Is the $64 billion party over?

By Alan Hustak on May 28, 2009

It’s been four years since  Mayor Gérald Tremblay first sketched out his ambitious $64-billion plan to transform the face of Montreal. 

Armed with flow charts, maps and architectural renderings of ‘‘dream schemes,” Tremblay spoke to the Montreal Real Estate Board about the “Tremendous potential ahead.’’  He was going to tear up the Bonaventure Expressway, reclaim the waterfront, and in a partnership with private enterprise, develop 557,000 square metres of vacant lots downtown. At the time, the city was running a $400-million surplus and the Dominion Bond Rating Service assigned the city an A-Rating for its “spending prudence.”

That was then; this is now. 

Tremblay-cmyk.jpgThe long list of mega projects that Tremblay envisioned four years ago have now either been scaled back, cancelled or delayed. The most spectacular, a billion dollar downtown casino and Cirque du Soleil complex never got beyond the hype. But because this is an election year, proposals for a number of other grandiose building schemes continue to fly off the drawing boards. Public hearings are about to be held on a proposed 34-storey skyscraper for the corner of Mackay St. and Rene Levesque Blvd, and for another tower at the foot of Beaver Hall Hill that would soar high above St. Patrick’s Basilica. 

The 100-million Seville Theatre Project  near the old Forum appears to be a go, but the most visible construction activity is the $120-million overhaul of the entertainment district near Place des Arts, a Quartier des Spectacles being developed by Societe immobiliere du Quebec. The public square at the heart of the district is nearing completion and expected to be open for the Jazz festival.  But that’s about it. Contracts still have to be signed for the long awaited $270-million Symphony Hall. French architect Paul Andreu, better known for designing airports than cultural centres, was recruited to help design the entertainment district, but so far all he has produced is a disappointing maquette for a rather conventional building at the crossroads of the city. 

A much talked about $30-million Jewish Cultural Museum proposed for the vacant lot at the St. Laurent Metro station has been scrapped in favour of a four –to-six sceen cinema arthouse to be built by the Angus Development Corporation.  Similarly, the site of the Spectrum is now a gaping hole, and plans by Societe Immobiliere SIDEV to develop that property appear to have stalled. Since the economy tanked last year, there hasn’t been much action. 

Nothing illustrates the problem better than what has happened to the much ballyhooed Griffintown development. In November 2006, Devimco announced it would spend $1.3-billion to replace warehoused and run down tenaments with condos, hotels and retail malls. On the heels of that announcement came the news of a $400-million scheme to convert the Viger Station into a 250-room hotel and two office towers would rise at the edge of Old Montreal, one 17-storeys, the other 23. The development group included Homberg Investment of Halifax, Telemedia Enterprises Inc. of Montreal with major backing from SNS property finance of Holland. Devimco has postponed the start of construction and is now “rejigging its plans” for Griffintown and SNS Property is reconsidering its participation in the Viger Square endeavour.  Monit Investment and Hilton Hotels have yet to break ground for a $200-million Waldorf Astoria tower below Sherbrooke St., but insist construction will begin “as soon as the economy turns.”  Even as  new towers are planned for Victoria Square, we are still waiting for the 30-story Westcliff project which was announced ten years ago to get off the ground at the corner of Beaver Hall Hill and St. Antoine St. A new Planetarium is on the drawing boards, but no one knows what’s going to happen to the old one.  

Even for developers who might still have a line of credit, the question is why they would want to invest in a city that is no longer the economic engine that is driving Quebec. Quebec City has replaced Montreal as the city that is breathing life into the flagging economy. In a speech last week organized by the Montreal Board of Trade Tremblay went on the offensive. ‘‘I’m fed up with hearing that we’re doing nothing in Montreal,” he said. “Too many people look at the 64-billion dollar price tag as an expenditure instead of seeing it as an investment with unlimited returns.” He also chastised the city’s business community and its developers for not collectively supporting his vision. “We only or almost only hear from people who are against something. We rarely hear from those in favour,” he said. For its part, the administration has no intention of scaling back its Drapeau-like ambitions. In an interview, Tremblay says his grand scheme remains part of the city’s long term design for Montreal. “Everything we said was going to happen is going to happen,” Tremblay says. “Some projects  have been delayed, some are looking for lead tenants, but the plan is still intact. In spite of growing dissatisfaction with Tremblay, the most recent La Presse poll suggests the mayor still might win a third term this fall. But the recession all but guarantees that most of the grand designs will never see the light of day, and that we could be headed for a decade of stagnation. What had been seen as spectacular mega-projects are now regarded as piece meal, commonplace ventures. That, in fact might work to Tremblay’s advantage. Only 6 per cent of the respondents to the Angus Reid-La Presse poll consider creating new projects an important priority. 

With files from Jessica Murphy

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