Dirty windows covered in graffiti and tags.
Even buildings in such desperate need of maintenance they might literally fall down.
Glenn Castanheira, the director of the Société du développement du Boulevard Saint-Laurent, has seen it all.
And as he stood on the sidewalk, recently showing me one of those vacant commercial spaces on St-Laurent, Castanheira said it’s evidence of a problem that plagues the street: absentee landlords.
Castanheira said some have inherited family buildings even as they’ve moved away from Montreal, while others have stayed put but neglected their properties.
Castanheira said that unfortunately, there is little incentive for the owners of those spaces to change.
“Although those owners don’t do anything to their buildings, they still gain value,” he said. “Because they’re sitting on a guaranteed land — they’re sitting on an oil well… they don’t have to maintain their building to make it gain value.”
Other owners and merchants say the neglectful ones bring down the image of the street.
Zack Macklovitch has invested in several retail spaces on St-Laurent, but said it’s risky, and that others are discouraged from investing in the street.
“It keeps a ton of shoppers away,” Macklovitch said.
Others have difficulty understanding why some landlords are so neglectful.
“There’s no reason that building should be sitting empty," said Bruce Burnett of Antrev, a real estate company with holdings on St-Laurent, as he looked at another empty retail space. “It’s a question of being proactive… To have a vacant space is not justified.”
But Castanheira said many owners simply refuse to do even the minimum to maintain their buildings, secure in the knowledge they will make money — eventually — when they sell. Castanheira said he has talked to some of these landlords in the past.
“The answer,” he said, “is always the same: mind your own business.”
City needs to act faster
Castanheira said he hopes the city will enforce an existing bylaw meant to force owners to at last maintain their commercial properties. “There are laws in place, but the city is too slow to do it," he said.
Plateau city councillor Alex Norris admitted the city response has not always been as fast as he would like.
“I think there has been a lack of political will and bureaucratic will to enforce the city’s building maintenance bylaw,” Norris said. He added a lack of resources makes it challenging to enforce the bylaw.
There have been successes too, he said, such as when the city managed in 2011 to obtain an injunction in court, forcing the owner of a building at the corner of St-Laurent Boulevard and Des Pins Avenue to repair the crumbling and potentially dangerous exterior of his building.
But still, the inside of that building sits vacant. Castanheira said the city’s victory there was bittersweet. Norris admitted that’s true.
“Quite frankly, the family that owns the building haven’t got their act together," Norris said. "I’ve been in touch with them, made repeated calls to the owner, (I’m) still hoping they’ll find a tenant."
“But there’s no bylaw that forces owners to find tenants for their buildings,” he said.