Published September 15, 2006
In 2002, the Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire put in motion the development of a multi-functional suburb focused around a new heavy-rail commuter station providing service to downtown Montreal. (www.ville.mont-saint-hilaire.qc.ca and www.levillagedelagare.com) Called Village de la Gare, the village uses transit-oriented principles. popularized in Europe and the United States, to put in place high-density development that:
- provides 1,000 residential units within walking distance to the station to be built over ten years, of which 400 are already constructed;
- reduces the need for automotive transport in favour of walking and bicycle paths;
- creates a multi-functional district -residential, commercial and institutional-within close proximity of the commuter station;
- allocates approximately a 14 per cent of the overall site to green space, including retention of natural characteristics such as stands of trees and interesting vistas; and,
- provides easy “walk-to” station commuting to Montreal. All residential units are within 750 metres of the station.
Beginning in 2002, the development, which will be phased in over ten years requires modifications to the town plan of Mont-Saint-Hilaire especially with respect to the distribution of zoning density and location, and will feature “old fashioned” building designs to better blend with the older sectors of the town and the rural nature of the surrounding area. The new commuter station is an extension of an existing heavy-rail commuter line to the south of Montreal, and was put in as an integral part of the development.
Data to date suggest a significant drop in automotive usage (although a formal study has yet to be undertaken), and a 30 to 40 per cent increase in the value of condominiums located near the commuter station. Design of the development has single family houses near the periphery of the community with a gradual transition from high to low density moving from the commuter station to the already existing community.
Key to the development was a conscious effort to put together a win-win situation to support Mont-Saint-Hilaire as an environmentally sustainable and scenic community, to increase commuter traffic, and to provide reasonable returns to developers.
Sustainable Development Characteristics
Village de la Gare purposely integrates the development of high-density accommodation with transit-supportive urban design. In short, it directly tackles the suburban problem by creating a village centre around a commuting station, permitting people to enjoy both the advantages of sustainable small-town living with the career choices that connect with the larger Montreal metropolitan area. For those not commuting, the purposeful design of a multi-functional community base near the station (that fully integrates commercial and institutional services with nearby residential units) supports the development of a healthy local economy and a livable community.
Located on a rehabilitated former industrial site (sugar refinery) near the edge of Mont Hilaire, the development aims to promote the natural setting at the edge of the mountain, while reducing development pressure around the mountain. This would be accomplished through installing services close at hand within the village, thus encouraging people to walk or bicycle.
The site had some minor contamination, primarily an elevated PH level. The developer paid for the clean up of the site rather than seek available government funding for the work as it was believed that the time required to apply for and comply with government processes would have caused undue delays in constructions.
Critical Success Factors
Critical success factors include:
- the presence of an existing train service within easy commuting distance to Montreal (about 35 kilometers) that was extended to Mont-Saint-Hilaire;
- the quality of the design and location of the station necessary to promote the use of the commuter train service thus leading to concrete results;
- acceptance of the project by the residents within the town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Following consultations within the community, the town put in place zoning by-laws that define high densities near the commuter station and lower densities moving away from the station towards an adjoining river and the existing town;
- the need to create and adhere to a long–term plan, and not be distracted by parties wishing to deviate from the plan; and,
- the development of a detailed integrated long-term plan, as well as the development of and control of standards related to type of housing, architectural styles, and allowable construction materials in order to maintain the overall integrity of the development.
Leadership for the project came essentially from the community as a response to protect the overall ambiance of the existing community, as well as the associated World Heritage site. Once conditions for developing Village de la Gare were in place, private sector interests made corresponding investments.
Community Contact Information
Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec
What Didn’t Work?
The initial plan focused on preserving naturalscapes, especially land along the river, places to walk and enjoy nature, etc. and neglected to incorporate playing fields such as baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. This has been rectified.
Financial Costs and Funding Sources
Once fully developed, the project will require investments in the neighbourhood of $150 million. Initial investments and responsibilities are shared as follows:
- by the Agence métropolitaine de transport, which constructed the station, the costs of which will defrayed through commuter revenues and general provincial transportation subsidies; and.
- by the private developer whose costs will be covered through sales and leases of the residential, institutional, and commercial units.
Analysis of this case study leads to these key observations.
- The critical need for a champion given the complexities associated with atypical land development. In this case, development depended critically on the ongoing and long-term cooperation of the people of the Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, the town council, the town planning committee, several provincial government departments, a metropolitan transit authority, as well as private developers.
- Zoning density is critical in transit-oriented sustainable development. Put simply, at Village de la Gare, development has to occur within 750 metres of the commuter station, which demands zoning densities significantly higher than those typically experienced in Canadian municipalities.
