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Thursday
Jun062013

Welcome to Midtown

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published June 5, 2013

Urban design consultants have been informally referring to the section of King Street between uptown Waterloo and downtown Kitchener as “midtown” for over a year.

Nestled between the vibrant urban cores of uptown Waterloo and downtown Kitchener is a stretch of road without an identity.

Aside from Grand River Hospital and Sun Life Financial, the two-kilometre section of King Street from about John Street in Waterloo to Victoria Street in Kitchener is characterized by parked cars, fast food joints, mom-and-pop shops and a sea of pavement.

That perception may be about to change, however, thanks to the impending arrival of the light rail transit system and the associated new development expected for King Street and adjoining roads. Some might even say the area is poised to emerge as one of the region’s most interesting locales.

Welcome to Midtown.

From regional staff to design consultants, no one knows for certain where the term “midtown” originated to describe what’s traditionally been a commuter route between the two cities. The best guess is it all began last March during a public workshop for the region’s Community Building Strategy.

“I’m not sure (the term midtown) exists officially,” said George Dark, an urban designer with Urban Strategies Inc. His firm has been working on the Community Building Strategy and central transit corridor for more than a year and said the idea likely came up during that workshop.

“What’s interesting about it is it’s a place that exists in both cities, and only exists if you combine the territories of both,” Dark added.

Some of the goals of the Community Building Strategy are to help foster future investment, enhance mobility and create quality urban spaces adjacent to the $818-million transit system.

The concept may be new for Waterloo Region but historically midtowns have been among the most important areas of growing cities. Midtown Toronto is home to many of the city’s most sought-after neighbourhoods, and midtown Manhattan has some of New York City’s most iconic elements, including the Empire State Building, Times Square and Rockefeller Centre.

That’s not to say Waterloo’s midtown will necessarily grow to those lofty heights, but it demonstrates how these areas can develop an identity separate from their established cores and still remain linked.

Dark said some key characteristics of this region’s midtown area will be access to public transit through the LRT, scheduled to start running in 2017, access to high-quality jobs, more intense residential development with six- or eightstorey mixed-use apartments that are within walking or cycling distance of both city cores, and respect for the established neighbourhoods that have been there for decades.

“Functionally and physically it’s very different from the two established cores,” Dark said.

Rob Horne, commissioner of planning, housing and community services with the region, said the term “midtown” does not exist in any formal documentation, but it does reflect the goals of the region.

“I honestly think it hasn’t been used because we have two cities and it’s a matter of respecting each other’s cores,” said Horne. “It really, to me, is another expression of the transit corridor. I think we’ve not been using the term, but applying the concept.”

The idea truly went public last week during the City of Waterloo’s televised council session when, speaking in favour of a proposed 6-storey mixed-use apartment on King Street, Chris Klein of the TriCities Transport Action Group uttered the phrase.

Councillors seized on the idea and expressed great interest in the concept, but Klein said he couldn’t take credit for coining the term.

“As soon as you hear it it’s kind of obvious,” he said in an interview last Friday. As a member of TriTAG he is particularly excited about the prospect of residents and businesses in the area easing their reliance on personal vehicles and shifting towards public transit and more active modes of transportation.

It’s no secret this section of King Street is fairly uninviting for pedestrians. The car-centric design of the road, with its four traffic lanes and little attention to street-level design, has been highlighted before. In 2011 author Chris Turner walked from the Kitchener GO station to uptown Waterloo and called it uninviting to pedestrian traffic.

He outlined his thoughts on improving the walkability of Canadian cities in an article for Canadian Geographic magazine in 2012.

“Everything about the environment was saying ‘don’t walk here,’” he said in an interview with the Chronicle last year.

While the description may fit now, Dark said the area has the potential to be one of the most dynamic and architecturally-rich sections of either city. Part of the success of a midtown relies on strong urban design and planning to integrate new buildings into established neighbourhoods.

Since the cities are responsible for precise station planning along the LRT route it’s unclear what role the region might play in the development of midtown. Look no further than The Boardwalk commercial development on Ira Needles Boulevard, though, to see cross-border cooperation between the two cities can be achieved when the outcome is mutually beneficial.

When asked how the two cities might share in the redevelopment of midtown, since even the passing mention of the word “amalgamation” causes more than a few hearts to skip a beat, Dark just laughed.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” he said. “I don’t live there so I don’t mentally partition Waterloo and Kitchener into separate things.

“At some level it’s important, but physically for the creation of (midtown) the jurisdictional part is less important than the physical nature of how you construct things along that avenue, what they look like and how they function.”

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