Progress in downtown Kitchener a reason for optimism

James Bow

The Record
(Feb 28, 2005)

It’s easy to be optimistic about the future in Waterloo Region. It’s one of the best things about living here.

As good a city as Toronto is, it’s at a crossroads. If I still lived there, I would be terrified of the challenges ahead, and the local politicians’ abilities to handle them.

But I don”t live there anymore. I live here. This isn’t to say Waterloo Region is without problems, but urban sprawl is largely under control, our finances are in order, and our council meetings are cordial. Unemployment is low. We will have a population of 700,000 by 2041; we may even have rail transit within the next decade. Although challenges exist, there is no fear that Waterloo Region will experience the “white-flight” downtown degradation that has been suffered by many American cities, and which Toronto risks if it is not careful.

And the most encouraging sign of all: it didn’t used to be this way.

When my family moved to Kitchener in 1991, we were delighted with our neighbourhood: nice houses, well-developed trees, and everything within walking distance. However, we quickly discovered that we had a crack house down the street. The neighbourhood five blocks down was not a place to walk at night. (We didn’t have that problem in big, bad Toronto).

That wasn’t all. Kitchener’s downtown was half full, with such buildings as the old Goudie’s department store empty husks. The city was reeling from the bad planning decisions of the 1960s, which cost it a fantastic neo-classical city hall and was driving downtown stores to suburban malls. If people wanted someplace to stroll and shop, they went to uptown Waterloo.

The downtown hit its low point in the mid-1990s when an arsonist started burning abandoned stores. Great gaping holes started to appear in our core.

And that was the moment Kitchener residents had enough.

More people may have lived in the suburbs than in downtown, but downtown Kitchener was the face of Kitchener, and it was embarrassing us.

Revitalization became an election issue. Priorities shifted. Victoria Park got support, its drug pusher mess cleaned up, and it came back as a downtown amenity. Victoria Public School, shut down due to a dwindling population, was turned into a seniors co-op and revitalized the area.

Then the City of Kitchener really got to work.

Despite controversy, the city razed a block of rundown stores in the middle of downtown Kitchener to build a new city hall. Council, which had been meeting in leased office space, moved into a state-of-the-art building with a large public square. It may have been expensive, but it gave the downtown a focal point. A block of decay had been eliminated, and the city showed its intention to stay downtown. Real renewal swept out from there.

The derelict areas were bought up and cleaned up. The Water Street Theatre was moved out of its backroom digs into a state-of-the-art theatre rising on one of the parcels of land burned down by the arsonist. The Goudie’s shell was opened up into a children’s museum. In our own area, the crackhouses were raided, expropriated, renovated and sold to responsible owners. The impoverished area five blocks from our home now boasts the brand new farmers’ market.

Most recently, The Record has shown its faith in the future of downtown Kitchener by vacating its suburban offices and returning to the core.

I’ve only scratched the surface of all that the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo have done to bring downtown Kitchener back. Wherever they could, the City of Kitchener tried to make its downtown a place to live and play instead of just work and shop or possibly avoid. The rot has slowly disappeared. Downtown Kitchener now boasts an area of relatively low crime, and a neighbourhood population of over 10,000.

It’s great being a part of an improving community. An optimistic city can’t help but improve one’s own outlook on life.

But there are battles still to win.

James Bow is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s regional and urban planning department and is a member of The Record’s Community Editorial Board.

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