Astonishing. Extraordinary. A model for the continent and the world.
That’s how Rick Haldenby — a professor of architecture who’s lived near Victoria Park for nearly 30 years and is a longtime adviser to city officials — describes the changing fortunes of downtown Kitchener.
By the end of February 2019 the city expects to issue building permits worth $1.2 billion for 20 new developments in the city core. And 10 of the projects will be the same size or larger than the condo tower at King and Victoria streets.
“If somebody told me this was going to happen, even five years ago, I would have said they were on drugs like a lot of people in downtown Kitchener,” said Haldenby. “The truth of the matter is, it is astonishing.”
That coming building boom, which is unprecedented in the city’s history, will dwarf the list of developments completed since 2007.
That list includes the Kaufman Lofts, the Breithaupt Block, the Tannery, the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, the Arrow Lofts on Benton, the City Centre condos next to City Hall, the condo tower One Victoria and the complete restorations of the Walper Hotel, the old Goudies Department Store, 305 King St. W. and 117 King St. W., among others.
Many of the developments won awards for urban design, and Haldenby wants the city to maintain those high standards during the next few years as work begins on the next 20 projects.
“If they apply the same principles that they have been, and the same quality of review, I think we should be looking forward to a really vibrant, successful core area that is really going to be a model for the continent,” said Haldenby.
“I think we are in a position to make this city an example, a really positive example, for the rest of the continent and the world.”
He has three concerns.
First, affordable housing must be built as poor people are pushed out by what he calls “the juggernaut” of new development.
Second, what is left of the heritage architecture in the downtown must be protected.
Third, the new centre of gravity in the downtown is around King and Victoria streets, and that area needs a beautiful, public focal point.
Haldenby’s short list of concerns is nothing to compared to the many challenges plaguing the downtown in the past 20 years.
Crack cocaine and later, crystal meth. Prostitution. Abandoned buildings. Absentee landlords who did not care about their buildings or tenants. A declining population. Two failed shopping malls. For a long time that’s what people saw downtown.
“It was a pretty depressing landscape, not just here but everywhere,” said Haldenby. “The big impact on mid-sized cities was the triumph of the automobile, the migration of retail to suburban shopping malls, and the migration of industry to suburban sites through the postwar period.”
Those mega-trends started the spiral of decline for virtually every mid-sized city across North America, he said.
What made Kitchener different is how it responded. It developed a plan, funded it and stuck with it.
The farmers market on King Street East was the first high-profile project. It helped stabilize the east end after opening in 2004. Within a few years the dozen or so abandoned homes within a few blocks of the market had been renovated and occupied. The market attracts about 10,000 people every Saturday morning.
When the city heard a porn theatre was about to open on King Street West, it purchased about 13 properties on what was called Centre Block, which is bounded by King, Young, Duke and Ontario streets. The second phase of the City Centre condos on that block will be part of the coming building boom.
The city gave the University of Waterloo a $30-million grant for a school of pharmacy at King and Victoria streets. Before work even started on that school, Andrin Homes announced a $200-million conversion of the empty Kaufman factory into condos. During five days in March 2005 Andrin sold 41 of the 69 units in the first phase.
The city also gave a $500,000 grant to Communitech to set up in the Tannery. After that, Google moved into the Tannery in 2011. Haldenby called Google’s move an iconic moment in downtown’s history.
The internet is the defining technology of the 21st century, and Google is the internet economy’s biggest and most influential corporation.
Google’s move downtown underscores the city core’s transformation. Its first home downtown was once the biggest tannery in the British Empire. Its current home on Breithaupt Street is a former rubber factory and auto-parts maker. No other corporation better symbolizes the full flowering of the digital revolution and the Information Age.
Haldenby remembers the day in 2011 when he heard Google was coming to the city core.
“When I heard that I thought: ‘This is a kind of watershed moment,’ said Haldenby. “It would be hard to pick a more significant turn of events.”
A package of incentives that saved developers millions on the construction of new buildings and the restoration of old ones was created by the City of Kitchener. The incentives expire at the end of February 2019, and that’s driving the rush to get developments approved, and building permits issued before then.
