Montreal's mayor wants workers to return to their downtown office buildings

The mayor of Montreal is calling on employers to encourage workers to return to their offices.

In a news conference Tuesday morning, Mayor Valerie Plante said a return to the office will help provide a boost to the downtown economy.

Like many major cities, she said, Montreal has suffered significant impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the downtown area remains a major concern.

Before the pandemic, said Plante, the city's economy was thriving and growing.

The downtown core, though, has been hit especially hard, in large part because tourists, international students and office workers have been largely absent from the city centre.

"The current pandemic is shaking up our habits. This is difficult for many of us, especially our merchants, our business community and our downtown stakeholders. There are many questions and the concerns are very real," said Plante. "We will have to be innovative and be patient, but I am convinced that we will get there."

There are typically about 300,000 people who work in downtown offices in Montreal, but currently only about 5 to 10 per cent of employees in downtown buildings are going in to work. The city's goal is to get that number up to 25 per cent, said Plante.

The mayor put out the call to business owners, asking them to encourage their employees to head back to the office while also following public health guidelines.

Another challenge, she said, will be to get people comfortable with riding public transit again. Plante said she wants to reinforce that many measures are in place to make public transit safe.

ROOM TO REIMAGINE

The mayor's plea is unrealistic, said Concordia University economics professor Moshe Lander.

Lander said the city should look at ways to accommodate the changing economy, rather than resisting it.

As cities see cases of COVID-19 begin to creep up again, a lot of people will likely want to keep working from home, he said.

Lander said companies are seeing the benefits of having employees work remotely – and long-term, once they get out of their leases, they'll be looking at a massive cost savings. 

As office buildings empty, there's an opportunity to retrofit them into residential spaces, he suggested.

"Maybe where the city needs to help out is in trying to help those developers turn it into residential space. We're talking about affordable housing problems in the city, we're talking about people racing out to the suburbs and all of the tax revenue that's costing the city, so why not acknowledge… maybe there's an opportunity to reimagine that," he said.

Massive investments into public transit could be saved too, he said.

"We're talking about extending the Blue line and building the (light-rail) line to shuttle people in from the outskirts of the city," he said. "Here's a chance to actually get those people right smack downtown where there's already an existing Green line, Orange line, public transportation."

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