Step aside Toronto, the next housing boom is in Montreal
Karen Mazurkewich, Financial Post Published: Friday, January 11, 2008
Gordon Beck/Canwest News Service
What sets Montreal apart from other urban centers is the fact that it has retained its neighbourhood mosaic.
When Montreal architect Henri Cleinge purchased an old wine depot in Montreal's Little Italy district in 2002, he transformed it into a contemporary three-unit condo with polished wood and concrete floors, iron staircases and stainless steel kitchens. He then flipped two of the units for seven times the original investment of $200,000.
Mr. Cleinge had a few sleepless nights wondering whether the units would sell. He didn't have to worry. In Montreal, there's big demand for contemporary-design living.
Much has been made about Toronto's big museum projects and condo lineups, but Montreal is also changing its shape. Toronto housing prices have experienced 58% growth since 2000. The island of Montreal, however, has seen housing sales jump 50%, but the city itself has gone up 94%. In addition, a new concert hall and 28-storey condo tower is being erected atop Place des Arts metro, two mega hospitals are under construction and Sotheby's International Realty recently entered the market. As well, the largest private real estate investment in decades, involving 4,000 dwellings and a shopping plaza, is scheduled to get a green light from city hall.
Montreal's mojo is back. But its not the big urban projects that are redefining this city. What makes Montreal distinct from other urban centres is the fact it has retained its neighbourhood mosaic.
The most famous is the northeastern district known as Plateau-Mont-Royal. The Plateau has become the most expensive address in the city, with its average housing price jumping 105% in the past seven years. It's also one of the reasons Montreal consistently ranks among the top 25 cities in the world for quality of life. Like Greenwich Village in New York or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the Plateau is where culture and haute couture intersect.
In the 1980s, the Plateau was a string of shabby row houses. Owners lived on the main floor and rented the walk-ups. But the working-class enclave changed dramatically in the 1990s, when new legislation made it possible to subdivide duplexes and triplexes into condo apartments.
"Instead of a single owner, who would rent one or two of the other floors, now each apartment is owned individually and people are now willing to invest," says Susan Bronson, a Montreal heritage conservationist. The artists and architects that moved into the area with nothing in their pockets can now afford to invest. The hood became hip because it maintained "high bohemian index," she says.
Montreal's Mile End, a subsection within the Plateau immortalized by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, has seen the greatest upheaval. Gone are the icons: the discount grocery store Warshaw's, Simcha's Fruit Market and St. Laurent Bakery have closed. Instead, a slew of new high-concept design stores, including Interversion and Latitude Nord, have staked out Boulevard Saint-Laurent, turning it into the new fashion Mecca. Even the old rag-trade factories, religious buildings and empty lots have received a radical facelift.
Architect Eric Gauthier, who created the landmark Espace Go on Saint-Laurent, is currently constructing the all-new Théâtre de Quat'Sous on formerly grungy Avenue Pins. The firm Lepointe Magne has also made its mark on the Plateau, redesigning the public swimming pool Bain Lévesque and converting an old fire hall into the high concept Théâtre Espace Libre.
In Plateau's housing, one of the first innovations was Atelier Big City's 1989 Sept-Plex condominium project on Clark Street, which made creative use of the narrow street fronts and back lanes. Atelier Build reinvented the notion of infill with its 2004 "thin house" project along Avenue L'Hotel-du-ville. When she started her architectural company with partner Michael Carroll 12 years ago, Danita Rooyakkers of Atelier Build, says few others were betting on the Plateau. Political instability in the province was a deterrent for developers, but it was the perfect time for a young architect with modest means and big dreams.
Ms. Rooyakkers biked around Plateau in search of cheap empty lots and made her mark by eschewing the traditional walk-ups, where every family gets a floor, and subdivided the property so each owner has a front door, backyard and terraces. By opening up the walls and adding skylights, the architectural firm created a vertical loft. It won awards because it offered another prototype for high-density Montreal living, she says.
The design aesthetic in Montreal has been tempered by activism. The Plateau is not only governed by a planning advisory committee stacked with architects and landscapers, it has community watchdogs galore, including the Mile End Citizens Committee and Urban Ecology.
Every architect working here has had to face fierce town hall forums before building begins. "As educated local residents, we have both a sense of entitlement and empowerment," says Owen Rose, an architect and head of the Urban Ecology group, which focuses on urban green spaces. "It's easy to get involved in issues because we are constantly bumping into each other on the street in this urban village," he says, adding that community involvement has permeated the local culture.
