Montreal’s downtown core is still suffering, conference told

Retail activity was down 51 per cent last month compared with March 2020.

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Things are improving, but Montreal’s downtown core is still suffering mightily from the pandemic.

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“It’s as if downtown Montreal had long COVID,” said Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, on Friday.

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Retail activity in downtown Montreal was down 51 per cent last month compared with March 2020, data from the Avison Young real-estate firm show. Visitor numbers in office towers, meanwhile, dropped about 32 per cent compared with the first month of the pandemic.

While both metrics show Montreal is outperforming the Canadian average, they nevertheless reflect a central business district that’s struggling, said Jean Laurin, head of Avison Young for Quebec. Vacancy rates downtown have risen steadily since the start of the pandemic, hitting 17.6 per cent for Class A and B buildings in the third quarter, according to figures compiled by the Altus Group real-estate research firm.

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“We are still in the crisis,” Laurin said. Office vacancy rates “are not going to get better. I think we are going to 20 percent. Most of the companies that have a lease coming due are reducing the surface they need, sometimes by up to 40 per cent. Also, many companies are deciding to move to better-quality buildings.”

Officials working to revitalize downtown Montreal “have work to do. There is a certain anemia downtown,” Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said.

“I would like to see more enthusiasm for returning downtown, but there are realities like employee retention to take into account. When we talk to company executives, we cannot impose a return to work. People are not ready yet.”

Leblanc, Laurin and Fitzgibbon were among the key speakers on Friday at a half-day Chamber of Commerce forum dedicated to the state of the downtown core. About 325 people attended the event at Griffintown’s New City Gas.

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Eighty-seven per cent of Montreal-area employees are now back in the office at least one day a week, up from 81 per cent in September and 61 per cent in November 2021, according to a Chamber of Commerce poll released Friday. Three out of four employers have asked their employees to come back, while 79 per cent of employees said they see professional advantages to being in the office. Forty-four per cent of staffers polled also said their employer does not currently offer any incentive for people to come back.

“If people are to come back more than one day a week, employers need to do more to entice them back,” Leblanc said.

For instance, Chamber of Commerce employees who spend at least four days a week in the office now have their monthly Opus card paid for by the employer, he said.

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A Chamber of Commerce program, which the business organization is still finalizing, will provide money for employers looking to organize group activities downtown, Leblanc said. Details of the program, called Passeport Montréal I like working downtown, will be provided later, he said.

How many days a week can Montreal workers expect to spend in the office over time? Twenty-nine per cent of employers polled by the Chamber of Commerce put the point of equilibrium at two days a week, while another 29 per cent put it at three days.

“This will be the big discussion point over the next year,” Leblanc said.

Improved public transit will be key to persuading people to go back, Mayor Valérie Plante said.

“If you live in the east end and it takes 90 minutes to get downtown with the bus, it’s not going to work,” she said during a panel discussion at the event. “We are going to want to reinforce the network. We are going to need to negotiate new financing to support our existing network and build for the long term.”

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In the meantime, city hall must encourage its own office employees — who make up about 30 per cent of the municipal workforce — to come back, Plante said. Although office staffers are back “two or three” days a week, “I aspire to see them back three or four days a week,” the mayor said.

“There is value in meeting people face to face, and we have to go further,” Plante said. “We need to create added value for people” to work downtown, she said.

Some, such as Laurin and Fitzgibbon, are convinced that the much-delayed entry into service next year of CPDQ Infra’s new light-rail system, the Metropolitan express networkwill give downtown a shot in the arm.

“A public transit system is the biggest economic lever we can have,” Laurin said.

And when work on such areas as McGill College Ave. has been completed, many Montrealers will see their downtown core in a different light.

“Downtown is a dynamic place, and people don’t realize how much the city is changing,” Laurin said. “Montreal is a city of the future. Pretty soon people are going to wake up to see how beautiful downtown is.”

ftomesco@postmedia.com

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