There's Something Happening Here...

…and it ain’t exactly clear.

I was recently asked, out of the blue, by a representative of the Kitchener Heritage Advisory Committee to appear as a delegate at the February 13th meeting of Kitchener City Council. The individual had stumbled upon my blog after reading one of my Community Editorial Board pieces and thought that I could help the Advisory Committee’s cause.

It always stumps me when my blog gets noticed by the outside world. On one hand, it’s flattering. On the other, I wonder what sort of picture this blog paints of me in other people’s minds. I’m supposed to be here practising my writing so I can keep my fingers nimble and my mind fresh. Am I always this political?

And, when I am this political, do I pay too much attention to the national scene? There are equally interesting things happening closer to home. The story the representative of the Advisory Committee wants me to speak on involves property deals, public frustration, wheeling and dealing, and determining the shape of our city.

Here in Kitchener, City Council is engaging in a particularly contentious political debate over what to do with the Centre Block. The Centre Block is a parcel of land — one city block, in fact — bounded by King, Young, Duke and Ontario Streets in Kitchener’s downtown core.

The City of Kitchener has been working hard for over a decade to revitalize its downtown core. This core entered a prolonged phase of urban decay in the 1960s, thanks to business flight to the suburbs, and to a foolish decision to replace portions of the core, including a beautiful neo-classical city hall, with bland malls. When I came to this city in 1991, it was clear that the downtown was suffering. There were crack houses just down the street from where I lived (I’d previously lived in downtown Toronto and didn’t know what a crack house was). Stores were closing, and properties had been lying derelict for years. Finally, when an arsonist destroyed a number of those same abandoned properties, the sense was that the city had hit rock bottom, and the time had come to do something about it.

Since then, the City of Kitchener has made substantial progress in bringing its core back. A new city hall replaced a block of derelict buildings. Abandoned department stores and empty lots have been replaced with museums, theatres and new lofts. Stores that were once empty or occupied by pawn shops, are now full with a more affluent clientele (including a pseudo-Apple Store). And slowly but surely, the turn-of-the-century factories and warehouses in the downtown’s former Industrial District are being taken up by redevelopers bringing new residents, new stores, and satellite university campuses to the downtown. I recently did an article on a Loft boom occurring in and around Waterloo Region. The Downtown’s redevelopment has fueled much of that.

But one frustrating holdout has been the Centre Block, located next to Kitchener’s City Hall. This block features (or, rather, featured — more on that later) a number of historically and architecturally significant properties such as the Forsythe Building, a factory built by one of our region’s famous families. Most of these properties lie empty. On the corner of King and Young is the former Mayfair Hotel, considered by some to be a source of blight on the core, despite its owner’s work in keeping it in a state of good repair, and the fact that it represents some much needed affordable housing for those who remain within. Of the remaining stores on the block, only Casablanca’s used bookstore has any cachet. A whole section of the block has been bulldozed, leaving a field of plain sod behind.

The Centre Block has resisted all attempts at redevelopment so far, and recent moves suggest that the city is getting impatient. Having succeeded in getting the city’s two universities to open satellite campuses on other blocks downtown, the city floated a proposal to relocate the city’s downtown library to the Centre Block. Initially, the project was to cost $52 million, but that cost has since ballooned, and many aren’t sure whether such a project is actually the best use of taxpayer’s funds and library services. Other proposals call for the land, now owned by the city, to be given away to any developer willing to redevelop, and others have suggested that the land would be easier to develop if the properties on it, including the Mayfair Hotel, were bulldozed.

More disturbingly still, a number of meetings around the fate of the Centre Block have been held in secret, recalling the 1960s secret deal that resulted in Kitchener’s classic City Hall being bulldozed to install a mall. Then, earlier this month, came the sudden announcement that the historic Forstyle Factory was structurally unsound and had to be demolished immediately. This despite an independent engineering report a month earlier had called the building structurally sound, and despite the fact that the current owners of the property (the City of Kitchener) had taken over the property five years beforehand specifically to prevent the property from being bulldozed.

It’s no wonder why the Kitchener Heritage Advisory Committee is worried about the fate of the remaining historic buildings on the site. It’s no wonder why poverty activists are rallying around the Mayfair residents, even though the City maintains it has no plans to condemn their flats. There is a growing sense that the City of Kitchener is rushing to redevelop this property. And while it is understandible that the City of Kitchener may be embarrassed that this property in the heart of the downtown has resisted renewal, this is no excuse to plan in haste, and it’s no excuse to plan without consulting the local residents and the wider community.

The Centre Block issue is important because it will define the City of Kitchener. It is a key piece of property in the heart of Kitchener’s downtown core. The City is making haste on it because, if done right, it will make this city, and they fear that delays could be to the City’s detriment. But the if the Centre Block is done wrong, it will be a mistake we have to live with for years. In this respect, it is disturbing to see elements of the old story of Kitchener being reenacted here: a city rushing forward without appearing to fully consult its community, appearing to value business interests over its own heritage or the interests of the community. There are echos of the disasterous decision to bulldoze old City Hall to build a mall, here, and that’s a story that’s best left to Kitchener’s history.

I won’t be able to appear as a delegate before Kitchener City Council and, frankly, I’m not sure how much I can contribute. But as a resident of Kitchener, I’ve seen the story of this city being written, and if this post of mine helps to change the ending, so much the better.

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