As one of the first architects to help reshape the plateau, Mr. Gauthier was frequently forced to marry old facades with his slick contemporary style to meet the borough's strict guidelines. With Théâtre de Quat'Sous, he's been given an exemption: the historic synagogue in which the theater is currently housed didn't meet safety codes so it will be replaced by a showy new architectural structure.
Mr. Gauthier is concerned about a public outcry, but he's excited about the new design. "If you want to keep the city alive, you need to add new buildings and new layers." While the strict development guidelines built a "cohesive" neighbourhood, he says, "we've passed the point where conservation should now trump freedom."
Mr. Cleinge, the architect, is trying to exercise that freedom. In recent years he has revamped in his sleek industrial design look a microbrewery on Duluth Street as well as the Les Chocolats de Chloe of Roy Street East. He avoids wood stairs and plastered ceilings, preferring concrete and steel for urban living spaces. The look reflects the city's history, he says.
"Montreal is an industrial city with a large garment industry so it's appropriate language to use in a residential context," he says. Luckily for him, clients such as Stéphane Dion and Éloïse Corbeil, typical Plateau dwellers, are looking to restyle their 1880s duplex.
Ms. Corbeil's father purchased the building on Christophe Columb Street in 1996 when she and her brother needed a place to live while they attended university. Ms. Corbeil's brother has since moved to the United States, but the 33-year-old writer-filmmaker and her lawyer husband still love the mixed neighbourhood. They looked in the swank neighbourhoods of Westmount and Outremont after the birth of their two children, but decided to stay put.
"We didn't want to go to the suburbs because we like the diversity here," says Ms. Corbeil.
Conscious of their limitations but eager for a contemporary style, they hired Mr. Cleinge after seeing his work in a magazine. His mandate was to keep a portion of the "stacked wood" interior shell of the house, but rebuild the place from top bottom. He proposed a mezzanine open-style approach to filter more light into the home and create more space. Concrete floors and iron railings are part of the new plan.
For most young buyers, the Plateau is now untouchable - meaning overpriced. Its evolution, however, has created a ripple effect across the city and intensive gentrification is happening in the shabby districts of Point St. Charles and the Jean Talon market area. "The Plateau has matured," says Mr. Cleinge.
But the condoization of Montreal has only begun.
Je pense que ça va vous faire plaisir...
Globe and Mail Update
April 16, 2008 at 1:43 PM EDT
Montreal has edged ahead of midtown Manhattan to create an all-Canadian list of the top five office rental markets in North America in the first quarter of 2008, according to a study released Wednesday by real estate brokerage Cushman Wakefield & LePage.
Canada's five largest cities had the lowest office vacancy rates of the 15 major leasing markets in North America in the first three months of the year, according to Cushman Wakefield's data.
Downtown Montreal took fifth spot on the list with a vacancy rate of 5.8 per cent, but posted the largest year-over-year drop at 3.5 percentage points due to strong demand and a lack of new supply.
This caused it to squeak by midtown Manhattan, the strongest market in the United States, with an office vacancy rate of 6 per cent.
“Montreal has experienced years of virtual stagnation in the office leasing market. But slow and steady economic growth and a lack of new development over the past decade have transitioned Montreal from a tenant market to a landlord market,” Colum Bastable, president and chief executive officer of Cushman & Wakefield, said in a statement.
At a vacancy rate of just 2.6 per cent, Vancouver had the tightest downtown office rental market of the 15 cities included in the study. This was followed by Calgary at 3.6 per cent, Toronto at 3.9 per cent, Ottawa at 4.1 per cent and Montreal at 5.8 per cent.
The city with the highest downtown office vacancy rate was Dallas at 28.7 per cent, far greater than the next on the list, Los Angeles, at 13.5 per cent.
The sharpest rise in vacancy rate occurred in Calgary, growing to 4.5 per cent in the first quarter from a low of 1.4 per cent in the same period of 2007. Vacancies remained tight in Class A downtown buildings in the city at a rate of just 1.8 per cent.
Despite a weakening provincial economy and three new office towers under construction, Toronto's vacancy rates continue to decline, Mr. Bastable said.
The study also measured vacancy rates in suburban areas, where Canada's market was again tighter than that of the U.S.
Toronto's suburbs had the lowest vacancy rate of these markets in the first quarter at 7.2 per cent, followed by those of Calgary at 7.4 per cent, Ottawa at 7.5 per cent, Vancouver at 9.3 per cent and Montreal at 11.2 per cent.
The suburbs of Dallas had the highest vacancy rate at 21.5 per cent, followed by those of central New Jersey at 20.3 per cent and Chicago at 19 per cent.
