Going Against the Grain РNew Construction in Montr̩al

And now for something completely different – the first privately-funded office tower development in twenty years

Montréal’s skyline is about to change dramatically.

Within the next five years, barring some massive economic calamity, either locally or internationally, the following projects are expected to be finalized:

1. Altitude Montreal
2. Tour Viger/ Tour Aimia
3. TOM Condos
4. Ilot Overdale
5. L’Avenue
6. Tour des Canadiens de Montréal
7. ICONE Condos
8. Le Rocabella
9. Ilot Ogilvy
10. Deloitte Tower
11. Marriott Downtown
12. Tour du Musée
13. Le Peterson
14. Le Drummond

We’re clearly embarking on a new cycle in urban architectural creation in this city, and as you might expect, as with all things Montréal, this too is a tad enigmatic. While other Canadian cities are being cautioned to slow down rapid expansion of single/double occupancy condominiums, Montréal seems to have been revving up over the past decade and is now poised to grow very quickly. Is this because we’ve been prudent with our development over the past decade? Or are we trying to play catch up with other Canadian metropoles?

Let’s take a look at what’s on the horizon.

Waldorf-Astoria Montréal proposal rendering. I really like the set-back integrated into a courtyard all while keeping the scale of Sherbrooke in front. Top notch if it gets off the ground.

To begin with, all that’s mentioned above doesn’t include several other major projects, such as the Superhospitals (all three of them), the idea floating around that St-George’s Anglican Cathedral will develop the land immediately behind it (likely for condos) and everything being built in Griffintown, Ile-des-Soeurs and Saint-Laurent, nor any of the smaller, or perhaps just less visible projects throughout the urban core. Then there’s the possibility Rio-Tinto Alcan may build a new headquarters next to ICAO, occupying a prestige position on the last vacant lot facing the rehabilitated Square-Victoria. The rumour I heard was that Guy Laliberté was considering developing a circus museum and Cirque du Soleil head-office in the architecturally significant Maison Alcan. Rounding out this short list of perennial maybes is the highly anticipated Waldorf-Astoria, which has been batted about for almost a decade, and is to occupy the parking lot adjacent to Tour Guy near Concordia, to say nothing of the on-going discussions for the redevelopment of the Bonaventure Viaduct Corridor.

TOM Condos, to be located on Union South of Ste-Catherine’s on the site of the former Bluebird Café

Suffice it to say, if the economies of Canada, Québec and Montréal stay stable and continue to grow, there’s really nothing stopping all of these projects from being realized by the time of the sesquicentennial of Confederation. Almost everything going up is residential and aimed at single or double occupancy condominiums offering branded lifestyles and various luxuries and amenities. I’m inclined to believe that the market here may not be completely saturated, but this means the city will have to a) install support services to help stimulate the creation of a viable community and b) market the hell out of a bigger-picture urban lifestyle and living scheme. This is a tall order, pardon the pun.

I suppose if it’s lit like this I can grow to like it.

There’s at least two major hotel projects here, though if I’m not mistaken they’ll also have condo units within, a popular arrangement of late. There’s also the first privately financed corporate office tower going up in twenty years to be built on the site of the former CPR Accounting Office on Saint-Antoine. From the looks of the conceptual art, it seems as though Cadillac-Fairview (owner’s of the Windsor Block, Windsor Station and apparently all the land around the Bell Centre) are planning on making good use of the mostly unused courtyard inside the walls of the station. This idea works very well for the occupants of Place de la Cathedrale, and I’d like to see this space crawling with humanity in a manner somewhat akin to what I expect Windsor Station was like. That said, it’s Saint-Antoine that could use the traffic stimulus, but that’s another matter.

So here’s the thing about this perspective. It’s not from a street, but rather the Black Watch’s parking lot across de Bleury.

The rest however, are all luxury condominiums in a market that many think is already over-saturated with condominium properties. The novelty now is that these are residential towers of impressive height, though generally not overwhelmingly impressive in terms of design. Le Peterson is neat with it’s undulating facade and what seem to be some rather nifty looking balconies, but I wonder how well we’ll be able to see it given that it’s surrounded on most sides by other large construction. In order to build Le Peterson several smaller buildings will be destroyed, and I dare say I think it will look weak, diminutive, compared to much larger and imposing masses of the late neo-Classical and sorta Art Deco Caron Building to the left and the neo-deco Hilton tower behind.

Apparently they’ll let residents skate on the ice once a year…

The others, such as the new Canadiens tower, or Roccabella or l’Avenue will be in more direct ‘competition’ with each other and all seem to be unique enough from their neighbours to set them apart (they don’t seem to be entirely cookie cutter, overly corporate designs), but of course getting a good view will be increasingly difficult as time goes on. Within five years four massive new projects will have been built in a line along Rue de la Montagne, with the Bell Centre serving to act as a major pole for development. The other major sectors for development will include the northern extension of the International Quarter and empty lots on side streets on either side of René-Lévesque West of Stanley. Given that it will increasingly difficult to get a good view of any of the downtown landmarks, I wonder if we’re not overloading admittedly underused spaces on the urban fabric. And will these new buildings look distinct enough, impressive enough, to join the ranks of the current skyline? We currently have a bit of an architectural cornucopia. Will this be maintained? If the Roc Fleuri, Crystal de la Montagne or Lepine Towers are any indication, we can expect a lot of blah. The renderings give me hope, but the reality may not be as clear and crisp.

