Businesses say 'social climate' keeping people from coming downtown

The greatest factors preventing a return to offices are the rise of homelessness and a general feeling of insecurity, according to representatives of Montreal’s business community.

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Representatives of Montreal’s business community say the greatest factors keeping people from returning to downtown offices are the rise of homelessness and a general feeling of insecurity.

“When we ask businesses about bringing back their workers, the first element they say is there is an impression the social climate has deteriorated,” Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal president Michel Leblanc told reporters Tuesday. “There is a feeling of insecurity that is growing.”

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Leblanc’s comments came on the heels of a $1-billion spending plan by the city to revitalize the downtown sector by 2030. Announced with great fanfare Tuesday, the downtown strategy is conspicuously silent about the crisis on the city’s streets.

“I didn’t see that addressed in the strategy today,” a disappointed Leblanc said.

His comments were echoed by Glenn Castanheira, head of Montréal centre-ville, the downtown merchants’ association.

“Our businesses, especially the brick-and-mortar and mom-and-pop shops, are the front lines,” Castanheira said. “They open their doors to the (unhoused). They keep them warm in the winter, cool in the summer and hydrate them when they need to, but their compassion is now confronted with their need for financial survival. We’re coming to a time when they are going to have to make choices. If that means moving to an area where there would be fewer cohabitation issues, they will do so.”

Castanheira said Montreal isn’t unique, as most major cities are dealing with similar or even worse crises on their streets.

“We’ve seen this happen in Vancouver, and when I talk with my colleagues across Canada, cohabitation is the No. 1 issue. Let’s not wait until we get there.”

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Both Castanheira and Leblanc also raised concerns about the Legault government’s plan to boost tuition fees for students from other provinces, as the city’s 130,000-strong student population is likely to take a hit.

“It’s a huge concern,” Castanheira said. “Downtown Montreal is Canada’s No. 1 university cluster, and we’re speaking with rectors who are seeing a decrease. We’re monitoring the situation closely and quite concerned with the things we’re hearing. The impact is significant.”

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she, too, is concerned that reducing the number of university students will upset the overall ecosystem, as the English and French universities rely on each other to improve the overall academic community.

“This is part of our history and part of our reputation; it’s so important,” Plante said. “And we need to protect that reputation of Montreal being welcoming to all students.”

As for unhoused people, Plante said the province has a role to play in providing resources for those most in need.

The city’s nine-point plan includes several elements that are already underway:

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  1. Reinforce the distinct characters of the neighbourhoods that make up the downtown sector;
  2. Celebrate the city’s northern character;
  3. Designate the Quartier Latin, around St-Denis and Ontario Sts., as the “neighbourhood of francophonie,” to recognize the historic francophone institutions of the area, like Théâtre St-Denis, and to create a sector of businesses that will be open 24 hours;
  4. Create two new neighbourhoods in the Bridge-Bonaventure and Faubourgs sectors that will bring more than 15,000 housing units to the area;
  5. Emphasize the technology and health-care industries as well as downtown’s cultural creativity;
  6. Prioritize the development of vacant buildings like the Îlot Voyageur bus terminal and the abandoned Royal Victoria Hospital;
  7. Accelerate Phase 3 of the Quartier International neighbourhood;
  8. Improve transit between neighbourhoods and implement a pedestrian-only area of Old Montreal;
  9. Improve overall cleanliness in public spaces.

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Reacting to the plan, Julien Hénault-Ratelle, the Ensemble Montréal opposition spokesperson for economic development, said he wasn’t impressed.

“It’s a bit too little too late,” he said. “After two years, we were expecting much more from the Plante administration, and one of the large problems is the lack of action in terms of security and social cohabitation.”

He said many Montrealers don’t feel safe coming to downtown Montreal, and the new strategy does little to address those fears.

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