Alive, but sputtering: Workers are trickling back, but fears grow about how the pandemic will reshape downtown Montreal

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The revival of Montreal’s financial hub remains as elusive as ever.

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For months, employers and political leaders in Canada’s second-largest city have expressed fears that their city – known for its chic privacy – will slip into decay as nearly 300,000 office workers live in and away from the area. keep working with.

Now, new research is questioning the extent to which that decline can be reversed.

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The relatively smooth rollout of Quebec’s vaccine passport system, the province’s high vaccination rate, and the return of students and tourists have helped Montreal’s main business district pick up momentum and escape the ghost-town landscape. But the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections is raising doubts about the future of the region.

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“The prospect of recovering to normal levels of activity before the pandemic remains out of sight,” Quebec’s Urban Development Institute (UDI) and Montreal Centre-Ville said in their most recent quarterly report on the state of downtown, published Wednesday. . “There are some clear spots in the sky but a lot of clouds.”

Nineteen months after the pandemic forced Quebec into a widespread lockdown, Montreal’s once vibrant city core is alive but sputtering. The white-collar professionals who fuel its micro-economy – the speedy dressers who spend millions of dollars a year in its shops, restaurants and salons – are only back in the office, raising fears of a permanent exodus that could leave the city as such. Will change from what is being understood now.

The latest data – taken from a variety of sources including traffic counters – offers little in the way of assurance. They show that the rate of commercial vacancies is increasing and that the operations of a significant percentage of retailers, restaurants and other service providers are still on temporary or permanent pause. On the bright side, new and existing condo sales show that the city remains attractive to thousands.

This is a familiar problem across Canada. In Toronto’s Financial District, uncertainty about the re-population of Bay Street’s office towers is causing deep concern among merchants in a 30-kilometre-long network of retail tunnels beneath the city center. In Calgary, downtown office towers are about 30 percent empty, wreaking havoc on municipal finances.

However, Montreal has its own peculiarities. The city’s permanent residents, which number barely 40,000, are not enough to keep all their businesses running. Some other cities depend on travelers for their lives. What those people do can make or break a city center’s business base.

A survey of 1,000 downtown employees conducted last month for the UDI Report found that while the percentage of people working entirely from home is declining, 77 percent of respondents said they still work remotely either full-time or part-time. are working sporadically. When people were asked if they wanted to continue working from home after the pandemic, 71 percent said yes – for at least half or more.

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The Quebec government continues to recommend remote working for companies that are able to do it.

Many of Montreal’s biggest employers are still working remotely with most of their employees. Fiera Capital Corp. Attendance at the U.K.’s downtown headquarters fluctuates between 6 percent and 10 percent, and while the financial company plans to make a gradual return to the office, it is “encouraging employees to work where they can find their jobs.” Can do the best job,” spokeswoman Alex-Anne Carrier said. In Hydro-Québec, which once had about 7,400 employees in various locations, “very few employees are in the office,” and the utility will eventually experiment with a hybrid model for 12 months that allows two to three days of commuting to the office. offers. Weeks, spokeswoman Caroline Des Rogiers said.

Some companies are deciding to decamp. According to the new report, Montreal’s city center had a vacancy rate of 14.2 percent for all classes of office space in the third quarter, up from 10.3 percent before the pandemic. There has also been a decline in demand for so-called Class A office space, the high-end real estate that makes up the bulk of downtown leasing.

“The situation is not as good as we expected at the beginning of the year,” said UDI head Jean-Marc Fournier. Still, he noted some positive figures: 53 percent of downtown leases signed this spring and summer were renewals. And of the companies that ended their leases, half signed new ones elsewhere in the city — though shorter leases tend to prevail.

The new report shows that at the end of last month, nearly a third of business locations zoned for retail and located in shopping centers or concourses downtown were closed permanently or temporarily. On Saint-Catherine Street, the area’s main shopping artery, 17 percent of shops are empty and 3 percent are currently closed, the numbers show.

The absence of workers in downtown is having other ripple effects on Montreal, particularly on public transportation. According to the report, before the pandemic, it was the choice of 58 per cent of the people visiting the city. Since then, car use has skyrocketed – once again the streets are jammed, while the city’s metro, bus and commuter train networks remain unused.

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Montreal’s transit agency recently warned that it could be forced to make major service cuts next year if it does not find additional sources of financing to balance its budget.

City and local groups made a valiant effort during the summer of 2020 to inject some life into Montreal’s core with a campaign called “Relance L’te,” or “Jump-Start Summer.” Metropolitan Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce joined the effort and last month announced a selection of several signature creative projects to encourage the return of workers to the downtown core and boost the area’s allure, “I Love Working”. Part of the campaign called “Downtown”.

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