“This is just extraordinary, 20 projects is just extraordinary,” said Haldenby. “It is going to transform the landscape.”
The city’s manager of business development, Brian Bennett, said those 20 developments are a mixture of high-density residential buildings with ground-floor retail, and office buildings with ground-floor retail.
The new buildings will be located in an area bordered by Cameron, Victoria, Joseph and Weber streets. They will include 1,000 apartments, and 1,800 condos. That is expected to increase the number of residents in the city core to about 6,000, up from the current 2,400, said Bennett.
The developments will add 100,000 square feet of new retail space during the next five years, and 350,000 square feet of office space, he said.
Cory Bluhm is the city’s director of economic development. An urban planner by training, he worked on downtown economic development for years. It was a high-profile assignment as the city created a $110-million fund to make key investments in the city core.
That started in 2004, and was called the Economic Development Investment Fund, or EDIF. The pharmacy school, the Wilfrid Laurier University graduate School of Social Work on Duke Street, the Downtown Community Centre, redevelopment of King Street, the redevelopment of Hall’s Lane, Centre Block, Communitech, the central library expansion and the medical school all benefited from that fund.
“I think it has been more successful than even the council at the time anticipated,” said Bluhm.
“Looking back, the biggest reason for the success wasn’t necessarily the money invested — it obviously had a lot to do with it — but it was the approach,” said Bluhm. “It was no small feat for our council to stick to its guns and keep going.”
City council heard from taxpayers opposed to the downtown investments. For 10 consecutive years a portion of the tax increases paid for that fund. The city had $70 million on hand, and it borrowed $40 million on the bond market to create EDIF. With interest, the total cost for the fund will be about $144 million.
A stalwart and vocal defender of the fund and its many investments was the city’s longest serving mayor, Carl Zehr. Downtown revitalization was the major focal point of Zehr’s time in the mayor’s office. Visitors judge a city on its downtown, he said repeatedly.
“We have other cities come for visits to see what’s happened, and we remind them — what you are seeing now is not an overnight success, we are going on 15 years now,” said Bluhm.
And during that time the Region of Waterloo was planning and then building Ion — the light rail transit line that runs from Conestoga Mall to Fairview Park mall. It has 13 stops in and around downtown Kitchener. It clearly attracted new development to the city core, said Haldenby.
The new central transit station at King and Victoria streets will be built in 2020 or 2021 and cost about $43 million. The province is covering that cost. The multimodal station will service Ion, GO trains and buses, Via trains, Greyhound buses and Grand River Transit buses.
Preliminary plans call for at least two towers to rise above the central station. In total, that 3.5-acre site will have up to one million square feet of residential-retail-office space. The private-sector partners are building that part of the central transit hub.
“It is quite an astonishing time in the history of our community,” said Rod Regier, the region’s commissioner of planning, development and legislative services.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we are undergoing a pretty fundamental change in the way the community works,” said Regier.
Before Regier went to work for the region, he was the head of economic development for Kitchener. He came to the city in 2005, just as the city was implementing its downtown development fund. Based on the data he’s collected, Ion will benefit the central transit corridor the way downtown Kitchener benefited from the city’s development fund.
Since Ion was approved in 2009, the region has issued $2.4 billion in building permits within the LRT corridor. That is the urban spine of the region that falls within 800 metres of every Ion station.
“My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that the private sector developers have invested almost double the full cost of the Ion itself in the transit corridor,” said Regier. “That for me is really astonishing.”
Downtown Kitchener benefits directly from apartment buildings and condos that are built elsewhere along the transit line. Future residents will be able to ride the LRT to work or play in the city core.
During the next 18 to 24 months, the region expects to issue building permits for 6,500 new apartments, he said. About 3,500 of those apartments are in downtown Kitchener. And that does not include the 1,300 units slated for Block Line Road and Courtland Avenue or the 800 units in SIXO, a big development outside the downtown core, just west of the train tracks.
All of this development will be high-density, transit-oriented and much of it will include retail, commercial and personal services.
“We are fundamentally building a new city here,” said Regier. “It is really exciting. It is a really unusual period in our history.”