No architectural paradise, but local cities do have a few highlights

Intensification and the havoc wrought by the LRT are having an unfortunate impact on the downtown core in Waterloo.

Well, there’s an impact. The “unfortunate” label (and I’m being kind) is perhaps in the eye of the beholder.

No strangers to the changing nature of the built environment – heritage building today, gone tomorrow – Phil Elsworthy and Kae Elgie will leave the interpretation to individual participants as they lead a Jane’s Walk tour through the uptown core Sunday afternoon.

They’ll be looking  at what’s happening to Waterloo as a consequence – or unintended consequence – of the LRT and the provincially-mandated intensification drive.

There have certainly been changes Uptown. I would certainly argue few of them have been improvements, including the ill-fated light rail transit scheme that forced the closure of many businesses and will prove a hardship for many that remain.

Elgie and Elsworthy intend to look at the history of development in the core, going back a couple of hundred years and tracing the changes. They’ll let you draw your own conclusion about whether there’s been “progress.”

“In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, look at what’s working and what’s not working,” says Elgie, noting some people are actually supportive of intensification. And some of them aren’t developers looking to cash in.

There are differing views about increasing the density of cities, particularly the downtown cores, adds Elsworthy, noting even if that’s a desirable outcome, the way it’s being done just now may not be the ideal or even the right approach.

More vibrant than downtown Kitchener – which I argue may be beyond redemption – Waterloo has been much worse at preserving its heritage buildings, though Kitchener is no paragon where that’s concerned. In the region, Cambridge, downtown Galt specifically, has the most potential when it comes to an aesthetically pleasing core, though economically it’s the worst of the three.

None of them compare to downtown Guelph, to pick a nearby example. That city has a great combination of lovely old buildings – much nicer than anything in the region – and a vibrant core that draws people in.

“Guelph is a model for what works,” says Elgie, especially in its preservation of historical buildings. “As Jane argues, new ideas need old buildings.”

Waterloo doesn’t have much to rival Guelph in the architecture department, but it does boast activity and vibrancy not found in Kitchener or Cambridge. Sadly, most of the new construction in and around the core is, at best, inoffensive and, for the most part, ugly or a downright eyesore – that’s a label that can be affixed to most buildings well beyond the region, to the diminishment of our communities.

Still, there’s much to enjoy for those willing to slow down and take in the city’s core area, Elgie and Elsworthy maintain.

“So many of these buildings have great stories,” says Elgie, pointing to the likes of the Huether Hotel, the old Waterloo Theatre and the post office at King and Bridgeport, a great example of mid-century architecture.

Their tour, one of many organized this weekend by Jane’s Walk Waterloo Region, is to point out the highlights.

“The goal is to get people noticing the things that are there, for people to say ‘I never noticed that before.’”

In going over the history of development, they’ll undoubtedly point out some of the many lowlights of change in the core, including the demolition of buildings such as the old City Hotel that used to stand across from Waterloo Town Square. An historic building indicative of the area’s history, it was one of many examples of lovely old buildings torn to be replaced by utilitarian, often ugly buildings that further reduced the charm of the downtown core.

“With the City Hotel, I can’t help but think what a fabulous opportunity it would have been for the city,” says Elsworthy, noting it was a structure to build on in creating character in the core.

Character is certainly a missing element, but that’s not restricted to Waterloo or Kitchener, as pretty much every city suffers from the curse of modern architecture, most of it ugly and functional (in the worst sense of the word). The result is unfriendly cores with little to compel people to linger. Absent beautiful surroundings – you know, actual public squares (don’t get me started about the Waterloo skateboard park), green space and the likes of patios and other gathering spots – the cities aren’t helped by modern eyesores, much of it disposable architecture that we’ll be happy to see go (yesterday would be too soon).

Thing are not going to get any better given the focus on intensification and zero controls on the (lack of) aesthetics when it comes to new buildings. Increased density and reurbanization is at the core of provincial planning policy and the sole surviving rationale – however dubious – for Waterloo Region’s light rail transit scheme. In short, we’re told to expect more highrise buildings, like it or not.

Proponents say increased density is needed to deal with a growing population. The alternative is more sprawl and loss of farmland. Those are two things to avoid. A better alternative – a shrinking population that would eliminate such pressures entirely – is never discussed. It goes against the Ponzi scheme that is our economic system. Instead of falling housing prices to decrease demand, which is beyond-the-pale thinking in official circles, we’re supposed to shrink the supply of land even as we pump in more people to increase demand.

The result is the decline in humane living standards and the diminishing of a sense of place hastened by a homogenous approach to building based on expediency.

There do remain some hidden gems, however, the subject of many of the organized tours that are part of Jane’s Walk Waterloo Region. The walk led by Elgie and Elsworthy is scheduled for Sunday (May 6) from 3:15-4:45 p.m., beginning and ending at Waterloo’s first public square (King and William streets).

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