On raising permitted density and building heights in the zoning of Montreal’s downtown – a grave error:

Montreal’s municipal administration has announced that they will raise density and height zoning limitations in many areas of the downtown ‘to Encourage More New Building Projects’. 

Montreal’s zoning restrictions are already too generous.  Moreover, for the past several years, stealthy increases to these limits in the Downtown Master Plan way beyond existing zoning limits have already signaled to the development industry, that almost any density and any height will be acceptable to their schemes.    Far too few restrictions to re-zoning are already apparent to the industry when any new project is presented to City Hall. 

Much more important than any generous re-zonings to get projects off the ground are the guarantees, the subsidies in cash, the partnerships and other advantages that the city has been willing to award to developers who are having trouble raising mortgage money for buildings whose ultimate market may disappear by the time that any large development is ready for delivery.   These have been and are volatile times, and Bankers know…..

In recent years, how many projects and at what large scale do Montrealers see presented as ‘about to go ahead’ in the popular press?    How many actually get financing and go ahead?   Not so many, I think. 

Zoning limits above what a city can economically support do not encourage builders to undertake projects.  They encourage speculation and inactivity.  They also actually crowd out smaller builders who would build two projects instead of one big one.   Worst of all, increased limits give a powerful incentive to all of the ordinary property owners awarded suddenly increased zoning limits, to neglect their low rise, low density buildings.  They (logically, no?) believe that they will soon be offered a windfall profit when they sell their buildings regardless of their condition.  That extra profit before rezoning was not available because there was no speculative increase in the value of their building beyond what present uses and tenants were able to pay.   Multiplied by many owners along a street, all properties run down.    In fact, all real values actually fall all over any down-town, where zoning limits (or Master Plan limits for that matter) are too high.  The result of inappropriate over-zoning in most of North America’s Great Cities was catastrophic during the 1950’s and 1960’s.   This situation was manifestly negative at every level : social, cultural and economic in Montreal.

Please, Let us not repeat this Mistake.  

Local Heritage Conservationists and residents’ associations have taken this warning to heart.  Montreal has had a decent, if not outstanding, record over the last couple of decades in saving our too few remaining downtown heritage buildings and ensembles along with the quality of life around them.  This was, in part, because aggressive down-zoning from the ‘seventies to the ‘nineties was relatively protective.  What the present administration plans for us now will set all that back to the horrors of the nineteen fifties and sixties, when rampant speculation, ugliness, demolitions, dilapidation and unrestricted zoning ruled the day.                  

 Michael Fish                                                                                                                          2011-12-10


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