taking, it's clear – especially with the arrival of Projet Montréal at the helm of city government – that the entire canal district will be subject to much closer, more rigorous scrutiny of any new residential real estate development in the sector.