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Island opportunity goes off the rails

Island opportunity goes off the rails

Attracting families is an important key to the city's continuing success; so why isn't this administration using key land for suitable housing?

The new census this week showed that the off-island suburbs have finally surpassed the Montreal Island in population. What can Montreal city hall do to attract and retain more people?

Most of the people who leave the 514-area for the 450 do so reluctantly. They are often young people with children (or who hope to have children). They enjoy the city's stimulation and its proximity to workplaces, shopping and entertainment. But they leave because there's not enough suitable housing in their price range. The taxes are also high and services spotty. Not the greatest place to to raise a family.

Let's acknowledge straight off that the city can never compete with the off-island on the basis of real-estate costs or taxes.

But the availability of suitable housing is another problem - one on which city hall can act much more strongly than now.

Take, for example, Outremont's abandoned rail yard. Imagine: vacant land the size of 40 Canadian football fields in the heart of the city and within walking distance of two métro stations. It's big enough for more than 3,000 housing units, or seven thousand people. Glory be.

Montreal is squandering this anti-sprawl opportunity in two ways.

--City hall has approved the Uni-versité de Montréal's idea of unnecessarily building a second campus on a majority of the land. (U de M could have met its growth needs by renovating a handsome religious property contiguous to its present campus, but it sought the modern look that new construction would offer.) There'll only be room left for 1,300 dwellings.

In short, the Tremblay administration is settling for a far smaller new neighbourhood than it could have got.

--The yard's future redevelopment has increased property values in neighbourhoods directly to the north of this tract. Old industrial buildings and rundown row houses are being turned into condos in two boroughs (Rosemont-Petite Patrie and Villeray-St. Michel- Parc-Extension). It's here we find the second problem: Montreal is so far failing to make this renaissance attractive to families.

The area could be a real find for many hundreds of families wanting to stay in the city rather than move to Laval. (It's within walking distance of the Jean Talon Market and handy to the métro.) But precious few of these new condos have more than one bedroom. They're unsuitable for children.

Variations of these two problems show up again and again across Montreal.

Mayoral candidate Richard Bergeron (who entered politics to stop sprawl) notes, for example, that city hall proposed several years ago 8,000 housing units on 66 football fields' worth of land near the Turcot Interchange. This land, below the St. Jacques escarpment, belongs to Quebec's transport ministry. Now, however, a vastly smaller housing project is under consideration - and it would be closer to traffic.

As for Griffintown, yes, it will get thousands of housing units. Yet the city has blown a chance to plan the new mini-city well. It held public consultations last month after much development is a fait accompli. The jewel Montreal could have had will never be.

But back to the acute shortage of family-size units and plethora of micro-units.

City hall can insist on two-or three-bedroom units when it controls a project (as with the Contrecoeur development). But most projects elude its influence.

Nor does it seem keen to push for larger units.

It's odd. City hall has the power to determine a condo building's number of floors, its number of units and even its number of parking spots. But it doesn't have the power to set its number of bedrooms.

And, officials told me Friday, the city is not seeking to get this power from Quebec City. The idea had never occurred to them. Zzzzz.

What does Montreal need most to counter sprawl? I think it needs a non-partisan group composed of savvy, civic-minded citizens (including retired civil servants familiar with policy intricacies and now free to speak out) to defend the island's interests and offer constructive critiques of housing, fiscal issues and quality-of-life issues - a group with the respectability of, say, the Amis de la Montagne.

Montreal has been too passive on sprawl long enough.