A worksite is seen Friday May 8, 2020 in Montreal. As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

A worksite is seen Friday May 8, 2020 in Montreal. As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

COVID-19 pandemic prompts urbanites to rethink ‘grand bargain’ of dense city living

The current pandemic will change cities, some planners predict

The densely populated slums of Montreal’s Griffintown were the subject of a famous 1897 study by businessman and philanthropist Herbert Ames, whose work on the disease-ridden tenements influenced generations of urban planners on how to develop healthy cities.

Ames’s study, “The City Below the Hill,” is just one example, say academics in urban planning, of how the development of cities has been closely tied to the management of pandemics and other outbreaks of infectious disease.

More than 120 years after its publication, Montreal’s Griffintown is now prosperous, gentrified and full of condo towers catering to an urban elite. But in Griffintown and other urban areas in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting stress on city life and exacerbating existing inequalities.

As Quebec’s construction sector reopens Monday following weeks of shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, the main players behind the city’s building boom in neighbourhoods such as Griffintown say it’s “business as usual” and are confident the market remains robust.

Some urban planners, however, aren’t so sure. The current pandemic will change cities, they predict, the way infectious disease outbreaks influenced the development of urban centres in decades past.

READ MORE: Easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon could jeopardize vulnerable communities

How cities will change is still unclear, but Vancouver-based urban planner Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said COVID-19 is making people reconsider their decisions to move into small condos and apartments.

Yan cited data from Statistics Canada revealing that between 1991 and 2017, the median living area of condos in Toronto and Vancouver shrunk by 32 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

“The grand bargain was: ‘I will have a small place, but I will have a big public life,’” he said in a recent interview. Urbanites moved into cramped studios but had access to cities full of vibrant culture and gastronomic delights.

But as COVID-19 has forced urban denizens indoors, condos and apartments have become substitute offices, restaurants, schools and daycares. And it’s far from clear when the bistros, cafes and music venues that provided the public life will reopen.

McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth said cities have historically gone through cycles of densification and what he called “spaceification” — for example, after the Second World War when the federal government encouraged people to move from city centres to the “healthier” suburbs.

But Wachsmuth doesn’t predict a flight from cities this time. “I think we are, broadly speaking, in a period where the density of cities has been understood as a positive thing, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” he said in a recent interview.

City life could get cheaper, however, Wachsmuth explained. If the pandemic triggers a longer-term economic decline, property prices will take a major hit, he said, making room for lower-income people and families to return to the space they were pushed out of as gentrification took hold.

But Phil Soper, CEO of Royal LePage, says younger and lower-income people might be disappointed if they think the pandemic is going to trigger a correction in the housing market.

Home sales across the country were certainly down in April — according to Soper, they fell by 70 per cent in Quebec — but fewer homes are being listed, easing downward pressure on prices, he explained.

“The pandemic isn’t providing a magic answer to our housing shortage problems and, therefore, it is not a magic wand that is going to cure housing affordability issues,” Soper said in a recent interview.

“The only thing that will provide more affordable housing in our big cities is additional supply — and there certainly aren’t more homes being built in the pandemic — there are fewer. If anything it exacerbates the problem.”

The main players who are building that supply in Montreal have all told The Canadian Press that come Monday, when the province’s construction sector fully reopens, every site they had operating before the shutdown will be up and running again.

Condos have been selling during the pandemic, they say, with buyers 3D-viewing their units on computer screens rather than in showrooms and using applications to sign documents.

Before the pandemic hit, one sign of Montreal’s booming market was developers competing to build the city’s tallest condo tower.

In April 2019, development company Broccolini broke ground on its 58-story tower in downtown Montreal, called Victoria sur le Parc, which it said would be the tallest residential tower in the city. Chief operating officer Anthony Broccolini said no one during the pandemic has walked away from their down payment.

His construction sites have been modified to comply with provincial rules on physical distancing and hygiene in order to protect workers, but apart from that, on Monday it will be “business as usual,” he said in a recent interview.

Devimco, the company that launched Griffintown’s renewal, boasts the 61-story tower of its Maestria condo project, announced after Victoria sur le Parc, will be city’s tallest residential tower when it’s completed. Vice-president Marco Fontaine said he sold another 20 units of the project last month ”without negotiation” on price.

“It’s not in our plan at all right now to drop prices,” he said in a recent interview. While he expects some kind of pandemic-induced market slowdown, by the time Maestria is completed in a few years, he said, he expects the market will be back.

Fontaine said he appreciates, however, that many of the residents in his buildings’ smaller units are working from home and will continue to do so for a while. “They are in a space that wasn’t made for that,” he said.

To adapt to changing urban behaviours, Devimco has begun discussions aimed at equipping condos with modular furniture that can turn into workspaces.

While Wachsmuth says he doesn’t share the optimism of Montreal’s big builders, he is still betting on cities and the sense of liberation they provide. “There is a lot happening — but also, you can kind of be anonymous if you want to,” he said.

They ”aren’t universally appealing to all humans, but they are, I think, pretty durable to a lot of people,” he said.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer was recently scrutinized after years of claiming she was of Algonquin and Metis descent. (CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)
Haida activist calls for hefty fines, jail time against those who claim to be Indigenous

Filmmaker Tamara Bell proposing the Indigenous Identity Act – to dissuade ‘Indigenous identity theft’

Brett Alexander Jones is wanted on several warrants province-wide, in connection with multiple charges. Jan. 21, 2021. Kitimat RCMP photo
Kitimat RCMP searching for man wanted on several warrants province-wide

Jones is described as a five-foot 10-inches Caucasian man, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Administering naloxone to a person experiencing a benzo-related overdose event won’t help. Naloxone is used to neutralize opioids. (Jenna Hauck/The Progress file photo)
Northern Health warning drug users of potential benzo contamination

The drug does not respond to naloxone, and is being included in street drugs

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Mowi Canada West’s Sheep Pass salmon farm, the company’s final B.C. operation to receive certification from the Aquaculture Steward Council. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) is questioning a government decision to phase out salmon farms in the Discovery Islands. (Photo supplied by Mowi Canada West)
Canadian Federation of Agriculture backs B.C. salmon farmers

Letter to prime minister calls for federal “champion” for aquaculture growth

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Most Read