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.