Down­town den­si­fi­ca­tion - Pros and Cons

Montreal Times - - News -

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

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