Number of residents downtown has grown 31 per cent
November 17, 2009
By Terry Pender, Record staff
KITCHENER — More people are living and working in the downtown area five years after the city launched an ambitious multi-million dollar plan to bring more life to the central neighbourhoods.
“It was recognized that education and knowledge creation would be the foundation,” Silvia Di Donato, the city’s manager of downtown and community development, said in a presentation to city councillors on Monday.
In the past five years more than $100 million in tax dollars was spent on the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods.
“In a very short time we have already moved to a critical mass in the life sciences,” Di Donato said.
The city provided $30 million and the land for the University of Waterloo school of pharmacy. That led to a medical school next door that will open next year. It also sparked a $40 million conversion of the old Kaufman factory into 249 condominiums and a $30 million renovation of the Lang Tannery.
A bio-tech firm also located in the core. That firm moved into the second floor of a building that was bought and renovated by a local developer. Shopper’s Drug Mart opened a large store on the main floor.
“Our goal is to build investor confidence,” Di Donato said.
“The kind of confidence that will cause businesses and developers of residential-office-retail to want to locate in the downtown to help boost and diversify the economy,” Di Donato said.
City councillors approved the Downtown Strategic Plan in October 2004.
Since then the farmers’ market was opened, a new entrance to Victoria Park was built on Joseph Street, King Street East was reconstructed a couple of years ago and this summer King Street West was done. The Wilfrid Laurier University graduate school of social work opened in the old St. Jerome’s High School on Duke Street.
The city started programs to help building owners improve facades and convert space on upper floors into residential units.
“We are doing really well,” Di Donato said.
The number of people living in the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods is up seven per cent to 18,774 during the past five years. When you look at just the downtown, the number of residents increased by 31 per cent to 2,100.
The number of businesses in the core increased by 10 per cent to 697 and the number of employees is up by 16 per cent to 11,967. The office vacancy rate was cut in half to 6.8 per cent.
“That’s amazing to me, very good,” Coun. Christina Weylie said.
Attendance at downtown festivals is up to 380,000 from 288,000 five years ago.
About 728 new residential units were built in the core. A new parking garage is going up at Charles and Benton, another will go underground behind the Queen St. Library and a new courthouse will be built off Scott Street.
“Retailers rely on a ready market for their goods and services, convenient if not captive, and therefore rely on residents in and around the downtown,” Di Donato said.
The city and the Kitchener Downtown Business Improvement Area are working with a Manhattan-based consultant in an effort to improve the mix of retailers in the core.
“I think that’s been our problem in the past, which is having the wrong mix of retail businesses and how do we get it right?” Coun. Geoff Lorentz said.
The downtown business association is preparing a detailed plan to change the retail landscape over time.
“We need to attract residents and employees to a magnetic environment to attract talent,” Di Donato said. “Talent is probably the number one driver for the new economy.”
Coun. John Gazzola wanted to know what is happening with Centre Block—2.6 acres of land the city has spent about $13 million to assemble. It is bounded by King, Young, Duke and Ontario streets.
“We have not heard anything about that for quite a while,” Gazzola said.
Rod Regier, the city’s director of economic investment, said a development agreement with Andrin Homes should be ready for approval soon.
Brampton-based Andrin has proposed a $90 million redevelopment of the block, which includes condominiums, mixed-use buildings, underground parking and a small park. A development agreement is supposed to be in place by the end of the month.
“We will be bringing a draft of that agreement to council in the next short little while,” Regier said. “We have been meeting steadily over the last little while and progress is being made.”