Dunlevy: Decrying gentrification – ‘Big developers’ are a big problem in Mile End

It’s ‘sad,’ says Project Montréal’s Marie Plourde, when new property owners ‘don’t have any sense of the neighbourhood’

T’Cha Dunlevy, Montreal Gazette

Published on: February 17, 2018

Marie Plourde has one word to describe her reaction to the skyrocketing rents for certain commercial properties in Mile End, and how the situation is forcing out businesses that are part of the fabric of the neighbourhood.

“I’m devastated,” said the Project Montréal councillor for the neighbourhood. “It’s dramatic. I support all the business owners who are there, who are resisting, who are worried. All this brings up inflation, and rents in general.

“Landlords aren’t crazy. If rent is a certain price for one space, they say, ‘I want to rent my space out for that much, too.’”

A week ago, I wrote about Le Cagibi, a vegetarian café-restaurant-indie showbar at the corner of St-Laurent Blvd. and St-Viateur St. The building was recently sold, and the new landlords proposed a rent hike that would have more than doubled the $3,417 that Le Cagibi currently pays per month. As a result, the owners decided to move one neighbourhood north, to Little Italy.

That’s a makeshift solution for Le Cagibi but not for Mile End, according to Plourde.

“It’s normal that with the passing of time, landlords want to sell their buildings,” she noted. “But it’s very sad when it’s sold to big developers like this, with long arms — people who don’t have any sense of the neighbourhood.

“What made the area attractive in the first place is that it’s totally outside of the big chains and more generic businesses. The owners of these boutiques are residents of the neighbourhood, who are answering a demand. Mile End is a dynamic village, a charming neighbourhood — which is why (video-game giant) Ubisoft set up there.”

Mile End’s iconic St-Viateur St. strip is in the midst of a transformation from which there may be no turning back. The building in which Le Cagibi is located was bought by Jeremy Kornbluth and Brandon Shiller, who in tandem with maverick real-estate firm Shiller-Lavy Realties, co-owned by Brandon’s father Stephen Shiller, have bought at least seven commercial buildings on St-Viateur St. since 2014, many of which have since seen substantial rent increases and a turnover of occupants.

Last year, yoga apparel chain Lululemon moved into a building owned by Shiller-Lavy, across from St. Viateur Bagel, raising eyebrows of residents with its first running-themed clothing store. One of the two businesses edged out to make room was children’s clothing shop Nid de la Cigogne.

“That was in the spirit of the neighbourhood,” Plourde said. “Does (Lululemon) look like Mile End? I don’t understand. I have nothing against the line.

“To make matters worse, they made a hole on St-Denis,” she continued, referring to a Lululemon outlet that closed down near the corner of Marie-Anne St.

“It was perfect on St-Denis. But they pushed out two businesses to make a big store (on St-Viateur).”

Far from a simple financial decision, the kind of commerce that takes over a space has a direct effect on the character of a neighbourhood. Plourde brought up an A&W that set up at the corner of St-Denis St. and Mount-Royal Ave. in 2011, prompting Projet Montréal councillor Alex Norris to contact the chain’s Vancouver headquarters concerning “the ugliness and poor taste” of a temporary commercial sign installed on the building’s façade.

“That space was being coveted by Café Myriade, which would have been super,” Plourde said. “But now there’s an A&W on the corner — great. I like a Mozza Burger, but when we talk about a business (to anchor a neighbourhood), that’s not it.”

And so Mile End sits at a crossroads. Shiller-Lavy (along with Kornbluth and Shiller) now owns a substantial portion of St-Viateur St., with two of its spaces (and soon, with Le Cagibi’s locale, a possible third) sitting empty; “à louer” signs challenge future tenants willing to take their chances and fork over the elevated rents. Meanwhile, the rest of the neighbourhood waits and watches.

“We can’t stop people from buying buildings,” Plourde said. “It’s free enterprise, and that would go against all kinds of things; but there need to be better regulations around commercial leases. It can’t just be a jungle. We’ve been demanding that for a long time.”

Commercial leases are under provincial jurisdiction, meaning that Plourde, Projet Montréal, business owners, residents of Mile End and other gentrification-affected neighbourhoods may be waiting a while for regulatory changes.

In the mean time, there are rumblings at the grassroots level. Plourde speaks of creating a consumers’ committee, and of a Mile End business-owners association that she and councillor Richard Ryan helped spearhead in 2015 with funding from Projet Montréal.

She is also looking at other cities such as Paris, where non-profit organizations have helped find alternatives to protect and promote small businesses that fit with a neighbourhood.

“I hope it’s not too late for Mile End,” she said. “It’s a neighbourhood in development, like Mile Ex, Villeray and Ahuntsic.”
Despite the mounting obstacles, Plourde has faith.

“This neighbourhood has always been very resilient,” she said. “It has always survived. Mile End has known highs and lows, historically. I read (Yves Desjardins’) book Histoire du Mile End. The neighbourhood survived the industrial wave. It has such deep roots.

“The residents of the area are so involved, on all levels. It’s easy to mobilize people for projects, whether it’s a skate park or deciding what to do with the area around the train tracks. That’s the strength of Mile End.”

Although it is easy to understand why some would oppose “Gentrification” what is difficult to comprehend is why certain people think that Landlords should not be allowed to obtain market rent for their property and should actually subsidize commercial tenants. There is no reason for any current owner, or new purchaser, in this area not to rent for the maximum they can. To do this of course a property has to be properly maintained, or even renovated. Maybe an owner does not have cash to do this, but has a lot of equity in his property. It is time to use some of that equity to maximize your potential profit. To help with this a private mortgage could help and in Montreal one of the best providers of private mortages is TempBridge Inc. Check out their website at www.tempbridge.ca