Montreal modernizes its city hall while preserving landmark building's history

The cost of this project has been on the rise from the start. Estimated at roughly $115 million in 2018, the price tag is now around $200 million. It's too much money, says Montreal's Official Opposition.

As price tag balloons to $200M, Opposition says project’s cost overruns are unacceptable

City allows media to tour Montreal City Hall construction site

2 months ago
Duration 1:49
CBC's Simon Nakonechny takes a tour of the project that began in 2019 to bring city hall to modern standards while maintaining its historical elements.

Stacks of drywall lean against the walls. Electrical wires stick out of outlet boxes, and a variety of tools lay piled up in corners.

It might look like any other construction site, but this renovation project is being carried out in a building that dates back roughly 150 years.

Crews are working to bring Montreal's city hall up to modern-day standards, while at the same time preserving its history — wood-panelled walls, marble trim, arched windows, art deco ceilings and more.

The city says the "transformation will make the building more people-friendly, welcoming and accessible to the public." There will be an exhibition space and a café, and rooms previously closed will be open to the public.

But the cost of this project has been on the rise from the start. The project was estimated at roughly $115 million back in 2018. Now the price tag is around $200 million.

Mayor Valérie Plante's administration says the cost overruns are due to several factors, including the pandemic restrictions and inflation. Extras, like the exhibition space, have also been added to the project.

The building has been closed since 2019, and those pandemic restrictions have slowed work down. Unforeseen challenges like asbestos removal and other old-building issues led to delays as well, the city says.

But the inflated price tag doesn't sit well with the opposition.

The expression "on time, on budget" means nothing to Projet Montréal, according to Montreal's leader of the Official Opposition, Aref Salem.

Wood panelling around arch windows
Montreal's city hall has wood paneling and arch windows. It's features like these that the city is working to preserve while bringing the building up to modern standards. (Submitted by City of Montreal)

"During the presentation of the city's latest budget, the Plante administration lied to Montrealers by assuring them that there would be no new cost overruns," Salem said in a statement.

"This project is a blatant example of this administration's mismanagement as it spends taxpayers' money as if there was no tomorrow."

Project must get done, councillor says

However, ensuring this project gets done is a "no-brainer," said Émilie Thuillier, the city council's executive committee member in charge of infrastructure.

"Imagine if we leave [city hall] like this, and it disappears and we demolish it," she said.

"We have to do it."

The balcony from which former French president Charles de Gaulle made his famous 'Vive le Québec libre' speech on July 24, 1967 will be open to the public when Montreal city hall reopens. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

She said the project will be finished by the end of 2023.Thuillier said work began under the former administration, but under Plante, there has been a shift to go further to preserve the building's historic features.

The fact that it is taking longer to complete the project has added to the costs, as contracts with construction firms needed to be extended, she said.

Montreal says in the exhibition space, there will be a permanent display on municipal democracy and on the history of the administrative district and city hall.

Since renovations began in 2019, the Lucien-Saulnier building next door has served as city hall.

Sustainable development drives project

The city says the restoration is being done with sustainable development in mind. For example, the café will integrate new sources of renewable energy to reduce its power consumption.

Instead of disposable flatware and takeout boxes, the food will be served on washable dishes and reusable containers. 

"Triage zones will be available throughout the building to encourage composting and recycling," the city says, and the project is aiming for a LEED certification.

Old photo of city hall building in Montral
Montreal's city hall was gutted by fire in 1922. This is what it looked like before that fire. (Submitted by McCord Museum)

One of the spaces that will be open to the public will be the outside balcony where former French president Charles de Gaulle gave his famous speech in 1967, shouting "Vive le Québec libre!" to the crowd gathered below.

There will also be a room for public consultations and events.

The "highest standards of universal accessibility" will be applied throughout the building, the city says. Even the balconies will be accessible, so city or agglomeration council meetings can be viewed from above the council chamber by everybody, the city says.

with files from Simon Nakonechny


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