“All of Canada's major markets are well positioned to weather an economic downturn. Years of conservative and prudent development, along with low interest rates, will work to keep supply and demand in relative equilibrium even as the economy and demand slacken,” Mr. Bastable said.
Laissez-moi vous presenter un des meillieurs villes belge : Bruges
Location in Belgium
Belfry and Market Square
The Begijnhofm, still used to house nuns
Some other pics (in no particular order)
In the background you can see the modern Concertgebouw (Concert hall)
Expos gone, baseball alive in Montreal
Aspiring baseball players and history keep sport going
By Stephen Ellsesser / Special to MLB.com
MONTRÉAL -- On a Sunday morning, the corridor between Pie IX Station and Olympic Stadium is almost completely deserted.
Based on some of the crowds that came out to the Big O in 2004, the final season for Major League Baseball in Quebec, it almost seems the Expos never left.
After touring Olympic Stadium, it's almost as if they were never there.
Montréal, the world's most truly bilingual city, is known for its tolerance, but Stade Olympique may have walked away from the Expo-dus with hard feelings.
Baseball in Canada's Sin City existed long before the Expos became the Washington Nationals, and today it lives on in many different forms, some nearby and some farther away, but hardly any of it at Olympic.
A catcher, a piece of meat and a glorified Muppet form an interesting picture of the ville's offerings to the sport.
Catcher Russell Martin is bringing back Dodger Blue to Montréal, giving the city another Major Leaguer to support, along with Eric Gagne, who won a National League Cy Young Award with the Dodgers, but now comes out of the bullpen for the Red Sox.
Both played for the same high school, and both are among the greatest offerings to come from Baseball Quebec's feeder system, which remains strong, according to Gilles Taillon, the group's administrative director.
"The actual departure of the Expos had no impact whatsoever," Taillon said. "The major impact was in 1995-97, when the Expos got rid of a championship team. We experienced a decrease in our membership mainly due to the bad publicity that baseball was getting in the media."
In 1994, the strike-suspended season clipped an Expos club that was cruising along, on pace to win 105 games. The ensuing firesale disenchanted the fan base.
The team parted with Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Delino DeShields and John Wetteland after the year, and the foundation began to crumble.
By the time the Expos rolled into their final season, Montréal had lost all momentum, not to mention a considerable amount of local interest. After the Expos' fate was sealed, there was no last-minute spike of support. For the opener of the final series at the Big O, a crowd of 3,923 watched the home team fall to the Florida Marlins.
The worst part? That was only the fifth-smallest turnout of the year. Yikes. "You really can't blame them with some of the decisions that were made," said former third baseman Tim Wallach of the fans who stayed away. "When fans follow guys and they have no chance of staying when it's time for them to get paid, that turns people off."
The Expos succumbed to a combination of economic factors, all of which, Wallach said, slowly took hold after original owner Charles Bronfman sold the team in 1991.
"I feel bad because there were a lot of people who loved that team," said Wallach, who played for the Expos from 1980-92. "It was good, and it should have been good for a long time. But it went bad, and now it will never be there again."
Martin remembers fondly the Expos and their days north of the border.
"It was different for me because I loved baseball," he said. "I could care less how big the stadium was or how many fans were there, as long as I was at the stadium. I grew up going to that stadium and watching the Expos, so that was a big thing."
Montréal, with a metro-area population of 3.6 million, is large enough to support an MLB club, but what the area baseball community is most focused on is starting smaller.
"For MLB to come back, it would have to go through the Minor League route first," Taillon said. "At this point in time, efforts are being made to bring a Can-Am League team in."
The Can-Am League is an independent league composed of eight U.S.-
based teams, one road team and one Canadian club, based in provincial capital Québec City.
"It would be nice to see baseball back up there, but they would have to give it a better venue, a smaller stadium and more fan-friendly activities," Martin said.
As for the piece of meat, sometimes life is stranger than fiction.
On eBay, someone (Cirque du Soleil's founder, interestingly enough) paid $2,605 Canadian for what was billed as "The Last Hot Dog of the Expos," which was -- as one might expect -- a hot dog, which was almost a month old at the time of sale.
All of a sudden the $2,100 sale price of Montreal-Expos.com looks like a bargain.
"It was different there because there wasn't that many fans that loved baseball," Martin said. "But those that did love baseball, they were always at the stadium."
Indeed. Nothing says loving quite like a thousand-dollar piece of processed meat. But the apocalypse is not upon us yet ... proceeds went to charity.
