Kitchener Council discussed an ‘intent to designate’ for 16-20 Queen St North on June 28th, 2021. The development proposal from Momentum Developments actually falls within existing zoning rules so it would not normally require council approval. However, at the June Heritage Kitchener meeting, the committee decided they wanted to pursue an ‘intent to designate’ this property, which requires the approval of council.
Many people on social media weighed in with arguments for and against designating this building as heritage. Those in favour of full designation believe that there are few examples of such a well-maintained and intact building from over 100 years ago. Many people suggested that if we don’t designate this building, what other building could even qualify for such a designation? Those who opposed full designation wondered what benefit to the community there was in keeping such a building when it is not accessible to the public for the vast majority of the time, and wouldn’t this space be better used for housing and community space?
I spoke as a delegation at the meeting in opposition to designating the entire building and I’d like to outline a few of the reasons why. It is not because I am ‘devoted to developers’ as Councillor Gazzola referred to those who opposed this designation. Nor was it that I am convinced by the ‘red herring’ (another comment by Councillor Gazzola) that this development contributes significantly to affordable housing locally. Instead, here are some of the reasons that I think this development proposal should proceed.
First, the proposal will maintain the front façade and some of the ‘returns’ (the sides of the building). I understand that is not the same as keeping the entire building in tact. But I still think there is value in this and I’ll explain more on that shortly.
While I am certain this proposal will not solve the housing crisis in our Region, it does offer what I consider to be some positive actions that will help in some way. 21 of the units in this proposal meet the Region’s definition of ‘affordable housing’. No, it’s not a lot, but it is much more than what I am seeing in other development proposals. In addition to that, the developers have entered a partnership with a local non-profit who will receive $500,000 to build affordable housing that includes supports for residents. Why not build those units in their own development? It is likely the non-profit builder can leverage these funds in a way that will allow them to build nearly 10 times the amount of housing than the developers could for the same price. So, the developer could include 5 units in this build of deeply affordable housing (likely with no additional supports available to those residents) or they could earmark those funds and allow the non-profit to create nearly 50 affordable homes with needed supports.
Many of the delegations and some councillors suggested that we can save the building as well as add more housing to this space. Now, I have heard some heritage supporters express concerns over that model as they believe it hides or diminishes the original building. But leaving that aside for now, I agree that I have seen some examples (mostly in Toronto) where a building is preserved and housing is built on top of it. However, it is far more expensive to do that and those costs will be passed on to future residents. While it may be possible to maintain the existing building and add new housing, I don’t see how that can be done in a way that ensures some of the homes remain affordable, while also building additional deeply affordable and supportive housing.
I am also left wondering how our community truly benefits from saving the entire building instead of just the front. Currently, many heritage designated buildings are not accessible to most of the public, much of the time. We are fortunate to have a local annual event, Doors Open, that allows us access to some of these buildings one day a year. In fact, 16-20 Queen St North was one of the buildings open to the public in 2012 and over 600 people attended. However, allowing 600 members of the public to access this space one day nearly a decade ago, doesn’t feel like a true community asset. The Momentum proposal would add 2800 sq. ft. of community space – a wonderful place to showcase some of the stories and saved contents of this building. That plan feels like more of a community asset than preserving, but locking away, the entire building.
One of the biggest challenges with city-building discussions is that there are certain losses that feel very visible if we go in one direction, but proceeding in a different direction may very well also have losses but they may not be as obvious. For example, a recent neighbourhood information meeting had many residents saddened about the loss of trees with proposed denser housing in one area of the city. However, the alternative is to build ‘out’ where we lose much needed natural and farmlands. I think we have a similar situation here. Not designating this building seems like a loss to some. However, if we don’t add density to our existing neighbourhoods, we put pressure on our countryside line, on housing costs, and limit who may be able to live in this neighbourhood.
I concluded my delegation with the following statement: This development will bring much-needed housing to our city, provide funding for affordable homes through a partnership with a local non-profit, save the façade of a beautiful building, and through the creation of the community space, will increase access to this building. Additionally, this development proposes a great parking arrangement that allows residents to park in an existing municipal lot, without needing to build new parking spaces - that sounds like a big win both for sustainability and affordability. While I understand the desire to preserve beautiful buildings like this, I think that this project provides a balance of that preservation, even increasing access to it, while also creating more homes for our community.
Council voted 6-4 in support of a partial designation (saving the façade and some of the returns).