Shaun Michaud, Montreal Gazette
The Canadian Pacific rail yards take up about one-third of Côte St-Luc — land that the city would like to re-purpose.
Mayor Mitchell Brownstein says owning that land “would be a great boon for the city,” which “desperately needs” the land for housing and business development.
The railway company has owned the land well over 100 years, and Brownstein said CP could make a profit by selling.
“I do believe that it’s a reality that could happen in the next five to 10 years with the proper plan,” the mayor said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette, adding developments similar to the future Quinze40 shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal and a residential redevelopment of the former Blue Bonnets racetrack on Décarie Blvd. in the Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough could increase the value of the rail yard land.
Brownstein, who has been in office since April, said during that time he has met with CP to discuss moving the train yard off island to Les Cèdres near Vaudreuil, and that the company wouldn’t be opposed to the idea as long as a reasonable development project were proposed. Brownstein said CP could make a financial gain by selling the land and relocating.
But the Coalition for the Relocation of the St-Luc Rail Yards — a non-profit organization led by a former mayor of Côte-St-Luc and former MNA for D’Arcy-McGee, Robert Libman — says city hall isn’t doing enough, “and this is why citizens felt the need to create something to make it happen.”
“(The rail yards) are located at the geographic epicentre of the island of Montreal,” said Libman, an architect and real estate lobbyist. “It’s somewhat of an obstacle to economic development.”
If train operations were moved off the island, Libman said, Côte-St-Luc would find itself with 2.04 million square metres (though the city estimated it at 1.6 million square metres) of land in a prime location, which he valued at least $1 billion. Libman, who now runs Libcorp, an urban-planning consulting firm, said he has no intention of becoming personally involved in developing the land.
“The even number I used was based on the relative value of residential land in that area, which about $50 a square foot,” he said in an interview.
The city said it couldn’t confirm the land’s potential value. Potential developers would buy the land directly from CP.
“Côte-St-Luc has right now the second-highest tax rate on the island,” Libman said. “And one way to expand Côte-St-Luc’s tax base would be to allow the rail yards to leave.”
Libman’s coalition has asked a class of graduate students at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning to come up with a redevelopment plan and feasibility study for moving the yards, including possible decontamination. In the meantime, the coalition sent a letter to CP Rail in mid-July to present its vision. CP hasn’t responded yet, Libman said.
The CP rail yard in Côte-St-Luc is one of largest in Canada, linking Eastern Canada to the West and the United States. A variety of products, including wood, chemicals, plastic, metals, minerals, consumer products and oil pass through the yards, which also border St-Laurent, Lachine and the CN-owned Taschereau yards.
Since the Lac-Mégantic disaster of 2013, which saw 47 people killed after a runaway oil train jumped the tracks and blew up in the centre of town, several cities have expressed concern about hazardous materials being shipped through their territories by rail.
Libman’s group call the rail yards in Côte-St-Luc “a threat to safety and security” because of the dangerous elements that are handled there.
Mauricio Guitta lives on Wentworth Ave. close to the freight cars. He considers the move a welcome proposal.
“My friend … he (lives) right in front of the trains. The whole house shakes and the lights shake and everything,” he said.
Still, not everyone in the neighbourhood agrees.
Yao Liu said he’d never heard of the idea and would rather keep the yards because they block off traffic and provide security to the family-friendly area.
“We don’t have a lot of traffic on our side,” he said. “Even in summertime when I open the windows, I hear nothing.”
The city’s communications manager, Darryl Levine, said the city would work with developers by re-zoning parts of the new district for both residential and commercial buildings. He added that Côte-St-Luc hopes property taxes from new business and homeowners would make up for losing revenue from CP’s property taxes CP.
As well, Levine said, the rail yards have for years stalled progress on a plan to connect Cavendish Blvd. from Côte St-Luc to St-Laurent.
“You have to build an overpass to go over all the tracks that are in the CP rail yard and you may also have to build an underpass beneath some of them and that’s hugely expensive,” Levine said. “It’s an important missing link in the road network.”
This summer, the city of Montreal put a reserve on a parcel of land adjacent to the yards necessary to build the missing link of Cavendish Blvd. and allay traffic woes in the area.
Yet the city would encourage potential developers to create a neighbourhood built around people rather than around cars, Levine said.
CP Rail would not confirm or deny holding relocation talks with Brownstein, but emailed The Montreal Gazette a pamphlet of its relocation policy, which describes the moving of rail lines out of a city as a “complex and serious issue,” requiring an extensive review to “determine the impact to customer service and the full cost to all stakeholders, which will be significant.”
Three Canadian prairie cities that are among the fastest growing metro centres in the country are similarly eyeing such spaces for development.
Regina is working on plans to redevelop the site of a former CP rail yard located in the heart of the city. Saskatoon is considering the possibility of relocating its rail yard. And the Manitoba provincial government even hired former Quebec premier Jean Charest to head a task force to analyze rail yard relocation efforts in Winnipeg.