Ignoring any discussions of shelf life, the Expo with the most staying power has been mascot Youppi!, who joined the rotation at Bell Centre, home of the Canadiens, Montréal's hallowed NHL franchise.
Youppi! hit the ice just more than a year after his team's departure put him out of work. His presence, along with that of a banner honoring the Expos' 1969-2004 existence and the team's retired numbers, makes Nos Amours more visible there than at the Big O. The luxury condos that stand where Labatt Park -- the proposed downtown stadium that would have helped the franchise stay put -- would have been built are only a couple blocks away from Bell Centre, so it almost makes sense for it to feel closer to home.
Where the sport thrives, however, is in Baseball Québec's tight infrastructure.
The organization emphasizes getting kids involved early through two main programs, Rally Cap and Winterball, which is sponsored by MLB.
In Rally Cap, players ages 4-7 are taught skills and techniques, being evaluated as they meet different performance targets. With each level advanced, they get a new hat of a different color.
"Winterball," Taillon said, "is designed to provide gym teachers with plans to initiate students in grades 3, 4 and 5 to baseball."
Prospective players are evaluated for Baseball Québec's high-performance leagues between ages 14 and 15. From there, it is Midget AAA and the Ailes du Québec program, the province's U17 team.
Those who continue play in the ABC program in the fall and winter and the Elite League in the summer. Players at this level are at the top of their game, and many are either drafted or signed to play college baseball in the United States.
Martin and Gagné are veterans of the ABC program.
One player hoping to follow in their footsteps is James Lavinskas, a 20-year-old third baseman for the Montréal Elites, one of the only shows in town for baseball fans.
A three-sport star in football, baseball and hockey at a Connecticut prep school, Lavinskas came up through the Elite League's feeder programs, and now he is heading to the United States for college ball.
Lavinskas will play for Seminole State College in Oklahoma, following once again in Gagné's footsteps.
"Guys are getting drafted every year," Lavinskas said, summing up his hopes after moving on from the Elite League.
With Baseball Québec's work, the sport's foundation in Montréal is stabilizing, with or without Olympic Stadium's help.
Aside from a single postcard and one or two minutes of a 30-minute tour, baseball's only other fingerprint on the facility stands right out front, a statue of Jackie Robinson.
After signing Robinson, Branch Rickey sent him to Triple-A Montréal. On the road, Robinson was jeered just as he would be when he was promoted, but in Montréal, fans loved their star second baseman.
Robinson batted .349 with the Triple-A Royals that season, leading the team to a 100-win season. During Robinson's final game with the team, fans gave him a standing ovation, and a second curtain call, amazing support for a black athlete in 1946.
"The fans just chased him after the game because they loved him and didn't want him to go," Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president and CEO Tom Valcke said. "Rachel Robinson once said, 'That must have been one of the first times a white mob was chasing a black man for a good reason.' Don't tell me Montréal has bad baseball fans. They've always been great."
Even if baseball did not live on at Olympic Stadium, at least baseball left a marker of tolerance in its place, and that is worth more than a hall of jerseys and signed balls. Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to MLB.com. Associate reporter Jayson Addcox contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
A ballpark that never was
MONTREAL -- Labatt Park has had two deaths -- not bad for something that never actually existed.
Condos now stand where the downtown park would have been built, and after the project was canned, the model of the park was passed to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
On one truly unlucky night in the Hall's archives, the model also met its destruction.
"They just destroyed it, the two very troubled young men," said president and CEO Tom Valcke, recalling a day he said literally brought tears to his eyes. "It could have been a stagecoach or an old ping-pong table, but they wanted to destroy whatever got in their way that night."
The 12-by-12 model, too large to be a regular fixture at the St. Marys, Ontario, museum, was in storage. Although a smaller Labatt Park model exists, the larger one (valued at $80,000 Canadian) was a sight to behold.
"It was something -- one of the showstoppers in our collection," said Tom Valcke, director and CEO of the Hall. "I've never seen anything else like it, nothing before and nothing since. The detail -- individual seats, trees, all the concession stands -- it was beautiful."
The model made an initial showing at the Hall, then Valcke put it away until a proper space could be created for it.
Less than a month after the Expos franchise began its new life at RFK Stadium, two teenagers broke into the building where the model was kept and destroyed it, adding a bizarre and somewhat ironic twist to the life of the park that never was and never would be.
Valcke said the Hall kept the pieces and that it could be reassembled, but that the task would be daunting and that it would be difficult to recapture the piece's original majesty. "We kept every single splinter of it," he said. -- Stephen Ellsesser