During a press conference last week, Mayor Valerie Plante called on employers in the downtown core to bring their workers back to the offices. This move would contribute to reviving an area, now seriously impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. Of course, the mayor, like most people, realize that it is imperative for the recovery of the downtown economy, to count on at least part of the 300,000 people who usually worked there before COVID-19. Mayor Plante is aiming at a modest 25 per cent of that workforce to be back at their towers. Currently, it is estimated that 5 per cent of it commute from their homes to the offices. However, her calculation may be optimistic. Many companies seem, for now, comfortable by having their employees working from home.
Moreover, bringing offices back to life in the city centre won’t be easy. Many people who work in the area, are still wary of riding the metro or the buses and would prefer to drive, reversing a trend that took years to popularize. At the same time, the city administration has discouraged the use of the private car—current changes to some streets, on Ste. Catherine, for instance, have eliminated hundreds of parking spaces. For their part, large corporations—always looking for ways to optimize their profits—are also seeing a money-saving opportunity in vacating some of the office space they rent.
Of course, it is not only the office workers who are missing in our city centre: students attending McGill, Concordia and UQAM are also absent, since most of their courses are now offered online. And then, the other big magnet for the area: restaurants, shops, cinemas, and other venues are either closed or open at a limited capacity. For motorists, the situation is compounded by the numerous detours caused by road works.
While it is good that this debate takes place now when people and governments are looking at what cities, society, and the country itself would look once the pandemic is over; it is important to remember that downtown Montreal was already in trouble before COVID-19. Never-ending public works like the one on Bishop St. forced the closing of many stores. A reorientation in the design of some streets to better serve pedestrians and cyclists was welcome. However, when the Projet Montréal mandarins took this initial and well-meaning purpose to a sort of fanatical mission, then the whole community started to resent these policies. Some of the most extreme—and less fortunate—the one perpetrated on the western section of Notre Dame, had to be reversed due to the adverse reaction of the neighbourhood.
The case of Ste. Catherine’s redesign—now under construction—once it is completed will likely create new debates. Part of the street has been narrowed to only one lane, and parking spaces have been eliminated through most of this commercial artery. While most people might understand that the time has come to change some habits, and significantly reduce our reliance on the private car, on the other hand, it is important to have in mind that this is Montreal, not California. With a five-month winter, sometimes Montrealers—especially seniors—need to drive if they want to go shopping downtown. Bike paths are a good idea, but since bicycles are dangerous to ride in the snow, some bike-paths could be seasonal, therefore freeing some space for parking.
Plante, who is also the mayor for the downtown borough of Ville-Marie, may need a little more than the goodwill of companies and workers to restart commuting downtown. The city also needs to do its part. However, the current administration seemed too preoccupied with advancing its own “anti-car” rhetoric, ignoring basic needs in the city core. In the meantime, downtown revival remains doubtful.