Urban Revitalization on King Street in Kitchener

By Jason Leach
Published June 04, 2012

I was on King Street in Kitchener this weekend for the first time in years. The last time I was there it was bland and boring, like Hamilton's King Street is today.

No more. The New King Street in Kitchener is "designed to put pedestrians first" to help "transform our core into a vibrant, urban, modern, environment full of creative energy".

Streetscaping on King Street in Kitchener (Image Credit: IBI Group)
Streetscaping on King Street in Kitchener (Image Credit: IBI Group)

A 2011 article in World Landscape Architecture explains the transformation:

In 2007 the City of Kitchener, Ontario, retained IBI Group to develop a Streetscape Master Plan for the City Centre District: the core of Kitchener's historic downtown. The City recognized the need to revitalize the area, to transform the once neglected streets into a lively, liveable area that would renew the district's civic pride, awaken its creative energy and, most importantly, bring people and businesses back to the downtown core.

It's great to visit local cities that believe in themselves and their urban cores. You either want your downtown brought back to life, or you don't - period.

In Hamilton, dithering and ignoring every expert who comes to town is holding us back as other cities pass us by. King Street in Kitchener used to be a joke. Now it seems the joke is on us.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 08:43:46

A couple points that really caught my attention - the flexible street design where the parallel parking can be closed for pedestrians during busy times...ditto for the plaza in front of city hall. Also, the fantastic landscaping, benches, lighting, public art etc..... For all the talk of a flexible streetscape when we did York Blvd, all we ended up with is another typical street. We need leaders and engineers with vision and an ability to break out of the boring old status-quo box with our urban design. Truth be told, King St in Kitchener is quite tame compared to some of the great innovative design happening in other North American cities and Europe.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By York Blvd. (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 08:53:17

I could've been that! Just look at those people! Just look at those nice places to sit and enjoy life passing by. All poor Yorkie gets to enjoy is bike thieves, speeding transports and that one dude who "plays" the keyboard all day. You'll pay for this Hamilton planning department! There is only so much one street can take!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:02:26

I don't remember the last time I cruised down King...probably a decade.

You're right, it was always a forgettable experience eerily similar to our namesake.

Apparently that's changed.

Congratulations Kitchener! You've got ideas. You give a damn. You listen to what experts tell you. You actually get things done. Bravo!

Permalink | Context

By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:17:54 in reply to Comment 77917

It has been only 5 years since I was last there, and it's barely recognizable. That's called a city hall and education institutions with real vision...willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Permalink | Context

By Quince (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 11:51:01 in reply to Comment 77921

"That's called a city hall and education institutions with real vision...willing to put their money where their mouth is."


If you're going to lay blame, you can fault local post-secondary institutions, private business, residential developers as well as Hamilton's council. In the chicken and egg equation, there are lots of chickens.

Kitchener undertook this plan because the city understood that it could be a magnet for investment but also because it was in response to investment.

"Q. Why is the City reconstructing King Street?

A. There is significant interest from private businesses and residential developers in downtown Kitchener, now it is the city's turn to show our commitment to improving and rejuvenating the core.

The new streetscape will create a pedestrian-first environment that is lively and attractive. It will include wider sidewalks, flexible parking, improved lighting and added street trees and sustainable planters. The new streetscape will provide an urban, vibrant, modern place where people can gather for dining, arts, culture and entertainment, while at the same time helping to attract new businesses and private sector investment into the downtown."

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:06:28

McMaster University and the University of Waterloo announced their plans for downtown health campuses in 2006. The City of Kitchener commissioned IBI the next year. Two years after that, Cadan bought the Tannery and work began on the streetscaping.

More project details:

Permalink | Context

By 3 for 3 (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 13:59:53 in reply to Comment 77918

In 2008, Kitchener had...

Wilfrid Laurier University (Faculty of Social Work)

University of Waterloo (School of Pharmacy)

McMaster University (School of Medicine)

Permalink | Context

By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:12:43 in reply to Comment 77918

that world landscape link is in the body of the blog....amazing info and pics.

Permalink | Context

By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 13:43:35 in reply to Comment 77920

Love the raindrop-ripple iron grates for stormwater runoff. Super handy for cyclists and those prone to dropping their keys, and beautiful to look at as well.

Permalink | Context

By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:09:53 in reply to Comment 77918

Ahh, The Tannery. this is what brought me to Kitchener yesterday. Heading back home after a weekend up in Perth County, I needed a coffee from Balzacs.
Balzacs is in the Tannery along with some obscure names like the U of Waterloo and Google....

Interesting that they landed an education institution in an old abandoned industrial complex....we just tried to give one to our 'education institution' and they ran away scared for their lives.

In fact...I should add this to the blog above...considering it was the thing that lured me there yesterday in the first place.

