Redesign downtown Montréal first and foremost!

After health institutions, downtown areas are certainly the places where the pandemic has caused the greatest upheaval. While the storm is not over, the current lull gives us a chance to reflect on how we can rebuild downtown spaces that are literally at the heart of city life.

For Montréal, downtown has a strategic importance that stretches far beyond the bounds of the city. Unless firm action is taken, an entire segment of the economy, the restaurant trade, cultural life, the role of universities, trade and tourism in Montréal and Québec could slump, leading to dramatic devitalization.

The ideas that follow are inspired by the study The impact of the pandemic on the downtown areas of Canada’s six major cities, conducted by PwC Canada teams for the Ville de Montréal. The study reports on the situation in downtown Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver, and puts forward solutions for regenerating these strategic spaces.

Five sensitive spots

Five trends that have been sparked off or fanned by the pandemic are likely to have a considerable impact on downtown areas in the near future: telework, the ban on international travel, e-commerce, changes in consumption of cultural goods, and online education. What will all this mean for downtown Montréal?

1. Telework

Telework will endure beyond the pandemic. For employers, the challenge is to determine the extent this form of working will take once COVID-19 is behind us. Since the activities of downtown tenants will remain compatible with telework, some businesses will be tempted to set up hybrid models for workplace attendance. Travel time and traffic flow could inevitably put a brake on employees’ return to the workplace. Montréal has experienced known traffic problems for many years.

2. International travel

Downtown Montréal remains the primary tourist destination in Québec, and receives 84% of international travellers from the east of the country. This is huge!

3. E-commerce

Competition from major suburban shopping centres is also sapping the vitality of stores in downtown Montréal. Quartier DIX30 is a good example.

4. Consumption of cultural products

Online platforms are proving to be highly robust. Downtown Montréal boasts a strong concentration of cultural institutions, and those that survive the pandemic can hope to see their customers return.

5. Online education

Like telework, online education has expanded substantially during the pandemic. Montréal, which attracts over 40,000 foreign students every year, is ranked the top student city in North America, and one of the best in the entire world .

A tipping point for Montréal

Unless the combined efforts of businesses and governments can succeed in reversing the five observed trends, a spiral of devitalization will be triggered. Without wishing to be over-dramatic, downtown Montréal could face a tipping point between decline and resurgence.

The solutions undoubtedly lie in the very nature of downtown areas. They are nerve centres of surprising potential owing to strength in numbers, the potential of groupings, a concentration of talent, and vigorous innovation in many different fields.

The report puts forward seven proposals to help the deciders who will in the near future have to administer medicine to cure downtown ills.

1.Reinvent downtown

  • Reduce dependence on the automobile and foster the pedestrianization of existing streets and the provision of bike paths.
  • Create public spaces with a winter vocation and rethink positioning as a commercial destination.
  • Foster greening wherever possible.
  • Expand public transit linking peripheral neighbourhoods and suburbs.
  • Introduce redevelopment programs for buildings to adapt them to new market needs without changing their vocation.
  • Increase the supply of social housing.
  • Create residential zones inspired by the “15-minute city” concept.

2. Focus on resilience

  • Establish accurate diagnoses.
  • Plan initiatives aimed at the continuity of economic activity.
  • Build resilience criteria into approval of new projects.

3. Accelerate implementation of the smart city

  • Build a clear legislative framework to ensure data security.
  • Provide financial support for digital transformation, including 5G.
  • Deploy an information campaign on the smart city concept.

4. Strengthen the role of higher education

  • Enhance the budgets of research centres working in strategic sectors.
  • Consolidate the relationship between businesses and applied research centres.
  • Commission colleges and universities to develop workforce retraining programs.
  • Involve institutions more fully in the development of the smart city.

5. Give Montréal greater autonomy over its budget

  • Call for new financial resources from higher levels of government.
  • Focus more on eco-taxation based on the user-pay principle.
  • Reduce restrictions on City deficits.
  • Recognize downtown as a “super-cluster” of the Québec economy.

6. Support sustainable sectors

  • Recognize key elements that will ensure revitalization of the downtown area.
  • Provide financial support for initiatives that stimulate local and national tourism.
  • Support projects that will boost downtown Montréal’s image internationally.
  • Encourage the development of an exemplary tourism destination.
  • Support the downtown innovation and creation ecosystem.

7. Encourage visitors to return to the downtown core via public transit and active transport

  • Establish a clear, robust and scientifically proven sanitation protocol for public transit.
  • Demonstrate to civil society that government, business and transit operators are working together to eliminate silos and facilitate a return to normal life.

Restore people’s appetite for downtown

Essentially, deciders must quickly find ways to help workers, store customers, visitors, approximately 60,000 residents, students from here and abroad, art and culture lovers and citizens of Greater Montréal and Québec rediscover their “taste for downtown.”

Many downtowns throughout the world have a style, a signature, an atmosphere of their own – by day and by night. Barcelona and Copenhagen, for example, have their own distinct, bold, unique characters. So does Montréal, with its “European-American” flavour that is the envy of many. 

As for me, I remain convinced that downtown Montréal will be reborn different – as will we all – and for the better!

Nochane Rousseau
Managing Partner, Greater Montréal, PwC Canada

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