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Spectacular views – while they last

The magnificent vistas that once defined Montreal's downtown are being crowded out

People look out at the city from Mount Royal in Montreal. The skyline is becoming more crowded as new towers are erected.

Two iconic natural landmarks have helped define and shape Montreal's urban landscape: the mountain and the river.

The city's downtown has grown over the years within the tight constraints of the relatively narrow swath of land between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River. Last year, as part of the 375th-anniversary celebrations of its founding, the city created a 3.8-kilometre signposted walkway between the two to underline their historic and cultural significance.

Needless to say, views of the two imposing natural features are a prized asset in the city.

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They are, however, under threat as more and more tall towers – including high-rise condo buildings – are erected.

Condominium owners, some of whom paid princely sums for apartments with sweeping views of the mountain and the river, can end up with less than they bargained for when a new tower next door obstructs their magnificent floor-to-ceiling panorama.

Montreal businessman Jacques Schonberg found out the hard way that the magnificent views included with his high-end condo weren't guaranteed when a new condo tower went up right next door to his a few years ago.

"I lost my whole eastern and southern views, pretty well," Mr. Schonberg says of his 23rd-floor condo in downtown Montreal's Crystal de la Montagne tower on René-Lévesque Boulevard. "I had a spectacular view" in the building – a 2008 project – before construction of the 38-storey Tour Icône right next door, he said. "Now, I see right into other people's windows."

His perspective on Mount Royal remains, but he lost sightlines to Olympic Stadium to the east and to the river to the south.

Unfortunately for condo buyers, there is no recourse for views that end up disappearing, says notary Jean-Claude Deslauriers, whose specialty is condo-ownership issues. "You can purchase a condo in a tower and two years later the same developer will build another tower next door and you lose the view," he said.

Unless the buyer gets it in writing that the condo's views are protected, or insists on the inclusion of a compensation clause in the event those vistas end up being compromised, there is not much that can be done if an intrusive new structure goes up, said Mr. Deslauriers.

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Some residents happily ensconced in the luxe 33-storey, 192-unit Altitude condo tower directly across the street from Place Ville Marie found to their dismay a few years ago that their views were to be imperilled when permits were obtained for construction of the TOM Condos complex, 40 floors stacked extremely close up against Altitude's southeastern flank.

The densification of Montreal’s downtown has become a flashpoint for controversy as those who bought in to the neighbourhood are taking issue with new construction that imperils their views of Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River.

"There were complaints, yes," said Daniel Revah, president of Corev Immobilier, TOM's developer. But he points out that the TOM follows a familiar pattern of being built on a former above-ground parking lot. Smart condo purchasers in most North American cities should know that if their tower is close to a parking lot, chances are good that that parcel of land will eventually be built upon, particularly if the location is a prime one such as Montreal's downtown, Mr. Revah said.

"Parking lots in all the cities, including Montreal, are being eliminated," he said. He also points out that the TOM is built at an angle to the Altitude and not directly blocking an entire side of it.

Montreal regulations forbid the construction of buildings that exceed Mount Royal's highest point, which is 233 metres above mean sea level. But the city has eased height and density restrictions for new towers in some parts of the downtown and Old Montreal as part of its urban plan to encourage development of land occupied by open-air parking lots, considered a wasteful use of precious space.

"Each project is the subject of a detailed analysis, using visual simulation, to ensure that the views in the public domain are protected," said Anik de Repentigny, spokeswoman for the borough of Ville-Marie.

Of course, measures to protect "public domain" vistas of the mountain and the river don't include the prospects to be had from the rarefied heights of condo buyers' private aeries.

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Montreal's municipal government says it remains committed to preserving the beloved public views of the mountain and the river, but it's become a delicate balancing act to honour that promise while at the same time actively encouraging major building projects in the downtown; the more development there is, the broader the expansion of the tax base – a significant source of badly needed municipal revenues.

"Densification in the downtown is part of the city's strategy. But it must not forget the protection of the views in that strategy," said Myriam Grondin, head of advocacy issues with Les amis de la montagne, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the mountain's green spaces.

Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence are "Montreal's geographic parents," said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director at Heritage Montreal. They represent a "cultural resource belonging to Montreal and Montrealers. "They're also a cultural resource that is non-renewable," he said. The recent boom in downtown high-rise construction – office as well as residential – is an issue, he adds. "The buildings are starting to get in each other's way," a situation that could eventually result in a drop in their value, Mr. Bumbaru said.

Kheng Ly, president and chief executive officer of real estate developer Brivia Group, says being straight with prospective buyers about the possibly tenuous status of the view is key. "It's an important point for the buyer. We cannot tell the client they will have it for life. We have to tell the client the reality: 'This is what we know and more than that we can't know.'"

A rendering of the penthouse unit in the 35-storey luxury condo tower at 628 St. Jacques being built by Montreal developer Broccolini, which boasts full views of the river and the skyline.

Brivia and its partner – majority-Chinese-owned Tianco Group – are behind the luxury twin-tower, 38-storey YUL condo and townhouse project on René-Lévesque Boulevard, which was billed at its launch four years ago as downtown Montreal's "largest privately developed residential project."

YUL condo owners have open views of the mountain and Montreal skyline starting at the 14th floor and of the river beginning at the sixth, said Mr. Ly.

Broccolini, a major Montreal-based developer, has plans for a $150-million, 35-storey luxury condo tower – 628 St. Jacques – across from historic Victoria Square in Old Montreal, which includes full views of the river and the skyline beginning at the 15th floor.

Consideration of the view potential is an important part of the decision-making process in planning all projects, said Broccolini spokesman Jean Langlois. Broccolini assembled a number of lots over a period of years before going ahead with the 258-unit high-rise at 628 Saint-Jacques, in an area chock-a-block with historic and protected buildings. That reduces the risk of having another tower come along and block some of the vistas, Mr. Langlois said.

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