We have criticized Mayor Valerie Plante often in this space for certain of her green policies from the closing of Camielien-Houde Road, to the reduction of traffic lanes on St. Catherine to the massive park she plans for Pierrefonds that would end the projected building of 6000 much needed housing units for the island. But today is a moment to applaud her quick action against the broken promises of the developers of the large-scale condo project on the site of the old Montreal Children’s Hospital.
When the developers — which include Devimco and High-Rise Montreal — got approval for the sprawling multi-tower project, it was on the condition that they agreed to build 180 social housing units on the site. That agreement was made two years ago. The Plante administration then adopted a bylaw to require all developers of projects with more than 49 units to include social housing equal to 20 per cent of the building’s livable space.
Ten days ago the developers announced they were cutting out the units altogether from the plans. This came on the heels of the developers earlier announcement that a school that was in the original plans would also not be built though a cultural centre would be. The Plante administration had been in talks with the developers since July to finalize the schedule for realization of the social housing commitment. Plante’s response to the developers about face was swift and in the best interests of the public. She acted in a manner befitting the Chief Magistrate of a city.
Plante said, “Enough! The promoters were well aware of the conditions and it was absolutely necessary to have social housing. That’s why they got approval for the project.” She then announced that the developers could go ahead and build their sixth tower of the project, but at the original zoning of 4 stories not 20 as was agreed when the social housing component was negotiated.
Plante’s actions were a much needed tonic to what is happening in the city’s downtown core. The rapid pace of condo developments — being built as speculation not in response to any population growth — has driven up rents artificially as far as three kilometres west and east of downtown. Some estimates put the percentage of foreign buyers of these units as high as 40%. Foreign buyers looking not for residences but to park flight capital in a relatively safe city, and then charging very high rates for rentals thereby disrupting the natural supply and demand capacity in a city where some 70% of residents rent. That is the highest percentage of renters in any North American city with a population of 1 million people or more. It is conservatively estimated that 15-20% of the newly built downtown condo units remain unoccupied.
Corey Gulkin, a spokesperson for the Peter-McGill Community Council, said the social housing portion of the development was crucial for the neighbourhood. “The situation in Peter-McGill is fairly dire,” Gulkin said on CBC’s Daybreak. “Rents are extremely high downtown and there’s been an influx of development, and there has not been the social and affordable housing to match.”
But more than economics, Plante is to be applauded for reminding developers of large scale projects that when they make an agreement they must stick to it. They can’t make unilateral decisions on their own. Often they act as “princes of the city.” Sometimes they need to be reminded that they need the city as much as the city needs them. Particularly in Devimco’s case which got just about everything it wanted in its razing and redevelopment of historic Griffintown. Plante’s decision sends a message that if you break your word you bear the consequences.