The right scale?

Earlier this week, Montreal’s city council approved the development of two 32-storey Waldorf-Astoria hotel and condominium towers near the corner of Guy and Sherbrooke streets. The Gazette accompanied this announcement with a rendering of two massive, gaudy, post-modern towers; if they are vaguely reminiscent of the famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York, it’s only a coincidence, since the rendering has been recycled since at least the early 2000s, when the tower was first proposed but before the luxury hotel chain got involved.

Though the new development was approved by the council without debate, I’m sure its mass will elicit protests from those who are generally opposed to new highrises, especially those that might block the view of Mount Royal from certain angles. Putting aside the question of its architecture or function, however, I think this kind of building is exactly what the area needs.

Compared to the generally low-rise scale of most parts of Montreal, the west end of downtown is downright Manhattanesque, a bulky swath of rowhouses, prewar apartment blocks and postwar highrises. Except for a very few other corners, like the McGill Ghetto, it’s just about the only residential neighbourhood in town that has this kind of vertical scale and mix of buildings. Though many of the postwar towers are drab and depressing — I argued last year that they should be painted with bright colours — they give the area an unusual feel, a kind of transient downtown buzz that comes from lots of singles, students and upstart immigrants.

Parts of the neighbourhood have declined over the years, due in large part to the closure of the Forum and the abandonment of the Seville block, and what it really needs to be revived is more highrises. I wouldn’t say that about any other part of Montreal; it’s just that in this case, the scale has been established and the neighbourhood can only benefit from intensification.

Of course, that would only be a good thing if the new highrises are well-designed and respectful of their surroundings. I’ll wait to see what the Waldorf-Astoria’s plans are to pass judgement on its architecture, but I doubt much good will come from the opening of yet another luxury hotel and apartment complex in a city that risks becoming little more than an exotic weekend destination for Americans and a new world pied-à-terre for wealthy Europeans.

17 comments

  1. Might I add, those foreign tourists and part-time residents fuel a major part of the Montreal economy, whether it is restaurants, retail shopping, decorating etc…Much of the Manhattan residential real estate market is targeted to foreign buyers. And we are talking about Sherbrooke St West – the 5th Avenue of Canada (aesthetially for sure): this is EXACTLY the kind of project needed here.

  2. “foreign tourists and part-time residents…”

    sounds a lot like nova scotia, where many long-time residents can’t even visit their now-foreign-owned local beach.

    I had hoped that the big-scale building (a.k.a. mistakes) of the 50s, 60s and 70s wouldn’t be repeated, but real estate developers are nothing if not relentless. And patient. Very very patient.

  3. “… I doubt much good will come from the opening of yet another luxury hotel and apartment complex…”

    I’d be curious to know what your doubt is based on?

  4. I count only one 32-storey tower?

    This project is excellent!

  5. “a city that risks becoming little more than an exotic weekend destination for Americans and a new world pied-à-terre for wealthy Europeans.”

    But not angelic, totally noble Canadian heroes from Toronto.

  6. “But not angelic, totally noble Canadian heroes from Toronto.”

    I assume you’re referring to the same bourgeois-bohemian Torontonians you often excoriate on your blog. That would be relevant if this post was about triplexes on the Plateau, not luxury hotels downtown. You can’t project your own obsessive assumptions into everything you read about this city.

    “I’d be curious to know what your doubt is based on?”

    Beyond spending money at high-end restaurants, the people who stay luxury accommodations haven’t been known to invest much in the communities around them.

    But that’s just me being snarky. My point remains that, if there’s a part of town that’s perfect for this project, the corner of Guy and Sherbrooke is it.

  7. While I also can’t think of a better location for this project, I don’t think it’s the only appropriate place to put a building like this in the city, at least certainly not in terms of “scale”. There are countless empty lots downtown that could’ve been a great spot for this project, such as the area around square victoria, or further east near the new quartier des spectacles.

    Of course, large developments of this nature should no doubt be monitored, but only to ensure build and design quality, along with architectural integration with it’s surroundings in terms of *style* – rather than being discouraged for simple matters of ‘scale’ or ‘height’ …

    Montreal has downright been damaged over the years by that kind of mentality. This one project is exactly what this city needs at the moment, to further strengthen and diversify it’s downtown core.

    I hope it won’t get shut down.

  8. “Only Americans and Europeans can ruin Montréal because there are no rich people in Toronto, just bohemians…”

    Who has ever said that, aside from yourself?

  9. As much as I’d like to agree with what this guy is proposing. I can’t help to think that this whole video sounded like a propaganda campaign for cafe Cleopatre, he’s not proposing anything new, no new projects, no fresh ideas. Has he found any potential new tenants for the vacated building? Nope. If this guy wins the place will just keep deteriorating into oblivion.

    If you want to win a battle like that you have to propose something serious not just vague ideology!

  10. can someone please explain how rich people are supposed to ruin cities ?

  11. “Who has ever said that, aside from yourself?”

    That is what you are implying when you are placing all the blame on us foreigners!

    Americans? Ew, icky – aren’t they all fat philistines? Europeans? Spoiled transients who eat with too many forks and may speak “languages”!

    Proper Canadian rich people? Totally OK, not named in the list of baddies above, and definitely not ruining Montréal at all with their money. Sure.

    Sounds like barely concealed jingoism to me.

  12. No, NEU, it’s the fault of us masculinised women. Let me pause to smoke a cigar while I stroke my beard and scratch my scrotum.

    I’ll NEVER let you live that one down, mister antediluvian sexist arsehole.

    (people unfamiliar with this board might not know that I almost always write about, er, urbanism here. Bicycles, trams, public housing, public art, public market, walkable neighbourhoods, immigration history, all that stuff. I’m not Andrea Dworkin or any such “radical feminist” of that nature. But I almost fell off my chair at the grossly sexist comment NEU made about eddicated wimmen).

  13. I’m all for this project as long as it’s lively at street level with shops/restaurants. Right now it’s a parking lot, which adds nothing.

  14. Yes Chris, but who works for tips in those high-end restaurants? Culturally, I may* be inclined to agree that high-end tourists bring little to community life, but they indisputably do contribute very strongly to the economic life of a city in a number of ways, directly and/or indirectly.

    (* as an indirect example of cultural contribution, you could consider the use of tourism tax by a number of jurisdictions to reinvest in cultural attractions – museums, galleries, shows, etc – to generate a virtuous circle of tourism development. This obviously benefits local culture/community life).

  15. I would have no trouble with the scale or massing or purpose of this complex, but the design strikes me as unfortunate.

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