The impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on Montreal’s downtown core is no secret. The office towers remain mostly empty as work from home directives remain in place, restaurant dining rooms are shuttered and streets have been devoid of the usual throng of students and tourists for months on end.
Unlike other neighbourhoods, people live the “downtown lives because it attracts people,” said Richard Shearmur, Director of McGill School of Urban Planning, detailing the particular challenges facing the city’s heart centre.
While vaccination offers the promise of better days ahead, the threat of a surge in cases linked to COVID-19 variants could slow down efforts to get Montreal back on track.
Preliminary results of a survey conducted among members by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) from April 8 to April 13, indicate businesses owners citywide are very worried.
Close to 70 per cent of respondents said the uncertainty surrounding the third wave, and the possibility of more restrictions and closures is a main concern.
Many businesses currently aren’t operating at full capacity in terms of staffing and revenues aren’t what they should be for this time of year either. Only 28 per cent said they were making above or about about the usual for this time of year, while 8.3 per cent said they had no revenues at all.
A majority (64.3 per cent) of those surveyed in Montreal indicated that emergency relief programs like the Canada Emergency Business Account, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy continue to be crucial for the survival of their businesses for the 2021.
Most (85 per cent) also agree that emergency support for businesses should remain until all COVID-19 related restrictions are removed.
Making a comeback
Despite the numerous challenges and uncertainty, Glenn Castanheira the executive director of Montréal centre-ville, the city’s downtown business development corporation (SDC), is hopeful the city can and will bounce back to its pre-pandemic days.
“It’s important to know that right before this pandemic, Montreal was at its peak,” he said. “We were beating records in footfall, in visitors, in tourists, in projects happening and in sales per square foot. So we were booming.”
To achieve it’s role of attracting people, Castanheira believes Montreal has to build on its strengths — namely the city’s economic diversity.
“We are one of the rare downtowns in the world that rely on more than one economy for our downtown,” he said. “We are at the same time the financial district of Quebec, we are also the entertainment district of Quebec, and we are as well, the university district of Quebec.”
Ultimately what it comes down to, according to both Shearmur and Castanheira, is offering people “the best experience possible in downtown.”
Doing so is a responsibility that befalls multiple players.
CFIB Quebec vice-president François Vincent said consumers need to do their part in supporting small businesses when they decide where to do their shopping.
Rather than spending their dollars in big box stores, consumers should favour local retailers.
“It will have a positive impact on the local economy,” he said.
Retailers of course have a role to play by creating better in-store experiences. Shearmur cited Apple stores as an example of a place where people go not only to buy phones but to take in their surroundings.
“You know, it’s the experience of the Apple store … as much as the objects,” he said. “More and more retail is going to become like that, often accompanied by an online presence.”
According to Shearmur, downtown retailers have the added challenge of having to compete against suburban shopping centres. He says malls like Quartier Dix30 on the south shore, are becoming more like leisure centres with their cinemas and fitness areas.
“Pardoxically … places like Dix30 are trying to recreate an urban environment,” he said. “They’re trying to recreate patios and recreate restaurants but out onto the the street.”
Shearmur believes that part of making Montreal a more attractive destination means allowing for more activities to take place on the street, in a safe environment.
Pedestrianizing downtown Montreal
Both Shearmur and Castanheira envision a future downtown that is more pedestrianized, a place where people can gather and linger.
Shearmur pointed to European cities, big and small, that have successfully implemented pedestrian cores.
“I think that this is happening and Montreal needs to get on board,” he said. “Even New York has pedestrianized Times Square for crying out loud”
Castanheira, for his part, spoke of adopting a hybrid model where some streets could be closed off only some of the time, like on weekends.
“Pedestrianization does not mean demonizing cars and having a closed off street doesn’t mean that,” he said.
Recent attempts, however, to close off streets in various parts of the city over the summer — as part of COVID-relief measures — weren’t always greeted favourably.
Some business owners complained about the loss of parking spaces for their clients and difficulties in getting supplies and merchandise delivered.
Castanheira argued that the question that needs to be asked is “how can we greet as many people as possible?”
“With the street that is open to traffic, we’re limiting how many people can actually be on the street.”
While there might be some resistance to change, Casthanhiera said businesses in the downtown core are amenable to the idea.
“In our case, our businesses, over 85 per cent of our businesses want some form of pedestrianization, hybrid, part time, full time, one of them,” he said, adding that sentiment was echoed by consumers as well.
“The overwhelming majority of them say that what they enjoyed most of coming downtown is being able to enjoy certain streets that are closed off to traffic so that they can enjoy the full experience of downtown, and that includes customers that come by car.”
Both Shearmur and Castanheira, however, insist that proper planning is a must to ensure a successful project.
“We’re talking about a surgical a pedestrianization of certain areas, with obviously solutions for pickup and drop offs on intersections,” Castanheira said.
“What’s important is that we make decisions based on facts and not just opinions or not rapid decisions taken in the heat of the moment because there’s a pandemic, we really need to, you know, let the dust settle and make decisions that are based on data, on facts and that are worked with different partners.“
In the longer term, Shearmur sees the possibility of building multilevel car parks in the periphery to accommodate those with cars.
While public transit should be the preferred way to travel to the city centre, Shearmur pointed out that the REM, Montreal’s future light-rail electric train network, won’t service all areas.
The network, once completed, will include 67 km of tracks that will link Montreal, the south shore, the West Island and the north shore and provide a direct link from the airport to the city’s downtown core.
In December, officials announced two new REM lines for Montreal’s north and east ends. The expansion will see an additional 32 kilometres and 23 stations added to the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) with construction set to begin in 2023.
Despite the extension, residents in the north east end of the island in Rivières-des-Prairies are feeling left out, as the rapid-transit network is not expected to serve their neighbourhood.
Montreal East-end residents complain REM won’t reach them
Nonetheless, the REM will make downtown more accessible to more people coming from further afield.
“So I think downtown has got to think about remaking itself into a real destination for people across the metropolitan area,” Shearmur said.
That, to a certain extent, will depend on the flexibility of the services offered.
“If you want to actually go and have a good meal, you can hop on the REM and go downtown. And crucially, and this will depend on how much it costs and on the timing, you want to be able to get back home again.”