Despite distracting headlines, Montreal sees billions in growth

The constant revelations of corruption by the Charbonneau Commission on the awarding of public contracts to the construction industry suggest that Montreal is a city in crisis. But the numbers of cranes that dot the city indicate otherwise.
Those were the conclusions of two keynote speakers who discussed the city’s fundamentals and its prospects during the Montreal Real Estate Forum on April 4.
“Montreal is a resilient city,” says Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Montreal Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, and this gives reason for optimism about its future.
However, the city will first have to overcome the scandals brought to light by the commission, problems with municipal governance and traffic congestion and an inability to get major projects done, he says.
The latter includes rebuilding of the Turcot Interchange, which was slated to cost about $1.3 billion with completion in 2015, when originally announced in 2007. It is now slated to cost $3.7 billion with completion scheduled in 2020.
City faces high unemployment
While Montreal should be a locomotive for the province, it has rates of unemployment that are higher than in the rest of the province, Leblanc says.
On the other hand, the city performed exceptionally during the recession, with favourable GDP and job performance compared with Vancouver and Toronto.
Its assets include a diversified economy, qualified and available labour force at reasonable cost and well-recognized quality of life, culture and levels of safety.
As well, projected development of natural resources in the province’s north should prove to be a boon for the city in coming years.
What’s more, a number of transport projects on the books will improve Montreal’s economic performance. These include “massive investments” in public transit, including new Metro cars, an airport shuttle service, improved commuter train service to the West Island and a light train on the new Champlain Bridge.
Hopes pinned on transit and construction projects
Leblanc believes $14-billion worth of public transit projects will be realized by 2020.
In addition, a number of major urban revitalization projects and private investment will give new life to several neighbourhoods. These include housing and mixed use projects at several sites, including the Hippodrome, Griffintown, Radio-Canada, Quartier des Spectacles and Campus Outremont.
Downtown Montreal is about to see its first privately-built office towers in 20 years, including a major Cadillac Fairview project next to the Bell Centre. “Downtown hasn’t seen as many projects in 40 years,” Leblanc says.
Overall, there are more than 80 cranes and 120 construction sites worth more than $5 million in the city, for a total investment of $14.8 billion.
However, a great deal of care will be needed to preserve the vitality of downtown Montreal’s shopping streets, he says. This includes parking at reasonable costs, more underground parking and renovation incentives.
Montreal still viewed around the world with envy
Another speaker, economist and longtime Montreal columnist Alain Dubuc, also said the city is on the rebound despite the enormous challenges it faces.
The city is badly managed and the language law, two referendums and an exodus of anglophones have all contributed to its decline. But despite all this, Montreal is looked upon with envy by many around the world, Dubuc says.
What’s unique about Montreal is its bilingualism and not its multiculturalism, he says. Multiculturalism is something that is trumpeted by all major cities, but bilingualism is something that few cities can claim.
Montreal is frequently described as a francophone city, “but we know Montreal is a bilingual city,” and this dual identity is one of the city’s great strengths, he says.
Unfortunately, the Quebec government often ignores Montreal’s importance to the province’s economy and the city tends to be treated like it’s a foreign body by the rest of the province. On the municipal front, the city faces a leadership problem and hasn’t had “a real mayor” in decades.
Language tensions stoked by PQ
Still, there are signs the city’s two major language groups are growing closer together, despite attempts by the current Parti Québécois government to restoke language tensions.
This includes everything from the now-hip Mile End area “which has been redeveloped by anglos,” to a growing number of British-style restaurants and a music scene led by groups like Arcade Fire.
It also includes Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, which has been able to combine a European artistic style with North American marketing techniques. Only a city with ties to France and the anglo-saxon world would be able to achieve this kind of success, Dubuc says.
Both anglophones and francophones share a common desire to see a more dynamic Montreal, and this augurs well for the city’s future, he says.

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