Comment 87007

By Noted (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2013 at 14:52:05

Boarded buildings. For Sale signs. Vacant lots.

A faltering industrial block carries a downbeat vibe in central Kitchener, where Ottawa Street meets King Street and Charles Street. Signs of decay overshadow signs of life from a few small businesses.

“It’s not quite blight, but it’s not many steps from it,” says David Moore, who once worked on the block, just as his father did. “Something has to happen.”

Politicians and urban planners feel they have a solution — street-level electric trains running past the block by 2017. They have cast the area as a target for redevelopment sparked by the $818-million rail transit system.

Regional council’s plan is to lay tracks on Charles Street and build a passenger platform at Borden Avenue. It’s hoped this will increase property values and persuade investors to erect chic new residences and businesses.

Moore, 68, knows the block has seen better days. His father, Mark, briefly ran an auto paint shop there in 1954. The block was a thriving place then. David was almost 10. His dad would send him to the grill on the corner with a dollar to buy burgers for his workers.

Four decades later, Moore returned to the same block to work in an auto-parts store. He worked there until 2002, eating lunch in his car just steps from where he used to visit his father. “Talk about full circle,” he says. “It was really strange.”

By then, the block was in decline. On the street, prostitutes would sometimes ply their trade, leaning into cars looking for men to hire them for sex.

New hope emerges in a planning study released in January. It bills the train platform at Charles and Borden as “the gateway to a significant new urban village” including the block and streets beyond. This bright declaration is partly a sales pitch to catch the attention of developers.

Look again at a neighbourhood you might have overlooked, the sales pitch goes. It’s near the downtown, near the Iron Horse Trail, at a major intersection and beside a future rail transit line. You could replace decaying houses, vacant lots and underused buildings with charming townhomes and attractive parks.

“A lot of the buildings are now vacant or somewhat dilapidated. So it’s at that point in its development really where it’s ripe for a change,” explains Kevin Curtis, a regional planning manager who works to revive urban areas. “It’s a nice little package. Hopefully with some time and some investment and some work, it will be a lovely bit of an entranceway into that part of Kitchener.”

The sales pitch has yet to land a developer. Planners are persuaded it’s more than wishful thinking. “If you look at some of the travel paths and opportunities, and the opportunities for land assembly, they’re pretty compelling,” regional planning commissioner Rob Horne said.

Restaurant owner Ning Yang would like to see rail transit bring more customers to the block. “For the business, it’s good,” she said. Yang runs King Fish and Chips at King Street and Borden Avenue, a small business trying to make a go of it amid shuttered properties.

Yang wonders, however, if transit passengers and new residents would enjoy her fare. Most of her patrons are older, drawn to fish and chips as a traditional food. Younger people seem less keen.

Redevelopment would please Mary Holmes, even as she doubts the rail transit plan. She grew up on the block during the Second World War when it was a lively mix of family homes and small industry at the edge of the city. It was called Wendell Avenue then, before Charles Street was created.

Merchants hatched chickens, made soda and built household goods in small factories while children played in yards in between.

“I think that might be quite wonderful if it came back to life,” says Holmes, 77. “It’s not a bad area of Kitchener. It just needs to be rejuvenated. I probably would look at that and smile and be pleased.”

Today, her former house is a wreck, boarded and for sale. She remembers when it was the centre of attention. Everybody gawked as the factory across the street moved the house across the road to where it sits today. The factory, gone today, needed land to expand.

“My mom didn’t have to do anything except make sure all the dishes were very solidly on shelves,” Holmes says. “They put it up on rollers and rolled it across the road. It was awe-inspiring. It was just something that we had never, ever, ever heard of. The whole neighbourhood was out.”

While she remembers her childhood fondly, Holmes is unsentimental about her former house and other decaying buildings. “I’ll be very happy if those places are sold and ripped down now because they’re just horrible buildings,” she says.

The block was first developed for industry early in the 20th century. Business promoters had a grand dream, to build cars and make Kitchener into the next Detroit. That never really happened. Yet for decades, the block prospered, anchored by smaller businesses such as Norton Drinx, which made soda, and Onward Manufacturing, which made vacuums and cabinet hardware before relocating.

“Onward — they brought the first home vacuum cleaners to Canada,” local historian Rych Mills says. “I did a speech a while ago and I said that every woman in Canada should be mentioning them in their prayers, each night.”

The rise and fall of Norton Drinx anticipates the neglect that permeates the block. Charles Norton Sr. brought his soda-making business to the outer edges of King Street early in the last century. The family lived on the block beside their business.

It was a small, but recognized, operation. Charles Sr. died in 1927 and his son, Charles Jr., took over. In a 1937 history of Kitchener, the soda firm is listed as a peer among prominent manufacturers such as Kaufman Rubber, Doon Twines, Dominion Shirt, John Forsyth Shirt, Greb Shoe, Huck Glove and Ontario Glove.

Mary Holmes grew up steps from the soda factory. She recalls Ruth Norton, widow of Charles Sr. “She seemed like she was ancient. I think we were all a little afraid of her,” she says. Once in a while, Charles Jr. “would give us each a little bottle of cream soda if we were all playing outside. It was such a treat for us.”

Ruth Norton died in 1944. By 1949, Norton Drinx was out of business. Charles Jr. died childless in 1955. Today the firm is little remembered, except by people who collect antique soda bottles. But its legacy includes an unusual twist.

Currently, regional council is acquiring dozens of land parcels to make way for rail transit. Planners have discovered, to their surprise, that long-dead Ruth Norton is the last registered owner of a strip of vacant land beside the planned rail transit line.

Taxpayers require less than one square metre of the property to make way for trains, but may need a court ruling to acquire it. The Charles Street property lacks a civic address and has had no legal dealings in almost seven decades.

Over time, an abutting owner may have lawfully acquired ownership of it. A For Sale sign is planted there today. Regional government says a law firm is acting for a potential owner. Planners have searched wills and contacted executors to alert any potential heir to the Norton estate, and have sent expropriation notices to multiple people.

“The land title issue relating to the Charles Street property will require a court application in order to correct,” regional solicitor Debra Arnold says. The land registry “must be amended to reflect the current and correct owner and the region will deal with this owner in acquiring these lands.”

However it’s resolved, the Norton property hiccup is not expected to delay rail transit. Think of it as another small puzzle in a block with a jumbled past and uncertain future.

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