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Densification Opponents All Over The Island

“It is not only in Montreal’s north and south shore suburbs that resistance to densification is taking place. This battle is also taking place on the island - in its suburban cities and even its central neighbourhoods” – La Presse

Pointe-Claire: “People want a suburb, not a downtown”

Pointe-Claire has frozen a construction project to build residential towers, not in a wooded area, not in a wetland, but in the parking lot of the Cadillac Fairview Pointe-Claire shopping centre, next to a station of the future Réseau express métropolitain (REM) and next to a highway. Why?

Pointe-Claire Mayor Tim Thomas’ position is clear: he stopped densification because that’s what the citizens who put him in office in November 2021 want.

“Densification may be appropriate for another city, but not ours,” he says in an interview with La Presse.

In 2021, Mr. Thomas campaigned on a promise to curb densification. He won by a slim 61-vote margin over incumbent John Belvedere, who wanted to turn Pointe-Claire into the downtown of the West Island. For him, his City’s 33,000 residents are more than enough.

“The old guard was too much in favour of development,” said the 62-year-old mayor, who is passionate about politics and has been a university professor, a Privy Council policy analyst for Jean Chrétien’s government and an antique store owner. “We developed the City too fast,” he says.

That explains why, when asked about his vision for the future of Pointe-Claire, he replied, “My vision is the vision of the citizens, it’s that simple.” And when we asked him if he, himself, had a vision, he replied, “Not really, not really. I’m a democrat, I respect the citizens.”

“People want a suburb, not a downtown,” he continued. Most of our citizens would like green spaces, not big buildings. Cadillac Fairview owns the land. It has rights, but the citizens have rights too. So it’s an exchange.”

Inaction Criticized

The resolution passed by City Council in February to block construction projects was replaced in May by an interim control bylaw to allow “further reflection on land use planning” and development of a new urban plan. Public consultations are scheduled for the fall.

The problem, according to Councillor Brent Cowan, is that the City administration is dragging its feet. In an open letter addressed to the mayor and sent to La Presse, he deplored the City’s inaction in this matter.

“Seven months after your election, you have not even finished defining the very beginning of a two-year process,” he wrote. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that your administration, without a starting point, cannot have an end point in sight.”

Cowan is concerned that more lawsuits will be filed against the City. “The $500,000 you have budgeted this year for legal fees may be just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

The owner of the Cadillac Fairview Pointe-Claire shopping centre brought legal proceedings against the City of Pointe-Claire in March. It alleges that “the City’s contrary to its promises and representations over the years.”

The developer Sotramont is also considering legal action. The third and final phase of its residential rental project, approved in its entirety, has just been stalled.

“Zero Response”

There is currently zero response in this City,” denounces Raymond Paré, co-owner of Sotramont. It is rather improvised, thank you. And we’re not talking about small investments here!”

“Everything is frozen,” confirms Brian Salpeter, senior vice president of development for Eastern Canada, Cadillac Fairview. “There has been no response to several requests for meetings with the City since February 8. This is the first time in 57 years that the City has refused to talk to us.”

The Cadillac Fairview project involves building two 25-storey residential rental buildings, a 20-storey tower for seniors, a grocery store, restaurants and a large 50,000-square-foot public plaza on a portion of the mall’s parking lot, designed by Claude Cormier, a renowned landscape architect who envisioned the giant ring that now floats above the Place Ville-Marie esplanade.

“We are next to the highway, in a sea of parking spots, we have the REM right next door, we are far from the small residential houses. We will not, in any way, oppress any residents. We are not in their bubble. We’re right next door, next to the highway access ramps. The traffic is right next to us.”

- Claude Cormier, landscape architect

“A Privilege”

Danielle Pilette, a professor in the Department of Strategy, Social and Environmental Responsibility at UQAM, is sympathetic to Pointe-Claire’s concerns: “Cities are told: you are going to do your urban planning according to the REM that has been imposed on you. And you are going to densify and change your vocation. But they have jealously preserved their vocation until now. They, above all, do not see themselves as a mass city. They are a community.”

Other experts interviewed by La Presse, however, do not share this view.

“Pointe-Claire is a typical case of elected officials who do not understand the issues, who are happy to host a REM station, but do not allow the neighbourhood to develop,” says Emmanuel Cosgrove, executive director of the organization Ecohabitation.

Jean-Philippe Meloche, a professor at the Université de Montréal’s School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture, goes further. “Pointe-Claire is privileged to have a REM station on its territory and this REM is not the REM of the people of Pointe-Claire, it is the REM of the citizens of Quebec today and especially tomorrow,” he says.