Permalink | Context

By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2012 at 16:30:32 in reply to Comment 77919

Kitchener's Economic Development Investment Fund has done quite a lot to change downtown Kitchener and especially the western "warehouse district" area.

The EDIF is done, but now there's much more on the way, with the Breithaupt Block just a few blocks away from the Tannery and other big projects in the works. And right at King/Victoria planning has begun on the intermodal transit hub, which is going to be a large-scale mixed-use development in addition to being a train and bus station.

Permalink | Context

By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 20:43:38 in reply to Comment 77946

Congrats KW.

Not an area that's known for good urbanism but you're proof that it's never too late.

Some great condo / commercial conversions.

King street revitalisation.


You may just draw a few people down highway 8 to your neck of the woods.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 09:47:33

I have traveled to Kitchener City Hall several times recently for work and was delighted with what I found. City Hall fronts right onto King Street and features a skating rink in winter (as does Guelph City Hall) and a lovely, crowded Williams Coffee Pub at street level. Parking is underneath City Hall. Along King, there are few Payday Loan places, dollar stores, and the like that reminded me of downtown Hamilton, but overall seemed to have a healthier retail climate.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Etc (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 13:04:27

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By I like baseball (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 13:27:41

Hamilton should build a MLB stadium.

Permalink | Context

By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 20:47:30 in reply to Comment 77933


But where??

I've heard the West Harbour is still available. :D

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 13:33:09

Makes whant to move in Kitchener ! Hamilton City Hall WAKE UP !!!!!!!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 14:15:56

Nice photo. I lived in Midtown Kitchener until very recently, and really enjoyed feeling the walk down King Street change.

The City (with support from the federal government) did a great job on King, and there is a lot of headway being made in other parts of downtown, too. That's not to say that there aren't still a lot of problems downtown, and some pretty regressive stuff (Victoria and Weber Streets are both pretty depressing arteries), too, though.

One interesting thing to note is that Duke Street, on which LRT will run through downtown Kitchener in a few years, and Charles Street, which passes Victoria Park and on which is situated the Lang Tannery, were once a one-way pair. Since their conversion, they are much more pleasant, though still have a long way to go.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2012 at 16:02:44

The best part is how easy it is to cross the street. In downtown Kitchener, cars are now going slowly enough and the roadway feels narrow enough that people are comfortable crossing the street at pretty much any point. This is in sharp contrast to uptown Waterloo, where the same street is 4 lanes plus parking and cars go much faster; some people still try to dart mid-block, but it is not pleasant.

The second best thing is the mountable curb. There isn't any cycling infrastructure, but that mountable curb makes it easy to pass the occasional backed-up cars or to get to a shop.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2012 at 19:42:08

I feel it important to note that "Downtown Kitchener" holds exactly the same drug/poverty/crime associations throughout most of K-W as "Downtown Hamilton" does throughout our 'burbs. Having spent some time there, even before the redevelopment, it's led me to two conclusions. First, that such prejudices have little if anything to do with reality, and second, that they don't prevent effective redevelopment strategies.

Also, I really have to echo what others have said about their reuse of old buildings. Every time I visit Kitchener or Cambridge I'm blown away by another few.

Permalink | Context

By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 06, 2012 at 11:05:29 in reply to Comment 77949

I feel it important to note that "Downtown Kitchener" holds exactly the same drug/poverty/crime associations throughout most of K-W as "Downtown Hamilton" does throughout our 'burbs.

Forcing the closure of the many dive bars (e.g., Tommy's place) that lined this strip helped with that. I can speak with some authority that at one point its reputation was well deserved.

Kitchener is also a downtown that has lost buildings due to fire several times, the city has made some colossal mistakes with regards to downtown development and they've missed some opportunities for preservation. Recent improvements in Kitchener demonstrate that despite all of the things that have gone wrong doing something right rather than doing nothing at all is the way to progress. It also shows what academic institutions investing in a downtown can do to improve a downtown.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jamesandcannon (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 22:42:41

“Every building implies a city,” Kuwabara says from the open boardroom of his Toronto offices. “If you put in big boxes, you imply suburban. But now the urban is being restored.”

Permalink | Context

By Stout (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 20:49:54 in reply to Comment 77957

And if, as in the case of Hamilton, you put in a new building once every decade and take decades to restore dormant building stock, what does that imply about a city such as this, other than impotence and indecision?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By beancounter (registered) | Posted June 04, 2012 at 23:03:45

But where are the trolleybuses? Oh yeah, they gave them up about two decades before Hamilton did.

