Urban space – Who gets what… and why?

The city, with its street grids, the space given over to cars, to stores or housing or public spaces seems, at times, to just be there, part of our everyday lives where we work live and play.


But, upon reflection, it’s clear that the way our cities are configured, to what use land is put and how this changes, is the result of political and economic choices. It is also clear that we do not live in a democracy when it comes to how urban space is fashioned. That is, not everyone or every group has an equal say in how the city gets developed and for whom.


Real estate developers, closely allied with capital, both local and international, and supported by municipal politicians thirsty for property tax revenues, are not going to have the same analysis, perspective and, most importantly, the same power as other groups. This group has an interest in development, profit and the accumulation of capital for future investments.  Within this system, the question of whether the projects developed are of benefit to the majority of the population’s needs is of secondary concern.


The majority of the population, on the other hand, has far less influence and can only exercise power by mobilizing their forces and pressuring for changes to their benefit.


To see how this conflict has played out in Montreal over the last decade it is instructive to look at what has happened in two neighbourhoods that I know well, places where I have lived and worked. By examining two important real estate projects in these areas, their history, their affordability, the City of Montreal’s involvement, and the reaction of the citizens in each neighbourhood, a better picture of how various actors play out their roles on the city stage emerges.


In the late 1970s I worked as a community organizer in west end of downtown Montreal, an area bounded by Sherbrooke, Atwater, Guy and René-Lévesque. The area was re-baptized Shaughnessy Village several years later but that was not the least of the changes the neighbourhood underwent.


For the last ten years, I have worked on housing and other urban questions as an organizer in the Southwest neighbourhoods of Montreal, more specifically in Point-Sainte-Charles and St-Henri.. This area has also been subject to important changes to its urban space through a boom in condominium development with more changes yet to come.


The west end of downtown

As late as the 1980s, the housing stock in this area was characterized by apartment buildings or rooming houses with modest rents, occupied by households with modest incomes, mostly students, single people and seniors.


Many of these units have disappeared over the last decades due to gentrification, that is, the displacement of a low-income population by one with greater financial resources. Sometimes it was a question of demolition, or purchase of buildings and the eviction of low-income tenants and, at other times, the transformation of semi-commercial properties.


This process was an uneven one, dependent in part on the ups and downs of the real estate market, the availability of investment capital and the desire of certain people, with sufficient means, to live close to downtown.


Over the years these changes have all been in one direction — the loss of a housing stock available to people on low and modest incomes.


Last year I went back to the site where the Amesbury apartment block once stood in the and where a small two-bedroom unit rented for less than $400 a month in the 1980s. I discovered that the new units built on this site were renting for the immodest sum of $1,250 per month. According to accepted affordability criteria, tenants should pay no more than 25 % of their income to rent. So tenants, who now occupy the space where the Amesbury units used to be, require an income of some $60,000 a year. And how many households in Montreal make at least $60,000 $ a year? – only about  30 %, according to Statistics Canada.


The recent history of urban space in the west end of downtown Montreal is clear. It has become, over the years, an area less and less affordable for those Montrealers on low and modest income. It is now becoming more and more a zone of exclusion rather than one of inclusion. It’s a history of abandonment and disinvestment at some periods, stagnation at other times, demolition and transformation, punctuated by bursts of development such as the recent housing project on Ste-Catherine near Atwater, Le Seville.


For decades this site offered modest commercial and retail services as well as affordable residential units on the upper floors. The properties were bought several years ago by the Bronfman company, Claridge Group,  and left abandoned, the commercial and residential tenants evicted. In tandem with Claridge, the developer Groupe Prével has just finished building 450 condominium units on the site.


This property, in free-market economic terms, became unprofitable in its previous configuration. When the time was right, the financing available, and the demand for condo units sufficient, the project went ahead and was given the green light by local municipal planning officials.


This project offers condo units at about $400 per square foot. For a smallish one-bedroom unit of some 600 square feet the purchase price is about $240,000. According to the affordability calculation of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, an annual gross income of some $80,000, or one-third of the purchase price, is needed to buy such a unit. And what percentage of households in Montreal has such incomes? Less than 20%.


The borough’s adoption of new zoning and increased height limits (a financial windfall for present owners!) for the area means that we can we can expect many more such projects. This neighbourhood, as well as many other areas in Montreal, are becoming accessible only to a small minority of households. This free market in urban space results in social and economic exclusion in mid and high-rise gated communities. Is this the kind of city we want? Are these the type of social and spatial relations we wish to encourage?


A partial and inadequate response by the City

For new residential buildings of over 200 units, the City of Montreal has put in place a policy that encourages developers to include 15 % of the units as non-profit projects available to low and modest-income households. This policy does not have the force of a by-law and becomes the object of negotiation only when the developer requires a zoning change and needs city approval. And, one should add, when there is strong enough community pressure to make sure it happens.  It is a voluntary policy, often dependent on the whims of the local borough councillors and bureaucrats. And this policy is often ignored, or watered down, in the downtown area when it’s a question of a “prestigious” project such as Le Seville. It seems that real estate developers (and the city?) are not interested in having lower or modest income households clogging up the terraces, the pools or the spas in upscale projects downtown.


