The Curious Politics of a Montreal Mega-Mall
The car-dependent suburb it’ll be built in wants to greenlight Royalmount against the city government’s wishes but it needs them to pay for the public infrastructure.
A plan to transform an industrial pocket of Montreal into a $5-billion luxury mega-mall and housing complex is exposing cracks in the city’s planning process.
The land in question belongs to Town of Mount Royal (TMR), an affluent 20,000-person community on the island of Montreal, about six miles from the heart of the city.
TMR may be geographically in Montreal but it is an independent town, meaning it has the power to say yes to major construction projects on its territory—including those with major consequences for the rest of the island.
Enter: Royalmount, a proposed mega-mall that, according to promoter Carbonleo, will be a “midtown Montreal” when it opens in 2022—a happy medium between the downtown core and the suburbs. The promoter anticipates attracting 30 million visitors a year.
“This is a unique proposition combining a cultural and touristic offer paired with stores and restaurants, in line with the town’s vision for the development of these properties, which were neglected over the past several years,” says TMR mayor Philippe Roy.
The design—which would span 40 football fields—promises two venues with a combined 5,000 seats, a waterpark, a cinema, dozens of shops and restaurants, a rooftop greenhouse and farmers’ market, four office towers, five hotels, and 6,000–8,000 condos depending on the market. “Royalmount will have many gathering places… like a European-style piazza, a pedestrian street, and ‘Le champs libre,’ a unique urban linear park similar in style to New York’s famous High Line,” a spokesperson from Carbonleo wrote in an email to CityLab.
With at least CDN $5 billion on the line, the project has sparked fierce debate at Montreal City Hall, with one councillor calling TMR “greedy and selfish.” However, even a formal rejection from an agglomeration committee studying Royalmount may not be enough to stop it.
When a mega-mall is not just a mega-mall
The proposed Royalmount site is an underused stretch of industrial land that rests alongside a highway. Its closest neighbors are an IKEA, a giant orange orb (Montreal’s iconic Orange Julep restaurant), and an abandoned racetrack.
New development would increase the land’s value and bring in more property taxes. But it would also dramatically alter Montreal’s 10-year plan for land use and development, in effect since 2015. So how it is possible that TMR was able to approve the project without consulting the city?
In the early 2000s, the province of Quebec oversaw dozens of shotgun marriages between small municipalities and the big cities they were closest to. Montreal—which used to be 27 independent communities—became one megacity. The province reasoned that it would lead to greater administrative and cost efficiencies, but the mergers were acrimonious for many, particularly those in affluent communities. After a change in government, a number of communities demerged; TMR bid adieu to Montreal in 2006.
It’s this split that makes Royalmount a political minefield. TMR needs the Montreal and Quebec governments to help pay for transit and public infrastructure associated with Royalmount, but it also feels strongly that it was within its rights to greenlight the mega-mall without their consent. The Association of Suburban Municipalities agrees, having said recently that Montreal’s interference “amounts to infringement on and interference in the jurisdictions of the demerged municipalities.”
Danielle Pilette, an associate professor and expert on municipal planning and finance at the Université du Québec à Montréal, recently told the Montreal Gazette that killing the project now “would take an extraordinary political will and an extraordinary mobilization of elected officials in the agglomeration and the metropolitan community.”
Though Montreal mayor Valérie Plante has expressed doubts about Royalmount’s value to Montreal, it’s still unknown whether she will slam the brakes on it. The only leverage she has is over Royalmount’s housing component, which requires a change to Montreal’s urban plan to move forward.
A traffic nightmare
Montreal is particularly concerned that Royalmount will increase traffic in what is already the fifth-most congested intersection in Canada. The aging interchange between Highway 15 and Highway 40 sees 360,000 cars a day, and perpetual roadwork slows down travel even more.
The province—which is responsible for the two highways involved—has said no to several of the promoter’s suggestions for accommodating Royalmount. The promoter hopes people will use public transit, and will build a footbridge to a nearby Metro stop and run a shuttle to and from a future light-rail station two miles away. The station, which TMR opposes in its current form, is scheduled to open in 2022.
But Royalmount will also boast 8,000 parking spots, making it one of Quebec’s biggest lots. Despite this, a report sponsored by Carbonleo estimates it will bring just five percent more cars in the area.
The city isn’t buying it. Marvin Rotrand, a longtime Montreal city councillor whose district abuts the Royalmount site on three sides, doesn’t believe most visitors to this high-end mall will arrive by public transit when they’ve got access to a massive, free parking lot. “The ‘8,000 parking spots’ makes it sound like the promoter’s assertion that all these people are coming by public transit isn’t really what’s going to happen,” says Rotrand. “People are still going to drive.”
A battle of two developments
But one of Montreal’s biggest problems is what Royalmount means for a real-estate development of its own: The renovation of the abandoned Blue Bonnets/Hippodrome racetrack, which is veritably next door to the mega-mall site. The city sold it to the province in 1997, then bought it back in 2012 for $1 and a promise to develop the land. Royalmount, meanwhile, was approved by TMR in 2015.
“It is clear: If you build a mega-mall and 8,000 housing units at Royalmount, you won’t be able to build much density at the Hippodrome,” says Rotrand, who adds that 8,000 housing units—of which a quarter would be low-income housing—are planned for the Hippodrome site.
When asked if he thought TMR was trying to screw Montreal over, Rotrand replied, “Absolutely. They are being greedy and selfish. They see a benefit to themselves.” On its side, TMR believes it’s putting its residents—and the property taxes it stands to gain—first. Along with Carbonleo, everybody has resolved to work together to find a better solution.
But the larger context is worth examining. The coming light-rail system will make Montreal’s suburbs more accessible and desirable to live in while the city’s real-estate market is overinflated and could crash in coming years. And the success of this lifestyle-oriented mega-mall could spell the demise of other nearby shopping centers, which are already struggling with climbing vacancy rates, according to a commercial development association in Montreal.
Carbonleo believes it can make it work, but Rotrand isn’t so sure. “These factors combined make you wonder whether a project like Royalmount can actually be sustainable,” says the councillor. “It ultimately asks the question, is there really a demand for a mega-mall of this sort?”