Perhaps that is why they are ahead of us on LRT now.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Per Contra (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 08:28:56

The following is pulled from 2008 Downtown
Trends and Indicators, a 28-page Kitchener EcDev prospectus from a few years back:

• 2,049 residents in downtown core or 19,249 residents in downtown neighbourhoods (including core).
• 1,207 new residential units since 2001; 90 new residential units in 2008.
• 1,213 new residential units currently being proposed for future development.
• $86,124,400 in residential construction values since 2001.
• 11,967 employees in urban core.
• 220 new employees in 2008.
• 3,370 students in the downtown core
• Another 613 students when Health Sciences Campus is fully operational in 2010.
• Increase in spaces for McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine students from 45 to 63.
• Approval of key development initiatives including the Charles/Benton parking garage, King Street streetscaping, and final selection of Centre Block developer Andrin Limited.
• Announcement of consolidated provincial courthouse to be built in Market District.
• Began redevelopment of Lang Tannery by private developer Cadan Inc.
• Kitchener city council earmarked $500,000 from its Economic
Development Investment Fund to be put toward specialized equipment and technical resources to operate a digital media convergence centre in the core.

And just for a bit of contrast in tone and focus, here's a taste of Hamilton EcDev's 19-page Downtown Hamilton Profile:

• 8,512 residents in 2006 [Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan Area]
• Ward 2 up 5% [1,950 residents] from 1986 to 2006
• 64% of Downtown residents aged 15 and over have incomes below $20,000 per year, compared to 43% for the City
• Average household income is below the City average of $70,000
• Over 20,000 people work Downtown
• One quarter in Public Administration
• One quarter of Downtown workers earn $60,000+
• One quarter of Downtown residents (aged 25-64) have been to university
• 31% of Downtown workers have been to university

In Kitchener, as in Hamilton, money has also been a significant catalyst. But unlike Hamilton’s Lister Block investment ($7m provincial grant, $30m municipal lease over 20 years), Kitchener’s Centre Block investment ($13m) sparked a private sector windfall ($95m investment).

Permalink | Context

By Stout (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 20:52:28 in reply to Comment 77965

Only gets worse when you consider that Kitchener has a population about 40% the size of Hamilton.

Permalink | Context

By Per Contra (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2012 at 06:35:13 in reply to Comment 78018

Also sobering is the realization that despite being less than half the size of Hamilton, Kitchener saw more than twice as much downtown residential development from 2001-2008. I suspect that gap has only widened since then.

Permalink | Context

By Per Contra (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 08:34:46 in reply to Comment 77965


Last paragraph should read "In Kitchener, as in Hamilton, *public* money has also been a significant catalyst."

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Concourse (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 09:09:05

A highlight in downtown Kitchener is how lovely and well used an City Hall concourse can be when it's not beside a five lane highway. Ours could be the same if we slowed things down or buried the road.

Permalink | Context

By Tributary (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2012 at 10:21:20 in reply to Comment 77970

Going off Google Maps (where you can see the street revitalization work taking place, as luck would have it), King is tapered to one lane each way at that point, which probably helps slow the pace...

Drivers don't seem to be especially inconvenienced, however. There are a lot of other four-lane streets nearby and there seems to be boatloads of parking downtown... looks to be about five or six full blocks of it...

Permalink | Context

By stopitman (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2012 at 18:56:27 in reply to Comment 77977

Beileve it or not, but the vast majority of that parking is because of Manulife's ugly 2 story brown brick building. They unfortunately didn't build it like Sunlife built their KW headquarters (modelled on a French palace).

I started school at UW in 2007 and that's about when the construction started, in the years that followed (and I was of age ;)) I headed down there more often to go out to the bars and neighbourhoods and, although there are some interesting characters, never felt unsafe. Kitchener, for the most part, has done an excellent job with its downtown. (an aside: If you're downtown on a nice day I'd suggest checking out Bobby O'Briens - they have a massive patio fronting King St just south of city hall with a beach volleyball court.)

Hamilton needs some big work done, from making King/Main Streets two ways to fixing up some areas to at least a minimum standard so that people from outside the city aren't sketched out. One thing I'd like to see is Jackson Square torn down while leaving the towers so that a tight street grid is put back into place along with some housing mixed in with ground level stores.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Commentator (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2012 at 11:27:06

Re: "Beleve it or not, but the vast majority of that parking is because of Manulife's ugly 2 story brown brick building. They unfortunately didn't build it like Sunlife built their KW headquarters (modelled on a French palace)."
Agreed Sunlife's Waterloo buildings (formerly Clarica, and originally Mutual Life) are very nice. However, Manulife did not build that "ugly 2 story brown brick building" in downtown Kitchener. It originated as a Sears department store and sat vacant for years after Sears left the downtown area. Manulife picked it up and converted it to office space.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Version City (anonymous) | Posted January 17, 2013 at 20:36:29

When The Hobbit was released around the world late last year, there was unprecedented attention paid to the film’s new 48-frame-rate-per-second format. For the small Kitchener engineering firm that helped supply the technology, though, the film’s opening date was essentially “just another day at the office.”