The City, in its desire to increase its property tax base, is all too willing to promote large- scale private development with minimal regard for the real housing needs of most Montrealers.



As a result, most housing being built does not respond to the needs of the majority of the population. The market value of the space takes precedence over its value as a way to respond to basic housing needs of the population. More widely, within a system of private property, this space is exempted from any important democratic control. We may want to fashion the city to our needs but we lack, collectively, the resources to do so.


The Point

Pointe-Saint-Charles –-known in English as “The Point” –is a neighbourhood of some 14,000 people in Southwest Montreal. A frenzy of real estate development has occurred over the last decade with hundreds of condo units built and thousands more to come, more than 80 % of them unaffordable for the population of the Southwest.


Apart from the condos on the Lachine Canal, with prices topping out at over a million dollars a unit, important development is also planned for the former Canadian National rail yards. This three million square-foot piece of formerly public land was sold off several years ago to a private developer for one dollar and other considerations, including the requirement to decontaminate the land. The details of this transaction were never made public.


All too often public assets are privatized and sold to private developers. In the Southwest alone, apart from the CN project, one can think of the massive Northern Electric building, as well as the Canada Post Sorting Site at the foot of Guy Street, all slated for thousands of new condo units for the most part. These transactions are of obvious benefit to developers and other real estate interests. It’s a clear case of public space usurped for private gain, a sorry example of the powerful alliance between the state and capital with minimal benefits to the community.


The role of citizens and community groups

Citizens and community groups have varying reactions to this “condoization” of the city. At times the reaction is muted. But increasingly, people and community groups mobilize to question such projects. They analyze the development proposals and put counter propositions on the table. As citizens and as members of community groups, they submit briefs to public hearings, lobby politicians and demonstrate in the street, all signs of an active and engaged citizenry.


Unfortunately, there is not a strong community base in the west end of downtown ready to act. This has to do with the transient nature of the population, the arrival of wealthier households over the last decades and the small number of community groups in the area. This has contributed to the absence of sustained community mobilization efforts.  So it is not surprising that there was only very modest public questioning of the plans to redevelop the area. It is also clear that downtown properties, such as the Le Seville project, are highly prized by the real estate industry and it is certain that serious pro-development pressures will be exerted to assure that the projects proceed.


So development continues apace in the area, with few plans or efforts to assure that decisions regarding housing and urban space will include meaningful public participation and projects that reflect the needs of all Montrealers.


A different story in the Point

Through 40 years of efforts, this neighbourhood has been able to create over 2,500 units of non-profit housing, fully 35% of the total housing stock, one of the highest percentages in all of Canada. In contrast, in the downtown west end only 1,3% of the housing units are not for profit in nature for a total less than 200 apartments.


Through their decades-long efforts, the citizens in the Point have been able to provide decent, secure and democratically-controlled housing that responds to the needs of the community and not to the demands of investment capital. This long history of community organization and mobilization has allowed the Point’s citizens and groups to respond in an intelligent and forceful manner to the development planned for the former Canadian National lands.


Action Gardien, the community roundtable that brings together over twenty citizen-controlled groups in the area, began their efforts over ten years ago regarding the future of the CN lands. Once CN had announced the sale of the land, the community pressed the City to become owner and develop this immense tract for the benefit of the local community. The City refused, but the community pressed on. Through their own efforts, and with the help of architects and urban planners, the community drew up a development plan for the area and demanded that it be the object of public consultation. Unfortunately, the land was eventually sold to a private developer.


The community then undertook a lengthy pressure campaign that included public meetings, petitions, tough negotiating sessions with the City and Borough as well demonstrations and the occupation of buildings on the site.


With some support from the local borough councillors, the community was able to win some significant gains after years of struggle: fully 25 % of the housing will be non-profit and accessible to people in the neighbourhood ; a 90,000 square-foot building was ceded by the developer to the community for the creation of a cultural and community center for one dollar as well as a contribution, from the developer, of a million dollars in renovation work; an agreement was also reached with the AMT ( the regional transit authority) for a job training program for local residents for employment at the repair facility to be built on the site.


Let’s be clear. These are all our worthwhile gains but the community remains on the defensive as is the case in all Montreal neighbourhoods. But people in numerous neighbourhoods are committed to resisting these changes and are ready to question how urban space is developed, for what purposes and to whose benefit.


We need to have vibrant communities with decent, affordable and secure housing. As citizens we need green spaces, cultural and recreational facilities, space for economic activity all within an ecologically and socially healthy urban environment that meets the needs of the majority of the population. This is not going to happen through the beneficent workings of a system which, by its very nature, has financial returns and ever increasing expansion at the top of its agenda.


It will only occur when citizens mobilize to ensure that the city is developed in a democratic fashion and responds to their needs.

John Bradley is a community organizer in Pointe- Saint-Charles. He has worked for thirty years in Montreal on issues of community housing.