building height restriction Mount Royal Montreal

In defence of building height restrictions in Montreal

Denis Coderre wants to solve the housing crisis by building taller, and eliminating a convention that gives our city its unique appearance.

Noted electric car enthusiast and former burgermeister Denis Coderre is slowly rolling out the ideas from (what appears to be) his publicist’s book in advance of the fall election, one of which is being positioned as a potential solution to the housing crisis: build taller. It’s unsurprising that Coderre’s most innovative idea is in fact one that property developers have been pushing for some time, namely that the city’s building height restriction be lifted. It is odd, however, that Coderre — the self-styled champion of Montreal’s uniqueness — is interested in eliminating a convention that gives our city its unique appearance.

The ‘rule’ that no building can be taller than Mount Royal isn’t an example of arbitrary bureaucratic regulation or some vague tradition, but actually a demonstration of the evolution of urban planning in Montreal. Perhaps ironically, part of the reason why we have building height limitations in the first place is because architects, city planners and local officials in the late-19th century were concerned that tall buildings would have an adverse effect on the residential quality of life in the city centre, a concern that’s just as valid today.

How our city came to have this rule actually explains a bit about how and why Montreal developed the way that it did. For most of the city’s history, unceded Indigenous land was cheap and plentiful, so it was always easier to build out than up. Business interests that needed office space tended not to need too much of it, and those businesses tended to be concentrated in what we now call Old Montreal. Montreal’s economy, focused on trade and transport, tended to need large industrial buildings (like grain elevators and warehouses) and infrastructure mega projects (like bridges, canals and tunnels) over office towers. And with much of the city’s population concentrated between Mount Royal and the Saint Lawrence River well into the 20th century, there was good reason to limit building heights, as tall buildings block out the sun and cast long shadows, in turn lowering property values around them. Until the regulations were relaxed a bit in the early 1920s, buildings in Montreal were limited to a height of 40 metres. After that, towers that exceeded 40 metres had to be built back from the base, leading to the ‘wedding-cake’ look common to Montreal’s 1920s skyscrapers, like the Aldred Building, the Royal Bank Building or the Sun Life Building.  

Major construction projects largely came to a halt during the Great Depression and Second World War, and didn’t really get going again until the 1960s. Some of the tallest buildings in the city were built during the mayoralty of Jean Drapeau, but despite Drapeau’s grandiosity (he asked Paris to move the Eiffel Tower here temporarily) none of the skyscrapers built during his reign exceeded the height of the mountain. Why this is isn’t entirely clear. Drapeau wasn’t exactly a fan of Mount Royal—during his first term as mayor in the mid-1950s he argued Mount Royal was an impediment to growth, and that it should be bulldozed flat as this would be more attractive to developers. He also argued the mountain was the cause of all of Montreal’s traffic problems, and that demolishing Mount Royal would eliminate congestion. When he caught wind of a story about gay men cruising on Mount Royal, he ordered the parks department to clear out the underbrush and cut down so many trees that Mount Royal was briefly referred to as “Bald Mountain” (Mont Chauve). The mountain was considered as a possible location for both Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics, and at various times proposals have been floated to build massive outdoor amphitheatres, ski jumps, sports complexes and towers on top of Mount Royal. 

Of course, these ideas are almost exclusively coming from politicians, property developers and other people who just can’t handle the idea of such a large space not being used to make someone money. During his stint as mayor, Coderre has also spoken of his belief that Mount Royal ought to be more “profitable.” By contrast, historically the people of Montreal have only ever wanted Mount Royal to be left as it is: a pseudo wilderness with no paid attractions where you can pretty much do whatever you please. Similarly, most Montrealers also want their view of Mount Royal to be left alone as well, and this bring us back to the building height restriction.

There are many theories as to why buildings can’t be taller than Mount Royal — from respecting the prominence of the Mount Royal Cross to ensuring the view from the Kondiaronk Belvedere remains unobstructed — but whether these were ever anything more than conventions or considerations is hard to pin down. What’s clear is that the first time the restriction became an actual rule was when Montreal adopted its first ever urban plan, in 1992. The urban plan was developed in the context of Montreal’s 350th anniversary, one of a series of major projects organized around shaping Montreal’s identity (you’ve probably never heard Montreal’s official song “Un bateau dans une bouteille” but you have likely visited one of the museums or other cultural institutions built in time for the anniversary). The rationale behind the building height limitation in 1992 was that Mount Royal is the city’s premier geographical feature and it’s both socially and culturally significant to Montrealers. As such, views of it, and views from it, should not be obstructed by tall buildings. It’s not just that buildings can’t be taller than Mount Royal either: buildings taller than 120 metres are limited to very specific parts of the city. This maintains both the mountain’s prominence as well as a certain shape to the skyline. Over the past 30 years, these rules have given Montreal a very distinct look amongst large cities. Moreover, we’re far from alone in having building height restrictions: nearly every city with a master plan has some kind of regulation on building heights, because tall buildings cause the same kinds of problems regardless of where they’re located.

Key to Coderre’s argument that restrictions ought to be relaxed is his assertion that building taller would help ease the housing crisis, but this is specious reasoning. The city isn’t lacking in luxury condominiums, it’s lacking in affordable apartments and starter homes, and residential towers in our city are essentially, without exception, luxury condominiums. Building new residential skyscrapers doesn’t free up properties elsewhere, as our recent experience has amply demonstrated: a substantial portion of these luxury properties tend to be acquired by foreign buyers looking for a pied-à-terre or are otherwise used as rental properties. Despite all the new construction in the past decade, prices are increasing to unsustainable levels largely due to scarcity. Left to its own devices, the free market will only build the type of housing that’s thought to be most profitable based on past trends. There’s no financial incentive to plan rationally for a future that’s anything but certain.

That said, it’s not like we’re completely running out of options either. There are still plenty of gas stations all over the city whose days are seriously numbered, not to mention plenty of office towers which may be just as obsolete. Assuming the land has been decontaminated the abandoned refineries of the East End will likely be redeveloped hand in hand with the expansion of the REM, and the CDPQ’s taxation scheme for all properties within a one-kilometre radius of each new station means a number of industrial properties along the Deux-Montagnes Line will likely be converted to Transit-Oriented Developments, too. And of course, we could always build new islands in the Saint Lawrence or extend the shoreline (for development purposes) with the stone and soil unearthed by excavating new metro tunnels. 

The housing crisis can be solved, but not by eliminating regulations. Property developers don’t build cities, the people who live in them do, and right now Montrealers want rent control and tighter regulations preventing renovictions. Denis Coderre demonstrates his age and his political obsolescence in banging the neoliberal drum of deregulation as panacea. Laissez-faire doesn’t work in economics and it’s anathema to coherent and progressive urban planning. Beware the mayoral candidate who wants to let the fox mind the henhouse. ■

Read more articles by Taylor Noakes here.