Relaunch: the view of Richard Shearmur
The past year hasn’t upset downtown’s dynamism, but rather accelerated the trends already in place. Everything that’s happened in the past few months has simply been an extension of our reality: people working from home more frequently, Ville-Marie job opportunities on the decline since 2011, e-commerce and large suburban shopping centres forcing downtown stores to close. There’s nothing particularly upsetting about what’s happening. However, the consequences are still grave.
There’s bound to be fewer workers in the downtown core, but that won’t be nearly as dramatic as we think. We expect the numbers to drop by 10 or 20%, tops. On average, employees were working from home one day a week before the pandemic. Now, that number might increase to twice a week. After months of forced teleworking, many people have realized there are advantages to working from home, notably when it comes to their social life and communication practices. However, our research shows that the downtown core will remain a dynamic place of business.
Even if say, 20% of workers don’t return to work downtown, this empty space won’t stay empty forever. Other important players, such as artists, creators, and SMEs will undoubtedly take advantage of this opportunity to establish themselves downtown, in an area that just wasn’t financially viable for them prior to the pandemic. These players can help relaunch the downtown economy, but only if rent prices are lowered to what they can afford. In my opinion, a successful relaunch depends on whether or not building owners are willing to lower their monetary expectations.
Stores will change their way of doing things. Major arteries, like Sainte-Catherine, will probably bounce back thanks to big-name stores that, despite the rise in e-commerce, will continue to want brick-and-mortar locations, window displays where customers can see their products, a bit like the Apple Store. Independent boutiques and convenience stores will move to residential neighbourhoods, such as Plateau–Mont-Royal or Mile End. People spend more time at home—they want shops, cafés, and restaurants close by. But again, the challenge will be whether or not building owners offer affordable rent to these smaller retailers.