“So we need to find mechanisms to force municipalities to allow real estate construction within a one-kilometre radius of the stations.”

- Jean-Philippe Meloche, professor at the University of Montreal

According to Christian Savard, executive director of Vivre en ville, “the desire to remain a niche city is illegitimate.”

“It’s a privilege that can’t be maintained,” he says. “A city is always evolving.”

“And if we want to minimize the environmental impact and the financial impact, our cities must evolve and densify. The right to remain a city of bungalows eternally does not exist.”

- Christian Savard, Executive Director of Vivre en ville

Savard adds that the B.C. government mandates density around stations when it funds a public transit project. In Vancouver, where a new subway line is under construction, “it is a condition for the allocation of funds.”

Should Quebec do the same? Savard believes we can’t get around it. “We’re going to have to consider it if we want things to move forward.”

Hot Spots of Resistance

There are resistance movements all over the island of Montreal. The “not in my backyard” phenomenon takes many forms. But they all have one thing in common: a fear on the part of citizens that densification will disrupt their environment and their way of life.

Montreal East: Density Revised Downward

Anne St-Laurent, mayor of Montreal East, was also elected on a promise to stop densification.

In Montreal East, the residential area represents 9% of the city’s territory. The rest of the territory is largely industrial.

In an interview with La Presse, she explains: “Yes to densification, but especially to the current quality of life of citizens. I had included in my program, as a first commitment, that I would rezone the residential area.”

This district represents 9% of the territory of the city of 4,000 inhabitants, largely industrial. The density of Montreal East is 315 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 4,881 in Montreal.

“The former mayor, Robert Coutu, wanted to densify, densify, densify. He wanted to reach the 5,000 population. I am very satisfied with what I have today. Very, very satisfied. I don’t ask for anything more than that.”

- Anne St-Laurent, Mayor of Montreal East

Under her administration, the number of units allowed in new projects has been reduced from eight to four in several areas.

“We look at the streets, one after the other,” says St-Laurent, who has a background in banking. We said what’s on the street: duplexes, triplexes, no four units, no eight units. So we zoned it H1, H2, H3: single-family, duplex, triplex. Each street was analyzed and zoned according to its situation. We protected the streets where there was

just single-family dwellings.”

Densification is not required by the Montreal agglomeration, she says. “It’s asked for.”

Mount Royal: The Garden City’s Resistance

Peter Malouf, mayor of Mount Royal, also made densification one of the key elements of his campaign.

Once in office, he signed the death warrant for the residential component of the Royalmount project, under construction at the intersection of highways 15 and 40.

“For me, the concern is traffic,” he explains. I asked the developers how they were going to solve that. They gave me a presentation, but they don’t have approval from the Ministry of Transportation or the City of Montreal. You can make all kinds of plans, but if you don’t have permits, good luck!”

Another issue that concerns him is the REM. Mount Royal will have two stations on its territory.

“We are a small town that will have 550 trains per day. It’s crazy! And they haven’t considered going underground. For me, this is unacceptable.”

- Peter Malouf, Mayor of Mount Royal

Does he plan to densify around the future stations? “In the centre of Mount Royal, there is not really room to add residents,” says the mayor. “Maybe in the perimeter, but not in the centre.”

Emmanuel Cosgrove of Écohabitation is not surprised by this answer. “Mount Royal is a town with fairly high household incomes and a 1950s urban planning vision,” he says. “It was a visionary neighbourhood at the time. But it’s certain that citizens will oppose the new ways of doing things.”

Hochelaga: The Militant Struggle

The fight against densification is also seen in the central neighbourhoods. In Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, for example, anti-gentrification activists are opposing the Canoe project, led by Rachel Julien.

This 350 million dollar project, located on the site of the former Pro Gym centre, is counting on the construction of nearly 1,000 housing units, including 20% affordable housing and 20% social housing, local businesses, green and community spaces, a daycare, pedestrian streets, etc.

“Densification is not just about high-rise buildings,” says Sylvain Gariépy, president of the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec. “It can simply be a much more compact neighbourhood, as long as we increase the number of citizens per square kilometre.”

“It’s a way to develop the territory in a much more optimal way, to reduce vehicle travel distances, to have more profitable and interesting public transportation. There is a lot of merit in densification.”

- Sylvain Gariépy, President of the Ordre des urbanistes du Québec

Emmanuel Cosgrove, of Écohabitation, notes that in some cases, gentrification can be detrimental to densification. “Conversion requests result in a decrease in the population density per square metre,” he explains. “Where six people used to live, there may be two now.”

The impact is all the more serious because the process is one-way: “You can convert the duplex to a single- family home, but the opposite is not allowed.”

Bridge-Bonaventure: the war on height

The rehabilitation of the Bridge-Bonaventure sector, between Old Montreal and Pointe-Saint-Charles, is also the subject of citizen opposition. But it is especially at the heart of a disagreement with the City over density.

The promoter is counting on the construction of 7,500 dwellings. For its part, the City of Montreal only wants to authorize 3,800 dwellings.

The developers, in the name of densification, believe that high-rise construction reduces costs and increases green space, while the City is concerned that these heights are not on a human scale.

“What creates the value of housing, in essence, is what housing provides access to: employment, consumption, a quality of life,” says Jean-Philippe Meloche of the University of Montreal. “There are places that offer a lot of opportunities and you have to share them with more and more people. If we’re not able to increase the supply, eventually the demand will continue to increase, and those units will become unaffordable.”

Densification Des opposants partout dans l’île

"Ce n’est pas seulement dans les couronnes nord et sud de Montréal que la résistance à la densification se manifeste. Cette bataille a également lieu dans l’île – dans ses villes de banlieue et même ses quartiers centraux. La Presse fait le tour du dossier… et le tour de l’île."

Pointe-Claire : « Les gens veulent une banlieue, pas un centre-ville »

Pointe-Claire a gelé un projet de construction de tours résidentielles, pas dans un bois, pas dans une zone humide, mais dans le stationnement du centre commercial Cadillac Fairview Pointe-Claire, à côté d’une station du futur Réseau express métropolitain (REM) et au bord d’une autoroute. Pourquoi ?

La position du maire de Pointe-Claire, Tim Thomas, est limpide : il a stoppé la densification parce que c’est ce que souhaitent les citoyens qui l’ont porté au pouvoir en novembre 2021.

« La densification, c’est peut-être pour une autre ville, mais pas la nôtre », déclare-t-il en entrevue avec La Presse.

En 2021, M. Thomas a fait campagne en promettant de freiner la densification. Il a gagné par une maigre avance de 61 voix sur le maire sortant, John Belvedere, qui voulait faire de Pointe-Claire le centre-ville du West Island. Pour lui, les 33 000 habitants que compte sa ville sont amplement suffisants.

« Les anciens étaient trop pour le développement », estime le maire de 62 ans, passionné de politique, qui a été tour à tour professeur d’université, analyste politique du Conseil privé pour le gouvernement de Jean Chrétien et propriétaire d’un magasin d’antiquités. « We developed the city trop vite », dit-il.

C’est ce qui explique que, lorsque nous l’avons interrogé sur sa vision de l’avenir de Pointe-Claire, il a répondu : « Ma vision est la vision des citoyens, c’est aussi simple que ça. » Et lorsque nous lui avons demandé si, lui, avait une vision, il a répondu : « Pas vraiment, pas vraiment. Je suis un démocrate, je respecte les citoyens. »

« Les gens veulent une banlieue, pas un centre-ville, a-t-il poursuivi. La plupart de nos citoyens voudraient des espaces verts, pas des gros buildings. Cadillac Fairview est propriétaire des terrains. Il a des droits, mais les citoyens ont des droits aussi. Alors, c’est un échange. »

Inaction reprochée

La résolution adoptée en février par le conseil municipal pour bloquer des projets de construction a été remplacée en mai par un règlement de contrôle intérimaire, le « temps de poursuivre la réflexion sur l’aménagement du territoire » et d’accoucher d’un nouveau plan d’urbanisme. Des consultations publiques sont prévues à l’automne.

Le problème, selon le conseiller Brent Cowan, c’est que l’administration municipale traîne les pieds. Dans une lettre ouverte adressée au maire et transmise à La Presse, il déplore l’inaction de la Ville dans ce dossier.

« Sept mois après votre élection, vous n’avez même pas encore fini de définir le tout début du processus qui doit durer deux ans, écrit-il. La seule conclusion qu’on puisse tirer, c’est que votre administration, sans point de départ, ne puisse avoir un point d’arrivée en vue. »

M. Cowan craint que de nouvelles poursuites soient intentées contre la Ville. « Le demi-million de dollars que vous avons prévu cette année pour les frais juridiques n’est peut-être que la pointe de l’iceberg », note-t-il.

Le propriétaire du centre commercial Cadillac Fairview Pointe-Claire a en effet entrepris en mars des actions en justice contre la Ville de Pointe-Claire. Il allègue que « la volte-face de la Ville […] est contraire à ses promesses et représentations au fil des ans ».