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Aubin: Would PQ win kill building boom?

Aubin: Would PQ win kill building boom?

Canadiens’ tower would go ahead regardless, but other developers say plans could change if foreign speculators are scared off

Artist's imagining of Montreal's first privately built downtown tower in 20 years.

Artist's imagining of Montreal's first privately built downtown tower in 20 years.

Photograph by: . , Courtesy of Deloitte

This week’s announcement of the Canadiens’ 48-storey condo project is just the latest of 10 – count ’em, 10 – highrise towers planned within shouting distance of the Bell Centre. This cluster of projects highlights the biggest explosion of real-estate investments downtown since 1976, when the election of the Parti Québécois interrupted a building boom.

condo developments It’s an exciting time. Each of these projects is serious: The Ville-Marie borough council has given each the green light. The “smallest” would be 21 storeys; the largest, L’Avenue, across the street from Bell Centre, would be Montreal’s tallest residential building at 50 storeys.

The plans raise high expectations about downtown’s future, yet they also raise questions about whether the city is making the best of this golden opportunity to grow.

Let’s start on an upbeat note. These towers near the Bell Centre would represent a welcome boost to Montreal’s tax base. They’re part of a trend in which urban sprawl is slowly losing momentum (though still growing) while Montreal Island is gaining steam.

Almost all the projects would rise on parking lots or other vacant land, lessening downtown’s dreary, “bombed-out” look. No existing buildings of significant architectural or heritage value would be sacrificed.

All 10 towers would be handy to the métro.

Nine would be residential, and they’d add about 2,500 units to downtown. Montreal already has one of North America’s most throbbing downtowns, day and night, and now it would be even more so.

Indeed, several other residential towers, outside the immediate vicinity of the Bell Centre, would add further life. (For example, the 34-storey Peterson tower is planned for the Quartier des spectacles, an 18-storey project is planned for 1430 de la Montagne St. and 1220 Crescent St. could get an eight-storey building. The 450-unit Seville project, near the Old Forum, is already well under way.)

I’ve argued before that as a rule of thumb residential buildings outside the downtown core should, for sake of families’ quality of life and landscape esthetics, be no higher than eight storeys (and preferably considerably lower). But that consideration doesn’t apply here: The highrise cluster around the Bell Centre is in the very heart of downtown, and the developers’ market in this case is not families but young single professionals and couples. Schools, parks and knowing the neighbours are not their priorities.

So, given this abundance of virtues, what could possibly be questionable about these projects?

One of the good things about highrise living is the views, and it’s worth asking what the concentration of so many towers in a single neighbourhood would do to many residents’ panoramas of the mountain and the river. Making this Manhattanization all the more dense would be the immediate proximity of numerous existing towers (1250 René Lévesque Blvd., the CIBC building, the Sheraton, Le Crystal, La Cité du Commerce Électronique).

Also, wouldn’t the highrise forest block a lot of sunlight? Won’t it create pedestrian-harassing winds? A senior Ville Marie urban planner assures me that studies by the developers discount such problems, but you have to wonder.

Also, there’s the question of architectural quality. With rare exceptions, such as Place Ville Marie and 1250 René Lévesque, downtown’s post-1960 buildings are banal. Some of the planned projects have promise: Icône’s two towers show imaginative spark, and the Windsor office building is to be designed by the firm that did 1250 René Lévesque. Colleague Mike Boone, however, had the mot juste for the Canadiens’ tower: “Stalinist.” Montreal city hall needs to put more pressure on the real-estate industry to pick up its game.

Finally, there’s the ultimate question: How many of these towers will get built in the first place if the PQ wins the next election?

When asked that, the developer of the Icône project, Michael Dickey, said, “Good question. I’ll leave that as a question mark.”

At least one project, the Canadiens’ tower, would not be imperilled, according to Cadillac-Fairview, a partner. Local people, drawn by the Habs’ cachet, would buy condos no matter what the political winds. The company expects foreign investors – speculators – to buy 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the units.

But some of the other projects count on foreigners for about half of their sales. “Foreign investors,” says one developer who asked not to be named, “would sway off in the event of political uncertainty – and without them the projects wouldn’t have the money to be built.”

One more reason why the outcome of the election expected for September matters to Montreal.

P.S. I’d sure like to hear city council opposition leaders Louise Harel and Richard Bergeron explain how they can reconcile sovereignty with Montreal’s economic development.

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