Boomtown Kitchener-Waterloo: What Kind of City Are We Building?

by Gerry Schaus

Thanks to architects, our buildings serve their purpose and don’t collapse. But how do they make you feel? How do they define their city?

Prof. Eric Haldenby

Eric (Rick) Haldenby, former Director of the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, recipient of the University Distinguished Teacher Award, and long-time resident of Kitchener’s Victoria Park neighbourhood, captivated his audience of more than 80 during an online presentation hosted by wlura on January 29.

For 25 years, Rick has researched ancient archaeology, Italian urban history, and especially modern architecture in Waterloo Region. He has regularly advocated for the value of post-War architecture, its preservation as well as its transformation, since this is the most important period in the architectural history of our area. It was the current transformation that formed the focus of Rick’s talk to the largest gathering of wlura members at a sponsored event in recent memory.

Figure 1: Waterloo Collegiate Institute

He highlighted some of the best and the worst examples of architectural design and planning of public and private buildings within our region. For instance, the building of Waterloo Collegiate Institute (Fig. 1) on Hazel St. in the 1960s was praised for its design, but two blocks away along King St., the construction in the early 2000s of sun-blocking, massive high-rise student apartments (Fig. 2) in a row along the street, was excoriated. These commercial properties have little or no setbacks from the street, rather than offering stroll-friendly promenades and public open spaces. Many other high-rises, especially around the Kitchener core, are so tall that they degrade the “city profile.”

Figure 2: View along King St. near University Ave.

He pointed out that Waterloo Region is the 10th largest municipality in the country, and the fastest growing of any Canadian metropolitan area. It is also the smallest urban region with its own rail transportation system, the “Ion” lrt. It has just come into service, yet has already begun to stimulate urban re-development along its corridor.

Our cities are not static. They boomed after the Second World War with new subdivisions, new schools, mammoth suburban malls and, of course, the Conestoga Parkway, oriented toward the use of the automobile. In the 25 years up to 2017, 24 major building projects were approved in Kitchener, equally divided between public and private sector initiatives (Figs. 3 and 4). But in just three years since then, another 24 huge developments have been approved, all but one funded by the private sector (Fig. 5).

Figure 3: Transformation of the Kitchener downtown along King St.

Figure 4: Another scene of transformation of the Kitchener downtown

K-W is booming! The Kitchener downtown and the Waterloo university neighbourhoods are being transformed, in terms of the amount of new construction, its size, and the fact that this surge will double the population of these core areas. There has been a tidal shift in the balance of public and private investment. This demands a comprehensive rethinking of the amount and quality of public space, the design of a pedestrian environment, and the provision for recreational and cultural opportunities.

Figure 5: Twenty-four major new projects in Kitchener since 2017

Prof. Haldenby left his audience hungry for more insights and answers to our Region’s Boomtown problems and prospects. While wishing for the best, he expects great challenges ahead.