Can Ste-Catherine Street's makeover revitalize the historic strip?
Merchants associations, retail expert agree that roadwork on the commercial artery could give it new life
Ste-Catherine Street has long been at the centre of Montreal's culture, identity and, especially, its retail economy — but in recent years, the historic strip has struggled to compete with online retailers and car-friendly suburban malls.
Now, it's facing another major challenge: four years of roadwork.
The project has merchants concerned, especially after witnessing the struggles of businesses when St-Denis Street and St-Laurent Boulevard were torn up.
But the head of the downtown commercial development association, André Poulin, is confident the project will prove beneficial in the long-term.
"It will become a street of international calibre again," he said, adding that the street had been neglected for years.
"This will be a rebirth."
The first phase of construction began on Jan. 8, after two years of planning.
The city is replacing concrete, asphalt and sidewalks, as well as the 100-year-old lead pipes that run under the street, from the Quartier des Spectacles to Atwater Avenue.
At the same time, the project aims to breathe life into the street. Details of how that will be done, though, remain hazy.
'People need to want to come'
The initial project, put forward three years ago under former mayor Denis Coderre, was much wider in scope.
The possibilities included pedestrian-friendly initiatives such as heated sidewalks and an inflatable, moveable tunnel.
Those ideas have largely been scrapped.
Robert Beaudry, a city councillor for Projet Montréal, said the city wants to avoid repeating what happened on St-Denis, where several businesses closed during years of renovations.
Especially because Ste-Catherine is already struggling. In recent years, 60 businesses on the street have closed, Beaudry said.
"People need to want to come to this artery," Beaudry said.
Changing face of retail
The struggles on Ste-Catherine Street come despite strong numbers for Quebec's retail sector.
From January to October 2017, there was a 4.4 per cent increase in retail sales on the island, according to the Conseil québécois du commerce de détail (CQCD).
Some purchasing habits are changing, for example in 2017, 63 per cent of Quebecers made at least one purchase online — and less than half of those people bought from a Canadian retailer, according to the CQCD.
Charles de Brabant, executive director of the Bensadoun Retail Initiative at McGill University, believes the retail industry is moving to two extremes: efficiency and experience.
Efficiency has to do with functional, day-to-day, technology-driven goods generally purchased online — think Amazon.
Experience is more associated with the human component, is more community-driven, and usually associated with physical shops.
He sees Ste-Catherine as being stuck between those two extremes, not offering a satisfying version of either.
Ste-Catherine needs to offer shoppers a more enriching experience, which he said at the moment is stuck in the 1980s.
"To have a suboptimal looking street," he said, "you don't necessarily want to walk through it."
Léopold Turgeon, the head of the CQDC, praised the city for committing to improving storefronts and marketing the street to consumers once construction is over.
But he's hoping the city will put in place some financial compensation for merchants affected by roadwork.
There were no specifics about that in Valérie Plante first budget, though her administration has said an announcement is forthcoming.
An ongoing evolution
Turgeon believes it's just a matter of time before Ste-Catherine is revitalized and new businesses start to pop up on the strip.
But he said merchants, as well, need to evolve with their client base.
"Consumers want different things now," Turgeon said. "They shop on the web. You have to make contact not only in brick-and-mortar stores, but also online."
In recent years, Turgeon said, many young businesses have opened in the province — and they're combining experience and efficiency.
"Often it's young people," he said.
He encouraged the 25,000 small businesses in Quebec — and the governments that regulate them — to move in the same direction.
"Cities have it in their interest to cultivate a mix of businesses to respond to their clientele," he said.