They weren’t unexcited by it, Christie Digital Systems spokesman David Paolini clarifies, but the visual display firm had been working on the technology for four years, and had supplied it for other and bigger events, such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing summer games. And, as the company is also involved with flight-simulator and hospital-imaging technology, by the time The Hobbit finally screened, it was just another day at work, Mr. Paolini says — “albeit a happy one.”

Ten years ago, Christie’s Kitchener unit had a staff of about 250; now, it has some 700. This stellar expansion is notable, but not an anomaly in the Kitchener-Waterloo technology area, which is growing so rapidly everything from transit to housing is undergoing a seachange.

“There are 12,000 new employees downtown that weren’t there 10 years ago,” says Rod Regier, executive director of economic development for the City of Kitchener, which has a population of 219,000. “We’ve had 4% to 5% annual employment growth there, well above regional employment growth figures.”

Other good-news stories come from Communitech, a seed-sprouter housed in the Lang Tannery, a century warehouse building that sat empty for 45 years before being refitted three years ago. Now, Communitech quarterbacks the 1,500 workers that have moved in; tenants include Google’s largest development headquarters in Canada, online education software maker Desire2Learn (which has grown to 700 staff from 200 in 16 months), Intel and the Laurier and Waterloo universities’ tech incubators.

Tech firms aren’t the only employers in Kitchener. Manulife, Sunlife, Stantec, Rogers, educational institutions and the municipality employ thousands in the area. There’s additional growth on factory floors: “Even in the last 12 months,” Mr. Regier says, “we’ve seen manufacturing employment up 7% over pre-recession numbers.”

Home builders and developers are keeping an eye on where and what type of homes these new workers are buying. The young tech workers, says Tim Ingold, a Coldwell Banker new homes broker, seem to prefer newer, more modern homes over the traditional housing stock in the city core. As well, a large number of downsizers are selling their suburban homes in favour of a freer city life.

“Years ago, people flocked out of the central neighbourhoods to the suburbs,” says Mr. Ingold, who’s selling a new infill multi-phase condo development called Victoria Common. “But now all the central hoods are in demand again.”

Three elements are creating momentum for this shift: The inclination of increasing numbers of people to live a more interactive lifestyle; the city’s 7% population growth from 2006 to 2011; and the maturation of the region’s growth management strategy, which 10 years ago spurred an about-face in municipal priorities. “They looked at reurbanization of the core, intensification, they approved a light rail transit system, they changed zoning,” Mr. Ingold says. “It created a lot of rethinking.”

Where once officials spoke of rezoning farm acreage, now such phrases as “growth management strategy,” “multi-disciplinary centres of innovation” and “high-value clusters” are part of the conversation.

These are words spoken in hot tech centres the world over, the very places that clamour for the talent coming out of Kitchener-Waterloo.

“That’s why we’re so laser-focused on building a city,” Mr. Regier says, “because we know that our companies are in a bare-knuckle fight for talent with great companies in great cities around the world. Our job is to make sure [these people] don’t slip through our fingers.”

To compete with the best tech companies from the West Coast and as far afield as Zurich, Tel Aviv and Asia, the region must furnish such sorely lacking amenities as great housing and infrastructure, and add engaging culture, restaurants and nightlife.

To that end, developers are encouraged to take advantage of large blocks of under-utilized land in the core, on which to create higher density commercial and residential buildings. Queenscorp, the Victoria Common developer, for example, is building 677 condo units in five phases on its brownfield site, a much denser occupancy than has been seen here before.

“Ten years ago,” Mr. Regier says, “there was essentially no condo market in the region, now we see about 50% of our building permits coming in for multiples [condos] in the City of Kitchener. Not long ago all our development would have been surburban greenfield single detached housing.”

With knowledge workers sustaining long stretches of intense 24/7 workloads, “condos are offering them easy ownership,” Mr. Ingold says, offering secure, no-maintenance homes, close at hand to their offices.

Also on the near horizon is a vastly upgraded regional transit system. A new multi-modal transit hub will host area buses, Via Rail, GO and a new light rapid transit line that is set for completion in 2017. A major component of the region’s infrastructure investment, the LRT will connect the city cores of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, and make it easier to get to either Toronto’s Union Station or, with a transfer, via the new Air Rail Link to Pearson airport.

Further rebuilding is planned for the core. A new 600-metre, pedestrian-centric “innovation district” radiating out from the transit hub will contain five-million square feet of medium-density mixed-use space, which will eventually support a population of 15,000 tech and creative workers, plus more in the residential and retail spaces.

“We’re all about mixed use and we’re very interested in building complete communities,” Mr. Regier says. “We’re encouraging retail or active uses at grade, with either residential or offices above, with buildings that re-establish the streetscape. It’s more responsible city-building; it’s building a city people want to live in.”

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools