Condoville: What is the real estate boom doing to downtown Montreal?

Residential units in high-rise condos are hot commodity in Montreal, but critics worry they will kill the vitality of downtown neighbourhoods.

Units in high-rise condos are a hot commodity, but critics worry they will hurt the city's vitality

Last year, 3,365 condo units were sold in central Montreal, a record that surpassed previous highs reached in 2012 and 2006. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

On a cold Saturday morning in April, a small group of hockey fans mixed with real estate investors in the showroom of one of the many upscale condo developments in the city.

The 55-storey tower bills itself as "Montreal Canadiens-inspired," and is being built in the shadow of the Bell Centre, near two other Habs-themed high-rises.

Guy Carbonneau, the team's one-time captain and coach, was on-hand signing autographs, and hawking units.

"The Habs are built on a history of greatness and I believe Tour des Canadiens 3 will do the same for the Montreal real-estate landscape," Carbonneau said, reading from a prepared statement.

Such is the velocity of Montreal's condo market these days that everyone seems to be sucked into its orbit.

While the city's real-estate market is enjoying a sustained growth period, downtown condo sales have been particularly hot.

Last year, 3,365 condo units were sold in central Montreal, a record that surpassed previous highs reached in 2012 and 2006, according to figures compiled by Altus Group, a real-estate data firm. There was a near 22-per cent increase in the fourth-quarter alone.

Former Candiens captain and coach Guy Carbonneau met with fans and investors at a recent event in the showroom of the Tour des Canadiens 3 condo development. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

High-rise condo boom

Much of this growth was driven by new construction projects, such as the Tour des Canadiens 3, suggesting there is no longer any excess supply on the market.

"We've exhausted the inventory of unsold new units that were in the big towers during the difficult years of 2013, 2014 and 2015," said Vincent Shirley, director of real-estate development at Altus.

"Today it is the launch of condo projects that is really effervescent. They will account for 50 per cent of first-quarter sales this year."

Foreign investors have started to take note. They now account for roughly 1.7 per cent of Montreal purchases, though that's small compared to Toronto (3.4 per cent) and Vancouver (4.8 per cent).

The high-rise condos in downtown Montreal are a bigger draw for professionals with no children or older people with equity looking to downsize. Market observers estimate as many as 25 per cent will be used as investments.

"What we're seeing is people are wanting to live in larger spaces in the downtown. They want great views and to be able to walk to everything," said Rizwan Dhanji, a residential sales executive with Canderel, the developer behind Tour des Canadiens.

High-rise projects with names like Crystal, YUL and the Drummond are the most ostentatious manifestations of the city's hot condo market. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

In the condo development's showroom, prospective buyers can visit a mock-up of a two-bedroom, 1000 square-foot unit.

Hints of the lifestyle on offer are embedded in the furnishings: modern leather-backed chairs, a crystal decanter on a quartz kitchen countertop, wooden Henriot box tucked away in the corner.

A floor-to-ceiling high-resolution photograph of the Saint-Lawrence River represents the view available to those who can afford the upper-level units.

Outside, Montreal's new condo towers — imposing steel and glass structures rising 100 meters or more — are impossible to miss.

City of glass

With names like Crystal, YUL and the Drummond, they are the most ostentatious manifestations of the city's hot condo market.

Many consider them to be its most problematic element as well.

Some of these concerns will be familiar to anyone who has followed recent developments in the country's two other major real-estate market.

These include worries about affordability, which has declined steadily in Montreal since 2015. And some municipal politicians have mooted the need for a foreign-buyers tax.

But alongside the economic, there are architectural concerns. Not only have these residential skyscrapers reshaped the city's skyline, they have dramatically altered the pedestrian experience along René Lévesque Boulevard and large parts of Griffintown.

In the condo development's showroom, prospective buyers can visit a mock-up of a two-bedroom, 1,000 square-foot unit. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Like all skyscrapers, the new downtown condo towers block out sunlight and deflect air currents.

"You need lead shoes just to stay on the ground because of the wind vortex," joked Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of the urban advocacy group Heritage Montreal.

And if the condo towers can be unpleasant to walk by, some feel they're not much better to look at either.

"I don't see virtue in any of them. It's not architecture, it's commodity," said Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and an influential architecture critic.

"Montreal used to be a place where you would have high-rise buildings with light and air between them. But now it's just a cavern down Réné-Lévesque."  

Thinking beyond boom-and-boom

Neither Lambert nor Bumbaru are opposed to downtown condo-living per se. Indeed, both acknowledge the need for mid-rise residential building to combat sprawl.

But they are concerned that many of the high-rise condos are being built with little consideration for the impact they will have on surrounding neighbourhoods.

The Projet Montréal administration is expected to draw up a new master plan this year, which will guide zoning and development decisions.

They hope it will encourage a greater emphasis on the aesthetics of high-rise towers and the "strollability" of the surrounding area, by ensuring new developments don't block out sunlight or include street-level stores, for instance.

Community groups, parents and the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) have been pushing for a new French-language school in the downtown area, between Atwater and University streets. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Mayor Valérie Plante has also suggested making the downtown more accessible for families is a priority for her administration.

But many of the new condo developments don't contribute to that goal, said Lambert.

She was dismayed to see that the development on the site of the old Montreal Children's Hospital was allowed to proceed without setting aside space for an elementary school, which the neighborhood needs urgently.

"There isn't proper planning in Montreal," Lambert said.

Bumbaru, whose group intends to contribute several proposals for the new master plan, agreed. Proper planning, he said, should consider the city's needs beyond the current boom in the real-estate market.

"In the past, we managed to generate genuine neighbourhoods with real life in them. But you wonder if the kind of building we're doing today will support authentic city life because there is no room for families. The units are basically there to generate short-term gain for builders and investors," he said.

"We have to raise our planning skills in this city."

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