A major multi-year refurbishment of Ste-Catherine Street is hurting businesses in downtown Montreal, according to local retailers.
“For this time of the year, there is no one,” said Gabriele Pare, an employee at Sirens clothing store.
Pare says she’s had to cut staff hours because people aren’t shopping.
“It’s bad for the girls; it’s bad for us,” Pare said. “It’s depressing. We are downtown — we are used to working hard.”
The grande dame of Montreal’s shopping district is undergoing a complete overhaul. The city is redoing centuries-old infrastructure on the street between Mansfield and De Bleury streets.
Work began in January 2018 and then started up again in February 2019. The city’s redesign of the area is pedestrian-friendly, with a large swath of the street being reduced to just one traffic lane. The city also plans on widening sidewalks, lining the street with furniture and planting more trees.
But businesses in the area fear they may not survive to see the new street reopen.
An employee of Mono Cafe on Ste-Catherine Street near McGill University said the cafe opened a month and a half ago. Its owners are already contemplating trying to cancel their lease and move elsewhere.
“The idea was (to open on) Ste-Catherine because of the reputation, but now we see Ste-Catherine is not what it used to be,” said Katerina, an employee at the café.
Parts of the street are full of construction, with empty storefronts littering the area. The vacancy rate sits at around 13 per cent, while experts say it should hover around 10 per cent.
Some argue that as brutal as the construction may be, it is needed.
“This is Montreal’s window in terms of retail to the rest of the world, and it’s been a street we have underinvested in for four to five decades,” said Charles de Brabant, a professor at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University. “We have to upgrade this street, and that will take pain and sorrow.”
But jeweller Fadi Assaleh complains that business is down 30 per cent.
The city has offered up to $30,000 in compensation to retailers. But Assaleh says the program is complicated. He’d rather see his annual $25,000 business taxes cut.
“This is a step they should take without me coming to beg, ‘Please, help me,'” Assaleh said. “They can see the situation. Walk around downtown and see how many people are in the stores. It is scary a little bit.”
Real estate experts insist Montreal still remains a hot market for investors, but some agree that taxes should come down.
“We saw a study where on St-Hubert Street taxes increased between 2016 and 2019 by eight per cent. On Ste-Catherine, they went up 30 per cent,” said Luciano D’Iorio of real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. “It’s the taxes that are going to strangle our merchants.”
The first phase of construction is expected to end in 2021.