Comment 85275

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.”

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