When Sébastien Lessard bought three plots of vacant land totalling about 220,000 square feet in Laval in 2003, only the Centre Laval shopping mall and big box stores were nearby.
“It wasn’t sexy,” the Société de Développement Urbania (Urbania Development Corp.) president recalled during an interview with RENX.
Fast-forward to 2020 and his Urbania and Urbania 2 residential development, which has so far seen construction of about 1,400 condo and rental units, is surrounded by the Montmorency metro station, Place Bell sports complex, the giant Espace Montmorency mixed-use development under construction, college campuses, cultural attractions and more.
The latest phase of the development is the $72-million Urbania haus, an L-shaped complex with 240 rental apartments, at 1355 Le Corbusier Blvd. It’s scheduled for occupancy in January.
Several hundred units remain to be built at Urbania, meaning that when all is said and done, the multi-phase development could easily top 2,200 units.
“It’s all according to demand. I believe we’re still there for a good six years,” Lessard said. “We can do phases of 150 to 200 units and we could do, depending on demand, up to five more phases.”
Espace Montmorency joins Urbania
The fact the terminus station of the metro’s Orange Line ended up next to Urbania was “by chance,” Lessard said, and not in the cards when he bought the land.
Although he knew the metro extension into Laval was coming, sites for the stations had yet to be determined. “We didn’t buy it because of that.”
In fact, “when we started to sell in 2003, demand for the area was not very strong.” People’s desire to buy housing close to a metro station was not yet a factor and “our first buyers weren’t necessarily metro users.”
Initially, the market for Urbania was comprised of suburbanites but when the metro station opened in 2007, “we went from 40 annual sales to 100, 150 sales.”
He says Urbania is now “a household name” in Laval and “when people refer to Urbania, they know it’s next to the subway station.”
Urbania, Fonds FTQ partners in development
The Fonds immobilier de solidarité FTQ, which backs residential, office, commercial, institutional and industrial projects across Quebec, has been a 50 per cent equity partner in Urbania since its beginning.
Upcoming phases of Urbania 2 will include 20-storey condos. That’s in large contrast to the first three buildings from 2003 to 2007 that were only five storeys high but featured large one-bedroom units of about 800 square feet.
“Nowadays, we make one-bedroom at 550 square feet and even smaller.”
Lessard said Urbania haus was built because the rental market “has been flourishing” for the past two years. “We still have a lot of demand for condos but a lot of the customers were dying to rent.”
Demand has also changed, thanks to COVID-19. While 70 per cent of the demand used to be for smaller units in Urbania buildings, the demand is now 70 per cent for larger units. “People are asking for big balconies and space to work at home,” he said.
Apartments at Urbania haus include five stainless steel appliances, quartz countertops, a workshop space for do-it-yourselfers, rooftop lounge, private garden, concierge service and security cameras.
Features like gyms, yoga studios and swimming pools are not traditionally included in Urbania buildings because of the preponderance of fitness facilities nearby at Place Bell and elsewhere.
Development landscape has changed
Rents start at $990 monthly and top $2,200 for a three-bedroom. About 20 of the units have been rented so far.
Units were not pre-rented because “we’re developer-builders. We know the challenges that COVID has brought us, so we were waiting for a confirmed date of completion in order to be able to sign leases.”
Lessard noted while the area has become much more livable on foot, cars remain a major part of the culture. “Car use is part of every suburbanite’s DNA.”
When Urbania began construction, Laval’s zoning called for two cars per household, which limited the number of units that could be built on the site, Lessard said. “I kept telling them the demand is not for two cars. It’s for a lot less than that.”
Current zoning allows for one parking spot for each unit and “maybe one day it will be less than that.”
Lessard, the sole owner of Urbania Development, has been in construction for 25 years. With his father also in the industry, he grew up in the business.
Urbania is not Lessard’s only foothold in the real estate game. Along with other investors, he’s planning to build a development with 180 rental units in Pointe-Claire in Montreal’s West Island.
It will be located on vacant land near CF Fairview Pointe Claire, Saint-Jean Boulevard and Highway 40, not far from the future REM station. He expects construction to begin next year.
Urbania haus took 12 to 14 months to build and Lessard foresees the same timeline for the Pointe-Claire development.