Downtown densification - Pros and Cons
The City of Montreal's Strategic Action Plan for Downtown released last year envisions a population increase in the downtown area of 50 thousand people by 2030. To prepare for that demographic scenario, the Action Plan also foresees the addition of one thousand new three-room-and-plus dwellings in ten years, including "a significant proportion of those being affordable for a family that buys a property for the first time." The Plan also calls for the arrival of three thousand new residents with children within ten years.To achieve these goals, the City also proposes a series of complementary facilities and infrastructures. Among the ones mentioned by the Plan, four new primary schools and one new high-school, and improvements in public transit. Regarding the latter, the idea is to provide as much as 100,000 rides per day, including the use of metro, buses and the new REM. (The controversial Reseau electric de Montréal, the new Light Electric Train that will connect downtown to the South Shore, Laval and the Pierre E. Trudeau Airport in Dorval).
Is that a good scenario? Certainly, the population growth in the downtown area will mean an increase in density since, obviously, the territory remains constant. This fact also means that in order to accommodate the potential new dwellers within the same amount of land, the only option is to go vertical: high rise buildings become the norm in the downtown area.
To densify the city, especially its downtown has some significant advantages, but also some problems. On the positive side, the first advantage is to keep the downtown area alive after offices and businesses close. Canadian cities in this regard have had a much better fate than those south of the border with the case of Detroit being the worst case. As people leave the downtown and adjacent areas and move to the suburbs, what once were lively commercial and residential neighbourhoods, now become ghost towns, a phenomenon with very adverse economic and social effects. Montreal, like most Canadian cities, has avoided that gloomy destiny thanks to the fact that it has managed to retain a large local population.The demographic growth, i.e., densification, has then this positive aspect.As a result of that high residential component, downtown Montreal maintains a reputation as a safe place to visit from other parts of the city, and it also keeps relatively normal retail, entertainment, and restaurant businesses.
A densely populated downtown is also a way to counteract the negative effects of urban sprawl and migration to the suburbs. A phenomenon that started in the 1950s bringing problems such as an intensive use of cars and the subsequent pollution they produce, costly investments in the extension of the electric grid, water and sewers pipelines, and roads.
On the minus side, however, densification may also create its own problems: car use, for instance, is still high among downtowners because after all, having wheels is very much an entrenched part of the North American culture. With narrower streets in the area and the presence of those who work or study there and who also—somehow unwisely— bring their cars downtown, traffic becomes a big issue, increasing pollution and reducing the quality of life for both residents and visitors.
Since the most lucrative—and therefore preferred by developers—way of providing housing to people in the area is the high-rise, more and more condo towers are built. At this very moment, two massive—and controversial— developments are in the preliminary steps of construction: the one at the former Franciscan site, and the one where the Children's Hospital used to be. Some others are being planned, including one that would destroy some buildings which are still in good shape. Paradoxically, a site in a prime location, the one located on Sherbrooke which also faces Guy, has been vacant and used as a parking lot for decades.At one point it was mentioned that the same New York group that owns the WaldorfAstoria would build a hotel in that place. The idea never materialized, and the site remains an eyesore.
Densification, of course, could be good as long as the authorities are ready to provide the resources needed for a good infrastructure and services.At this point, the downtown area is deficient in those two aspects. Roads and sidewalks need repairs, trees in the area die and no one in the city bureaucracy cares to replace them, green space, in general, is insufficient especially if you want to attract families with children, lighting is still mostly based on the old system of sodium lamps that give a weak yellowish light. (Only Sainte Catherine and McTavish, and parts of de Maisonneuve, Peel, Guy, and Atwater have recently been equipped with brighter white LED lamps). Although there is talk of bringing some public schools to the area, and in a few years the westend part of downtown will finally have its community centre, much is needed to keep this part of the city lively and attractive to more families.
It is obvious then that densification, in the long run, could be a very good thing, provided that those who come to live in the area have access to the necessary facilities and services. Otherwise, it could create a nightmarish situation with traffic and public services out of control.
Some developments are controversial, like the one approved for the former Franciscan site
The high-rise is the norm in most of the downtown area