- The project focused on transit-oriented development (TOD), which generally subscribes to most, if not all, principles of sustainable communities. For further discussion of TOD, please refer to the TDM Encyclopedia at http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm45.htm. The municipality of Mont-Saint-Hilaire extended these concepts well towards sustainability, especially when one considers that the town plan was adjusted to take into account protection of the UNESCO site and the agricultural and historical nature of Mont-Saint-Hilaire.
- The project takes full advantage of an existing capital investment, namely the rail link to Montreal. Putting aside financial returns normally associated with commuter rail links, the project in itself would appear financial viable. Most investments are from the private sector, and are based on returns earned through sales and leases. Public sector investments on basic infrastructure would be covered through usual tax levies, either development or land taxes.
Detailed Background Case Description
The Initial Situation
With a population of 14,500, Mont-Saint-Hilaire (www.ville.mont-saint-hilaire.qc.ca) is located approximately 40 kilometres from downtown Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, and in part has served as a “bedroom” community for the larger metropolitan area. The town plays another role, however, in that it possesses a wealth of natural features, as well as having a significant a significant agricultural presence. In addition, in 1978, the UNESCO designated the nearby mountain to the town as a World Biosphere Reserve because of its unique biological and geological features.
In terms of size, the overall Mont-Saint-Hilaire community covers 43 square kilometres with 100 km of urban roads, 30 km of rural roads, and 24 km of highways owned by the Quebec Ministère des Transports. The town has four bus routes (two of which pass by the railway station).
In 2000, the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) (http://www.amt.qc.ca) restored rail commuter service to the south shore, and in 2002, as far as Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Departure and return times to Montreal are generally matched to conventional work schedules with four inbound departures to Montreal in the morning and four return trips in the evening.
Following AMT’s extension of rail service, the Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire considered adopting a TOD approach to land development to create a sustainable community that emphasizes:
- high density;
- a within walking distance ‘city-centre’ that features a variety of functions, with residential, commercial, and institutional uses all close together in one area; and,
- conformity with the land surrounding the town, i.e. the physical features that led to the UNESCO designation, the agricultural community and the character of the older section of the town.
The Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire is the first town in Quebec to use this concept, although it is very popular in Europe and the United States.
The Development Phase
Following the initial considerations, objectives were clarified in that land development had to:
- offer a new way of living in suburban Montreal, similar to what is being done in a number of the world’s major cities;
- create a multifunctional district or ‘city centre’ around the existing public transit system;
- preserve the town’s natural character;
- reduce development pressure around the nearby mountain; and,
- encourage a non-automotive environment.
This translated to a concept of developing 1,000 housing units on a completely rehabilitated former industrial site (sugar refinery) where the basic traffic area extended no more than 750 metres from the station, with land densities correspondingly higher in the immediate area of the station.
Four potential sites were studied, using multi-criteria analysis focusing on the functional and practical aspect of the station, traffic, user comfort, and infill development. The final choice was, to a large extent, determined by the physical location of the railroad bed, as well as the absence of contamination and minimal environmental impact.
The project required extensive interactions on the part of the Town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire including:
- modifications to the town plan to incorporate sustainable development principles, especially the role of public transit to achieve this;
- harmonization of its by-laws and the issuance of construction permits in support of sustainability;
- re-zoning to establish the required distribution of building types and densities (high density near the station, low density near the river); and,
- inclusion within building permits of a site development and architectural integration plan that complies with applicable by-laws.
Technical features include:
- ultimate expansion to include upwards of 1,000 residential units;
- coverage of approximately 73 hectares (100 football fields), or 30% of the urban area of the town;
- development of the natural features such as a waterway and linear park;
- comprehension inclusion of traffic calming measures such as traffic circles, and a street grid design that makes it difficult for drivers to find short cuts to the station;
- a building layout that features older designs and conforms with the architectural style in the existing town,
- retention of tree stands;
- commuter station architecture reminiscent of traditional station designs;
- the use of berms to buffer train noise;
- the location of a 600-space “park-and-ride” lot is near the station; and
- railroad sidings located in the industrial area to reduce railroad noise.
What triggers a community to consider sustainability as a long-term objective?
Do the livability aspects of sustainability change dramatically across generations, and how important are these? Put differently, how important are economic incentives to community sustainability such as career and employment opportunities in line with those typical of a large metropolis?
What is the role of the private sector in developing long-term sustainability plans?
Resources and References
Cervero, R. 1998. The Transit Metropolis. Washington: Island Press.
Dittmar, H. & G. Ohland. 2004. The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-oriented Development. Washington: Island Press.
TDM Encyclopedia “Transit Oriented Development" www.vtpi.org
The Urban Transportation Showcase Program http://www.tc.gc.ca/programs/environment/UTSP/villagedelagare.htm