Joe Rullier explains why your favourite Montreal spots are vanishing faster than ever
Montrealers were saddened to hear of the loss of yet another beloved local business last January. The Slovenia butcher and deli on Saint-Laurent Blvd. had been a fixture in the area for decades before the owners finally threw in the towel because they could no longer afford the rent.
It’s a familiar pattern in a city that is going through some serious growing pains, and this was before the pandemic. Understandably, people feel a deep sense of connection to these cultural institutions and emotions can run high when they start to disappear. To understand why this is happening, we must look at a number of factors.
Location vs. Accessibility
Location, location, location. It’s the golden rule of real estate and the fact is that no retail business can survive if customers are constantly dealing with physical impediments in accessing said business. Whether it’s the endless construction or elimination of high-traffic parking spots, merchants are not getting many favours from the city as they fight for their livelihood.
If the first rule of real estate is location, and you’re not giving access to those locations, then business will die. When I see Sainte-Catherine, I’m shocked since I have never seen that many empty storefronts — ever. The pandemic is partially to blame, but endless roadwork and a lack of parking are serious impediments.
Consider the recently announced $108M overhaul of Peel St.: while more bike paths and trees make for a prettier city, less parking and the elimination of southbound traffic is not going to do anything to help bring people to the downtown core — especially if those live outside of the city and drive. Infrastructure improvements notwithstanding, this means another full year of construction for Peel St. right when pandemic restrictions had finally begun to relent.
Combined, these challenges for our downtown core create a black hole for retail business around the city’s hottest intersection at a time when owners need a break more than ever.
The Persistence of Supply and Demand
Slovenia was just one of several casualties in recent months. Well-known Plateau institutions like Cagibi and Euro Deli and Buonanotte are all history. The real underlying cause is a question of supply and demand; namely, how demand is outpacing supply to the detriment of those who helped make Montreal the destination city it is.
If there’s not enough new development and supply is stagnant, then existing storefronts are going to be more expensive. The Plateau is a very hot neighbourhood and everyone wants to be there; if you limit growth, then the only option for property owners is to raise rent. And this creates a set of conditions where institutional tenants are forced out in favour of multinational chains — because they can afford the higher rent.
As the owner of that building, you want the rent to be paid. As a customer, you would rather have that local butcher than another coffee shop. I won’t win any popularity contests saying this, but the enemy isn’t landlords.
Helping Institutional Tenants by Building Up
We need real solutions for preserving the businesses that helped make Montreal the envy of all of Canada and beyond.
Lowering property taxes and at least easing up on parking restrictions on commercial thoroughfares would be a great start. But what about long term vision that is not only sustainable but also inclusive and affordable?
Two words: Build higher.
This is why we want to #buildupMTL, as I wrote in the Montreal Gazette last year. By stifling development and limiting the true potential of Montreal’s skyline, everyone loses. To protect the entrepreneurs and landmarks that make this great city what it is requires decisive thinking and a commitment to growth that includes everyone.
To be a world-class metropolis, you always need to be moving forward with an eye to the future. When you force shoppers to go outside the city, the city suffers. Streets like Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Laurent are the heart of Montreal and we have to be careful if we are to preserve them.
This doesn’t mean doing less, but doing more; we need to be asking ourselves how we’re going to get people back downtown, how we’re going to make it easier for them to spend money. Density and building vertically are the first steps.