Montreal borough set to adopt bylaw in effort to stem tide of gentrification

MONTREAL – A gritty Montreal neighbourhood with roots that date back to the industrialization of Canada is trying to stop itself from turning into an enclave of trendy, upscale restaurants and little else.

A zoning bylaw set for a final vote on Tuesday would prevent new restaurants from setting up within 25 metres of an existing establishment.

“People are saying, ‘Help us out here,'” said borough councillor Craig Sauve. “We don’t want it to become just a restaurant street.”

Lured by cheap rents, some of the city’s finest restaurants have set up shop in the historically poor, working-class neighbourhoods of Griffintown, Little Burgundy and St. Henri that border the Lachine Canal.

That has incited opposition from groups concerned about rising commercial and residential rents. An anti-gentrification group is organizing a protest in the area on Saturday.

And the issue isn’t unique to Montreal.

Large cities across Canada are facing similar concerns but have been loath to do anything as they struggle with a bigger challenge: vacant storefronts, says David Wachsmuth, an associate professor of urban planning at McGill University.

In Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, the city replaced a moratorium on new restaurants along a section of Queen Street with a 25 per cent cap on new eateries. But in Vancouver, no municipal action has been taken in Chinatown to block the replacement of old grocery stores with fancy new eateries, Wachsmuth said.

“There are really serious and totally reasonable concerns about neighbourhoods that are changing, but this kind of initiative is really treating the symptom, not the underlying problem,” Wachsmuth said.

He added that zoning restrictions can discourage diversity because they squeeze out small restaurant owners who can’t afford to pay higher rents.

The proposed bylaw change for the Montreal neighbourhood introduced in September is designed to encourage a mix of businesses and restrain a further surge in rents along a four-kilometre stretch of Notre-Dame Street before it enters Old Montreal.

It includes a loophole that exempts new restaurants that have a second purpose, such as a laundromat, barbershop or other non-food service.

Raegan Steinberg, who recently opened Arthurs Nosh Bar in the area that will be covered by the bylaw, hopes the change will help the area attract a variety of businesses for local residents like herself and draw more shoppers.

“The more people that come to the area, the better,” said Steinberg, who owns Arthurs Nosh Bar with her husband.

David McMillan, co-owner of the Joe Beef restaurant near Atwater Market, said the bylaw could help diversify the businesses, thereby attracting shoppers throughout the day.

“When it’s only restaurants that are open 6 p.m. to midnight, the streets turn into ghost towns,” said McMillan.

Property owners are opposed to efforts that would restrict their ability to rent out buildings, especially to restaurants that often bring in double the rents of retail businesses. The bylaw could be decided by referendum if enough people sign a petition.

Jon Bloom of the Tuck Shop restaurant called the bylaw “ridiculous,” saying there are enough available storefronts on the street and the city should not intervene.

“If you say you can’t open restaurants, you’re going to have a lot more empty space out there,” he said.

However, Charles-Olivier Mercier, executive director of a business improvement area association in the chic Plateau district, said a similar bylaw in place for nearly 20 years has worked.

“It’s certainly one of the most clever ways to maintain a commercial mix on a commercial street,” he said.

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