The Condo Conundrum

Morgan Lowrie
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Is Montreal becoming a city of condos?

Over the past decade, Montreal has experienced a condo building boom unlike any in the city’s history.  Everywhere we turn, old homes, weed-choked parking lots and former industrial buildings are giving way to ultra-modern multiple dwellings. At a rate of 12,000 new units a year, Montreal must face the facts: we are becoming a city of condos.  But how do we feel about it?

Luxury condos under construction on Greene Ave. in Westmount

“Nothing has impacted the city more in the last ten years than the building of condos,” said Laurent Lussier, an urban planner who recently led a forum at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on the condo’s place in the urban landscape.

For years, urbanists have been urging cities and their populations to live denser, smaller, and greener.  Condos encourage densification and public transit use, are energy efficient, and represent a more affordable housing option to young people who are increasingly fleeing the island.

But, despite all the positives that they represent, there remains a certain malaise when it comes to condos.  At the workshop, discussions focused mainly on the condos’ generic architecture, incongruity with their surroundings, and slick marketing campaigns.

“To many people, a condo is not a home,” Lussier said. “It’s not something they imagine living in forever, or passing on to their children.  There’s something that feels a bit artificial about it, and there’s a certain discomfort that goes with it.”

He believes that some of this negative press may be rooted in history.  The original condos of the 1960s were often rental triplexes that were converted, often at the expense of tenants who were evicted.

“At first, it was considered a phenomenon of exclusion,” Lussier said.

In the early 1980s, most of the new projects were luxury penthouses along the river, reserved for the ultra-rich.  The next decade brought “affordable” condos, built using cheaper materials, more “suburban” style architecture, and dubious aesthetic values.

For years, urbanists have been urging cities and their populations to live denser, smaller, and greener. Condos encourage densification and public transit use, are energy efficient, and represent a more affordable housing option to young people who are increasingly fleeing the island.

“By combining the two ideas in their head, people started to think of them as ‘flashy cheap,’” Lussier said.

Nevertheless, the condo has taken hold, slowly eroding the image of Montreal as a city of low-rise triplexes, winding staircases and doors that open onto the street.

The developments themselves have evolved as well.  A new project on Selby Street in Westmount provides an example of the new condo.  A glossy booklet advertises the advantages: geothermal heating and cooling, an automatic parking garage that whisks your car off in an elevator to your designated spot, electric car charging, and 40,000 square feet of gardens. Prices range from just over $300,000 for a 732 foot space to $1.4 million.

As condos have increased in popularity, they have also begun to tailor themselves to different markets, and respond to a public wanting better architecture and different sizes and price ranges.

“In the last few years, we have learned to make different types of condos: upscale luxury, mini condos, larger ones for families,” Lussier said.

“We are expanding our idea of what a condo can be.”

Organizations: Canadian Centre for Architecture

Geographic location: Montreal, Selby Street, Westmount

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