Something Like… a Great Downtown

May 3, 2022 7mn
In his letter, Glenn Castanheira talk about the role of Montréal Centre-Ville and metamorphosis that influenced its economic, social, and cultural development.

“The downtown core as we know it was shaped by the crises, reforms, and major projects of the Quiet Revolution. Together, they earned Montreal its reputation as an international metropolis. Our downtown is therefore a great open-air construction site; a reflection of its evolution and its emancipation.

The Hydro-Québec headquarters, the Montreal metro, Place Ville-Marie and its underground galleries, even Complexe Desjardins and the Palais des Congrès, inaugurated in 1976 and 1983 respectively, are all icons of this era, a bold and vital period that made our downtown what it is today.

This gradual metamorphosis was also made possible in no small part thanks to the democratization of higher education. With the inaugurations of UQAM in 1969, and of Concordia in 1974, and with McGill’s continuous expansion, Montreal became the university capital of Canada. Moreover, this transformation is ongoing to this day. After a 50-year absence, HEC Montreal will inaugurate a downtown campus this Fall, and McGill University is proposing an ambitious expansion project on the site that was once home to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

And let’s not forget the cultural effervescence of the 60s that led to our downtown becoming the cultural hub it is today. The multitude of venues, including Place des Arts and the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, has made Montreal a cultural capital, putting Quebec on the map internationally. Even in the middle of a pandemic, this cultural hub was able to attract Quebeckers and tourists from all over the country. With the inauguration of the stunning Esplanade Tranquille, and with the Îlot Balmoral and the Wilder Building now housing some of our greatest cultural institutions, including the NFB, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal, that effervescence shows no sign of dissipating.

Still as vibrant as ever

Despite the prolonged dark period caused by two major recessions between 1976 and 1996, Downtown Montreal held on thanks in part to the diversification of its economy and the modernization of strategic infrastructures such as the Place des Festivals and the International District. These major projects brought a renewed vitality to the city, which was still very much alive prior to the pandemic and remained so despite the turbulence it caused.

We were so quick to talk about a “recovery” to revitalize Downtown Montreal that we lost sight of the fact that it never lost its vitality.

Transforming Sainte-Catherine Street West, revitalizing the iconic Phillips and Dorchester squares, creating Place de l’avenue McGill and Place Oscar Peterson, connecting downtown to the airport with the REM, refurbishing Place Ville-Marie, redeveloping Maison Alcan, and building the new National Bank headquarters: all of these projects have either been completed or are underway, and they all contribute to reinforcing the heart of Montreal’s strategic positioning and its reputation as an international city. The redevelopment of The Hudson’s Bay store, the first of its kind in the country, along with the ambitious redevelopment of the Molson plant, are also part of the historic forward momentum in our city center.

As the main tourist destination in Quebec, welcoming more than 50% of all tourists who come to the province, our downtown is also the number one destination for international conventions in North America, with more than 180 already planned for 2022. People come here, and will continue to come here, to enjoy our heritage, our culture, our knowledge, our businesses, our cuisine, our language and the major events that make Quebec shine the world over.

Despite being peppered with orange cones, more than half of which are attributable to private development, our downtown is as beautiful as ever. It is experiencing explosive population growth, the second largest population increase in Canada, and an unprecedented real estate boom, claiming more than 13% of all new housing starts in the Montreal Metropolitan Region in 2021. As a reflection of its cultural and economic vitality, which attracts international talent, entrepreneurs, academics, artists and investors, it now boasts the highest rate of returning workers in North America.

Just as we were taking Downtown Montreal for granted, this pandemic has reminded us of its importance. In this sense, this crisis has contributed to a collective and necessary awakening. We’ve recognized the importance of leveraging our expertise to face collective challenges, to make our downtown core more attractive, even more prosperous, more accessible, greener and more livable, but also to be proud of it.

Its development has sparked enthusiasm in all sectors. The challenge now is to find alignment, to double down on complementary and synergistic approaches and expertise rather than falling back on the siloed ways of the past. To do this, we must rally around a pragmatic governance model, one inspired by those of other major urban centers like New York and Chicago. We need to create a true alliance for the downtown of tomorrow.

Because at its core, Downtown Montreal is so much more than a city center. It is, perhaps, something like… a great downtown.