Tracey Lindeman is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa where she writes about technology, transportation and business.
Le Phare would stand 65-stories high in Sainte-Foy, an old, low-lying suburb of the historic city.
Since its founding in 1608, Quebec City has gained a reputation as one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Its gothic-style Château Frontenac stands on the edge of a cliff, looming over the chilly St. Lawrence river. The imposing building, together with the city’s cobblestone streets and a centuries-old hilltop fortress, are the closest North Americans can get to Europe without crossing an ocean.
But soon, Quebec City might have a new calling card: A 65-story skyscraper in the nearby suburb of Sainte-Foy—and not everybody’s happy about it.
“I hate it. It’s an ugly design. It’s a way of seeing the city that is totally outdated,” says city councillor Jean Rousseau.
The $755-million (CDN) building project is named Le Phare, the French word for “lighthouse” or “beacon.” The name, and the project’s placement, are intentional: It’s meant to be the first thing people see as they approach Quebec City from the west and over the main bridge. By the time it’s built in 2030, it will be the tallest Canadian building east of Toronto.
Current plans for Le Phare describe a “one-of-a-kind vertical neighborhood” featuring four towers of varying heights (17, 30, 51, and 65 stories) that will include condos, apartments, hotel rooms, seniors’ residences, offices, commercial space, restaurants, a daycare, and a performing arts center. Its tallest tower will be a glittering glass column inspired by the skyscrapers of Chicago and Dubai.
“It’s presented as vertical life: Live, work, and play. That’s the old utopia of Le Corbusier that we’re rehashing here, in a part of town that is in dire need of being better organized,” says Rousseau.
Quebec mayor reverses direction
Ste-Foy–Sillery–Cap-Rouge (or colloquially, Ste-Foy) is one of six boroughs in Quebec City, a suburb with just over 100,000 residents. The Université Laval campus is the anchor tenant of the neighborhood, and most of the housing stock is comprised of single-family homes and apartment complexes under five stories. In Rousseau’s words, “Quebec City is very horizontal—a very flat city.”
During the long winters it’s also also a very cold, windy city. The wind tunnels produced by Le Phare would make Ste-Foy even more inhospitable, says local resident and retired astrophysics professor Serge Pineault. ”I don’t envy the people who are going to live near it.”
The skyscraper would be an anomaly in Ste-Foy, where new buildings are currently limited to 17 stories. The Quebec City administration, led by longtime mayor Régis Labeaume, wants to change the zoning bylaws to accommodate Le Phare’s height.
The move would be an about-face for Labeaume, who 10 years ago argued against raising building heights in Ste-Foy, especially in the Sillery area where he lived. A 2008 article in Quebec newspaper Le Soleil quoted the mayor as saying (in French): “I’m sure that if I was a building promoter, I would hope for 50-story buildings. It’s more lucrative. We can’t blame them. But 17 stories is profitable.”
Labeaume also said in 2008 that developing Laurier Boulevard would cause major traffic problems and create unfair competition by luring businesses away from other boroughs. He expressed these concerns in relation to a 20-story building proposed by promoter Michel Dallaire.
Fast forward a decade, and Le Phare is being built by Michel Dallaire’s company, Groupe Dallaire, on the corner of Laurier Boulevard and Lavigerie Avenue.
Since the 2008 Le Soleil article, traffic congestion in the area has only gotten worse. And although the current plan is to extend Quebec’s forthcoming tram project to Le Phare, the project would still add more than 3,000 underground parking spaces to the area.
The city and Groupe Dallaire both declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing consultations.
Changing the rules of the game
Le Phare threw a wrench in a pre-existing special urban planning program for Ste-Foy known as a programme particulier d’urbanisme (PPU) in French. In some situations, PPUs allow Quebec municipalities to circumvent usual zoning laws to permit special projects.
The Ste-Foy redevelopment PPU was authorized in 2012 after extensive public consultations. The revitalization plan included a series of new buildings no higher than 29 stories along the area’s main arteries.
The plan for the 65-story Le Phare was first unveiled in 2015, to many residents’ surprise and dismay. Through a sleight-of-hand maneuver, the municipal government tacked it on to the already-approved PPU and then passed two amendments to try and make it fit. “I think [residents] were fooled,” Rousseau says.
The last nail in the coffin will likely come next month. That’s when city council is supposed to vote on an amendment to its charter that would let it set aside borough zoning laws for buildings with more than 25,000 square meters of surface area. The deal is as good as done, says Rousseau; of the 21 officials who sit on council, 16 are members of mayor Labeaume’s team.
Playing to Quebecers’ emotions
Architect and Université Laval professor François Dufaux says Le Phare doesn’t make geographic or economic sense. Quebec City may be the provincial capital, but Montreal is by far the bigger economic center.
The sibling rivalry between the two cities is a tender point for older generations, and Dufaux says that Dallaire “is playing to the emotions of the people of Quebec City and their pride, their ambition.” Even the size of the tower is a dig at Montreal, he says. “They want to be bigger and better than Montreal.”
He questions whether the demand for Le Phare’s living, office, and commercial spaces will meet projections. He suspects the government will gradually decommission buildings in other parts of the city—including downtown—and stack workers into Le Phare. “A lot of bad buildings have been saved by being rented by the federal or provincial government,” Dufaux says wryly.
Economist and consultant Jean-Marc Bergevin thinks the outlook isn’t as dismal as others may believe. “Is there a market for it? The answer to that one rests very much with Dallaire and his group. If they’re investing $800 million in this, it’s because they feel strongly there’s a market for it, and I see no reason to believe they didn’t do their homework.”
But recent history would suggest that Quebec City hasn’t done well with the build-it-and-they-will-come approach. Just three years ago Quebec City opened its brand-new 18,000-seat Videotron Centre in hopes of landing an NHL team. That hasn’t happened. The city has already lost $5.8 million on the arena.
A vision without a plan
This isn’t the vision younger generations have for Quebec City. Simon Parent, a 28-year-old Master’s student in architecture urban design at Université Laval, thinks the original PPU would have made Ste-Foy a more sustainable, pedestrian-friendly place to live. He says Le Phare is out of joint with the surrounding neighborhood and modern urban design principles. “It’s a vision, but there’s no plan.”
So why are they building it?
The simplest explanation may be the right one: Leadership wants to redefine Quebec City as a modern, world-class economic hub, and it believes it needs a landmark to do it.
It makes Dufaux think back to a comment made by renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels after seeing an early video promoting Le Phare. During a 2015 visit to Université Laval’s school of architecture, the Dane told students he’s seen it many times before: Cities build fancy towers to get themselves on the map.
“[He said], all these towers are like little perfume bottles you buy at the airport. They all have weird shapes, and they stand on the shelf in your bathroom—but you’re not an international person because you bought them at the duty-free shop,” Dufaux recounts.
Le Phare may become the international beacon the city wants, but it seems more likely to be a sore thumb that locals hate.