The Métropolitain

Namur Jean-Talon: An eco-utopic condoville?

By Dan Delmar on April 23, 2010

Car dealerships, cheap office space, a cemetery, barren lots and a handful of sub-par apartment buildings; such is the makeup of the neighbourhood becoming known as NJT – Namur Jean-Talon. Within ten years, it is expected to undergo a complete transformation and the worth of the area is expected to increase tenfold.  NJT is a project twice as valuable to the city as Griffintown, but without the high profile and ensuing scepticism. 

NJT development is moving along at lightning-speed, by city planning standards. Conceived by the urban planning department of the Côte des Neiges-NDG borough only about three years ago, nearly half of the projects are already being delivered, under construction or in the planning stages. 

njt-scalia.jpgThe area to be developed will be worth $800-million by 2020. It is on the northernmost tip of the borough, bordering the Town of Mount-Royal, contained by Jean Talon St., de la Savane St. and Mountain Sights Ave.  Local attractions include the Baron de Hirsch cemetery (the final resting place for many in Montreal’s Jewish community), Volvo and Kia dealerships, and an indoor go-carting circuit.  

The cemetery isn’t going anywhere, but everything else in NJT is fair game for developers like Sam Scalia of Devmont Construction, who was the first to test the waters. His new condo project in the neighbourhood, Côte Ouest, is now being delivered and a second, more upscale project dubbed Rouge, will soon break ground on a long-neglected lot on the corner of Jean-Talon and Victoria Ave.

“I was looking to do a project with the SHDM (Société d'habitation et de développement de Montreal),” Scalia recently told The Métropolitain, adding that he quickly saw enormous potential in NJT because of its proximity to two Metro stations and two autoroutes. The partnership between the SHDM and Devmont allows first-time homebuyers to receive tax breaks and grants to put toward a down-payment. “The help of the borough brought credibility to the project.”

Côte des Neiges-NDG is not just facilitating the entry of 3,200 housing units to the area, but encouraging developers to adopt their “green” vision. There is little room for the automobile inside of NJT proper; a chunk of Victoria north of Jean-Talon will be completely closed to traffic. The planned community would encourage residents to give up their cars in favour of walking, cycling or taking public transit. One idea the city is toying with would involve a tramway line beginning on the southern end of NJT, heading along Côte des Neiges Rd. and into the downtown core.

It is inspired by similar industrial-turned-residential developments in warmer cities like Vancouver, where the trendy Arbutus Walk neighbourhood has all essential services within walking distance of one’s home. An interesting concept, in theory, but how appealing will it be for Montreal pedestrians in, say, mid-January?

The lack of space set aside for cars is one concern raised by the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM), the city agency which hosts and analyzes the feedback from open consultation meetings with citizens. 

« Le peu de disponibilité de places de stationnement extérieur et à prix modique constitue un enjeu réel à moyen terme à cause de l’arrivée de plusieurs milliers de nouveaux usagers et à cause des aménagements qui seront requis pour les commerces et les places d’affaires que l’arrondissement veut conserver sur le site, » they wrote. « Rappelons que le dynamisme du futur secteur repose sur la proximité des services et sur l’animation que créera la présence de commerces et de places d’affaires…Le manque de places de stationnement à prix modique risque de faire perdre aux commerces et aux propriétaires d’édifices leur avantage concurrentiel dans le marché du bureau en périphérie du centre-ville. » 

The OCPM applauded borough planners for environmental-friendliness and noted that the inclusion of many trees and green spaces could become a major selling point for the area. The number of condos for sale, as opposed to apartments for rent, was also an issue addressed in the report.

Despite Côte des Neiges-NDG mayor Michael Applebaum’s best intentions, it is clear that NJT is not a response to the low-income housing crunch in the borough. With the median annual income of a borough resident being under $29,000, it will be difficult for many to afford their first home in NJT. 

Many of the condos being built are considered “affordable housing,” by the city’s definition. Political posturing aside, in practical terms, how many borough residents will truly be able to afford these condos? Residents on nearby Mountain Sights Ave., where many rental units are in desperate need of rejuvenation, told the OCPM that, so far, NJT will simply not meet their needs. 

« Des taux allant de 20 % à 50 % de logement social sur le site ont été mis sur la table tout au long du processus de consultation. La notion d’« abordabilité » de la Stratégie d’inclusion a également été remise en question, car les prix des logements dits abordables les rendent inaccessibles à une bonne partie des résidents de Côte des Neiges. »

Rental units are, for the moment, completely absent from plans within NJT proper. The borough is requiring that Devmont build 98 rental apartments on Sax St. at Labarre St., a few blocks outside of NJT. With the approval of Devmont’s 400 Rouge condos, which start at $170,000, comes the “social obligation,” as Scalia put it, to build 15 per cent of that number in social housing; they are surpassing that amount, reaching roughly 25 per cent. 

The OCPM noted that 44 per cent of housing projects have already been planned; one quarter, approved. The concept of a balanced housing mix is, so far, a foreign one inside this neighbourhood. If trends continue, NJT could end up being an isolated, environmentally-friendly condoville; a pocket of moderate wealth, surrounded by some new social housing and a few old slums. 

Aside from the occasional promotional piece in the Home section of the major newspapers, there have been few words written about this project, which involves more development than Griffintown and, eventually, more revenue generated for the city. 

Perhaps that is because, unlike the quaint old Irish slum neighbourhood, it seems that in NJT there will be little lost with the addition of a slew of new condos, apart from the odd car dealership or abandoned warehouse. There are no heritage homes, church ruins or fabled stables; not a single brick dates from the 19th century. There is only a vision of what could be, and that vision is awfully narrow in scope.