Growing on me, but I hope there’s a drive to go more ‘stately’ and ‘accomplished’ so that it stands out when compared to what will be across the street.

Namely this, the Tour ICONE project.

Among these projects, almost all are being constructed on parking lots or otherwise undeveloped properties. There will be at least one big demolition when the Hotel de la Montagne comes down (though I sincerely doubt they’ll use explosives – it comes to mind that it’s been a long time since we’ve destroyed a high rise in this city) to make way for the Ogilvy expansion, and one major re-development of an existing, albeit unused, office tower (this would be the new Tour de la Musée condo project, an element of the city’s Sherbrooke Street redevelopment scheme). A few heritage sites are going to be implicated, including the aforementioned cathedral, the LaFontaine Mansion and Ogilvy’s, though all of these are to be integrated into new construction. At least they’re supposed to be. Despite all the new residential construction in various downtown locales that are arguably currently uninhabited, there is almost no development to support the influx of people. It should be noted that the apartments will be expensive and likely not terribly large – based on the number of units per building, I can imagine most if not all will only be able to comfortably accomodate at most three people, and even that might be a stretch.

Ilot-Overdale – 25 years late, not bad, though more of the same

Given a lot of the advance branding seems geared towards the apparently thousands of eager young property owners seeking refined urban living ‘experiences’ it perhaps should be surprising that the city wouldn’t be responding to private sector development plans with public services development. There aren’t any parks planned, nor city-sponsored beautification and branding schemes. No schools, no librairies, no daycares, no public art, no community or cultural centres planned as far as the city is concerned – this is all private interest development and geared towards what might be an unsustainable demographic. If there’s any hope of establishing a uniquely Montréal community within, perhaps integrated in to, the Central Business District, we must demand that the city provide the necessary infrastructure to support some economic, social and cultural diversity, and this cannot be left in the hands of the private developers. A key example – the retail commercial space likely to occupy the bases of all these buildings. Will they provide for small, private entrepreneurial business opportunities or more of the same corporate chains. Will the city mandate such space be reserved for people who may in turn purchase condos in the buildings where they run their businesses? I can imagine this may be of interest to the city because it could help anchor these developments into how we conceptualize the city, and how we understand the inter-relations of neighbourhoods. Still, it will take much more than independent cafés, bistros and dépanneurs. A school, a playground and the other requisite provisions for families should also be implemented by the city, again, to help make sure this is a success. Without citizen driven development in these respects, these new towers run the risk of failing with an adjustment in the housing market, an economic panic, or any number of other possible disrupting factors. In my opinion, the city has a big role to play here that goes well beyond simply having a consultation and rubber stamping a developer’s plan. But I digress.

Still leaves a lot to the imagination this way… given it’s proposed height, I would hope it’s more of an icon than ICONE

Of all of the new proposals I find this one to be one of the most impressive looking, though again, getting the full view will be difficult as this particular perspective is in fact quite impossible, there are buildings in the way. I like the massing, the upwards yet non-phallic thrust (more akin to a fountain, in my eyes) of the three distinct volumes and the pedestal like positioning of the tower on the base. Also, you’ve no doubt noticed the local preference for L-shaped buildings (squat horizontal base with off-set towers, think of the new Hilton, the new Marriott, Tour Viger etc.), and I find l’Avenue’s arrangement to be far more impressive. But again, we keep running into a problem that plagues all tall buildings – there’s often not enough space to get a good look.

Tour Viger/ Tour Aimia concept art – I like the relationship between the base and the tower, but I wonder if it won’t look too constrained when viewed from Square-Victoria

So where does this all leave us? Well, for one, though it seems as if urban development is finally really beginning to take off, there are both municipal and provincial elections looming, the latter is supposed to happen before the findings of the commission into corruption in the construction industry are released. The former will happen some time next year, and you better believe Tremblay will be looking to win based off of his record putting up shiny new building in the downtown core. As much as I’d prefer to use other metrics to judge our mayor, I think it’s safe to assume, if within a year ground is broken on all these projects (and in fact, some are completed), Tremblay will cruise to an easy third term in office, and take his place among the previous overseers of major development, namely Drapeau and Doré. We judge based on how our leaders alter our skyline, and hopefully the Charbonneau Commission doesn’t stop any of these projects from going up. Of course, I would hope that moving forward business is on the level and the city thinks seriously about how it’s going to stimulate community development, as that may make this haphazard plan a real success. That said, I’m still cautious and curious to know why all these towers are going up now, and how they came to be authorized in the first place. But I know like Tremblay and Charest knows, new residential towers aimed at young, fashionable, hard-working people set a bar, attract attention and may raise morale long enough to solidify additional investment and development.

2144 de Bleury concept drawing – apparently this has been approved, but I can’t tell if this is supposed to sit next to Le Peterson or if it will replace it.

What more can I say – the stakes here are huge. I’m intrigued by this news and contemplative of where this might lead, but cognizant of what can go wrong, and has gone wrong in the past. For the most part, aside from some uninteresting designs and the repetition, I still think there may be a lot of real value here if the city takes a more pro-active approach to developing a master plan with long-term stability and value development clearly in mind.

Very interesting document issued by the City explaining their perspective on these projects