The Molson brewery in Montreal, pictured in 2005. Shaun Best/Reuters

A historic brewery on the St. Lawrence River will become a new mixed-use district, with a large share of subsidized and below-market-rate housing.

For 236 years, the name Molson has watched over Montreal’s Centre-Sud neighborhood, from the area’s earliest days as an agricultural plain to its evolution into a workers’ village, a manufacturing hub, a postwar ghetto, and eventually, a lively yet rough-around-the-edges gay village.

British settler John Molson established a log brewery on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1782. Then, in the final days of 1784, the 21-year-old officially established the Molson Brewery, selling his first beer a year later. Through expansion and rebuilding after Montreal’s Great Fire of 1852, the facility—the operational heart of what is now one of the world’s largest breweries, and a lonely relic of the neighborhood’s industrial past—still stands in its original location.

The brewery, shown here in 1990, is North America’s oldest. It will leave Montreal for a site in the suburbs in 2021. (Courtesy of Molson Coors Canada)

But in 2021, the merged company now known as Molson Coors Canada will leave its storied home for a new facility in the suburbs. The move means more than 1.2 million square feet of prime real estate will become available for redevelopment. The company tells CityLab its 2017 decision to sell the brewery “generated a lot of interest.” In June, a group of developers purchased the site for a reported $126 million in Canadian dollars.

It would have been easy for the land to get snatched up in a bidding war and turned entirely into market-rate condos. As of this August, a building right next door had a three-bedroom condo on the market for $1.2 million (plus $901 per month in condo fees), while a penthouse was available for a cool $5.5 million.

Montreal—a city often lauded for dirt-cheap rents—now has a growing affordability crisis, a dwindling vacancy rate, and a serious lack of family-sized housing, thanks in part to vacation rentals and price distortions on the secondary rental market.

It also has an ambitious, progressive mayoral administration intent on solving these problems. The city is working with the developers to turn the Molson site into a 4,000-unit, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood, with social housing (that is, units subsidized by the province for low-income residents), affordable housing (i.e. rented or owned units priced below the city’s median market price), and family-sized housing (with at least three bedrooms), as well as a public riverside park and boardwalk, community services, businesses, and a school. Details about how the area will actually look will be revealed next year when the special planning program—a document compiled by the city to present and justify large-scale urban planning projects—is published.

New housing policies in action

Central to this idyllic vision are two young municipal powers that give the city more control over housing construction.

The first power is “preemptive right,” says Robert Beaudry, a city councillor and head of housing and economic development. Essentially, the city can call dibs on certain properties and then have right of first refusal when the owner decides to sell.

Montreal assumed this power in late 2018, after the province of Quebec passed a law giving the city greater autonomy and decision-making authority. Beaudry says the city has since used it to “reserve” many properties, though the Molson site is the first to see action.

There aren’t many examples of cities using preemptive right to take over urban properties for directed housing, meaning Montreal’s Molson experiment is a test case in the fight for affordability.

The administration of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante (pictured in 2018) created the new 20-20-20 policy amid a housing squeeze and rising rents in the city. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

The second power is a directed housing policy known as 20-20-20—as in, 20 percent of a new development project’s units must be earmarked for social housing, 20 percent for affordable housing, and 20 percent for family housing. (The draft bylaw offers developers the option of paying into a housing fund in lieu of building units; it still awaits approval by the city council and a period of public consultation.) Although this bylaw would only go into effect in 2021, Beaudry says the Molson developers agreed to respect it.

With this two-pronged approach, Montreal is trying to avoid the soaring housing costs seen in Toronto and Vancouver.

Beaudry says Montreal is also trying to avoid a duplication of its own Griffintown sector, a former industrial and working-class Irish neighborhood that was razed and built up with condos, and little else, over the past decade. “The city left the private sector to develop this area, and there are no services, only expensive condos. People don’t have schools [or grocery stores] near where they live,” says the councilor.

“We don’t want this waterfront land to be totally privatized and become only luxury condos,” says Beaudry of the Molson site. “That’s why we decided to negotiate ahead of time.”

A ‘remarkable opportunity for city-building’

What ultimately happens to the Molson site isn’t purely a policy issue. The company predates Canadian confederation by almost 100 years, and is North America’s oldest brewery. For these reasons, the city and developers will be under pressure to preserve parts of the brewery’s physical plant and some of its spirit.

The city’s conservation watchdog, Heritage Montreal, has a solid record of saving important pieces of the city’s history. It successfully lobbied for the preservation of Montreal’s iconic Farine Five Roses neon sign, even though the flour company’s sale means the sign now sits atop of a competitor’s building.

Robert Turgeon, executive director of Heritage Montreal, says upholding the Molson legacy is critical. He points to the building’s famous clock, which is visible from many vantage points including the piers of the Old Port and the top of Mount Royal. “That emblematic, iconic symbol is very important to Montrealers,” says Turgeon.

Unlike other heritage battles, here preservationists have an important ally: the Molsons. The influential, philanthropic family is still based in Montreal, and has a vested interest in ensuring that its brewery is replaced with an innovative project. According to Molson Coors Canada’s director of corporate affairs François Lefebvre, the company is “very attached” to the brewery and wants to ensure its legacy lives on in Montreal. It will also keep administrative offices on the site, giving it a role in the project.

Brent Toderian, a Vancouver-based urban planner and design consultant, says the Molson project is a rare redevelopment opportunity in a crowded core. “Former brewery sites are one of a handful of land uses [that can transform urban neighborhoods], and even calling it a handful is possibly overstating it. You can count on a few fingers how many things come available in inner cities for major transformative redevelopments,” he says.

Because of their large size and coveted geography, old breweries hold particular transformative power. Toderian points to the Carlsberg brewery redevelopment in Copenhagen and Vancouver’s Arbutus Walk neighborhood, where the Carling O’Keefe brewery once stood, as examples of this type of change. “Any time a brewery comes available, it’s a remarkable opportunity for city-building,” he says.

Cities using new social policy to steer that kind of large-scale change is not a common phenomenon. When the Molson project is completed in 2035, the world will see what Montreal made of its rare opportunity.  

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