Putting On Your Public Face


Strolling through Uptown Waterloo at lunch, Erin and I finally spotted some signs of redevelopment.

In a previous article, I'd told you about the gains made by Kitchener's Downtown, and how much it was in competition with Uptown Waterloo, and how Uptown Waterloo was, and remains, the better of the two cores in which to stroll.

But, for the longest while, Uptown Waterloo had a flaw in it. Occupying most of one block, Waterloo Town Square was a shopping mall that presented little of a face to King Street. Indeed, the building itself, squat, brown and 1970s, was separated from the sidewalk by a large parking lot. The building was not without its charms, and landscaping helped to maintain the sidewalk as a good public space, but it wasn't long before people decided to try to fix this one last bad spot.

The urban planning students at the University of Waterloo had a field day over this, incidentally. You can't get a better education than getting your hands dirty like this.

The final plan was ambitious. One company, First Gulf Capital, would be responsible for buying up the land, demolishing the mall, re-establishing the broken street network and redeveloping the properties into an intense urban experience. A super-dupermarket was proposed, along with a megaplex theatre, lots of other shopping, and condominiums. It was a bold and optimistic plan, but it was not without its critics.

The most controversial aspect of the plan was the new megaplex theatre, which was opposed by the local arthouse Princess Theatre, and its many (and I do mean many) fans. But while that controversy dragged on (the megaplex proposal was eventually dropped, I believe), First Gulf ran into difficulty. It hand the land, but it was having trouble finding takers for the land. A year passed, and no shovels hit the ground. People started to get impatient.

So, the joke is, Kitchener was the tortoise, and Waterloo was the hare. Waterloo had the single ambitious plan, while Kitchener plodded along, rebuilding its downtown block by block. Waterloo put all of its eggs in one basket.

You'll have to forgive us for chuckling. It wasn't often that Kitchener found itself one up on its Waterloo neighbour.

But walking through Uptown Waterloo today, I see that some of the scaled back redevelopment is occurring. Where the Waterloo-St. Jacobs railway tracks cross King Street, an aging block of shops was demolished a year ago, and a set of new buildings is going up. These new buildings not only have a good frontage facing King Street, but frontage facing the railway tracks themselves. These tracks, which are used by freight trains, are also part of a popular walking trail. Previously, people walked along this trail beside a faceless brick wall, with a lingering sense that they weren't welcome here. The construction of this new frontage tells us otherwise, and enhances the community resource of the trail.

It's good for the building itself too, since across from the railway tracks, it faces the long sidewalk and the parking lot of Waterloo Town Square, meaning that it is facing the people walking north along King Street. Talk about enhancing your public face. It was a startlingly good, yet simple, act of urban redesign that significantly improves the look of this area of Uptown Waterloo.

The picture above gives a picture of the area I'm talking about, but not the changes that have occurred since. (Update: these pictures to your right show how the building on the right of the top picture has changed -- or, rather, been taken down and built up again)

Well, good luck to our northern neighbour. Nice to see some action on that block at last. It's good for you, and it's good for our region.

  • For more information about the exciting developments in Uptown Waterloo, click here.
  • Thinking of filming in KW? Click here.
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