Downtown Kitchener: Success and More Work Ahead

Downtown Kitchener

Kitchener’s recent downtown renewal seems to have genuinely turned around the atmosphere there. The new wider sidewalks with sloped curbs not only make the sidewalks more pedestrian friendly, they also make the roadways less daunting as well. J-walking has become much easier because of the reduced distance between sidewalks and the slower speed of cars that seems to have developed alongside the renewal, and I personally think the sloped curbs also eliminate a more instinctual, psychological barrier to crossing the street. Fantastic coffee shops like Cafe Pyrus (which has become a serious hub for all sorts of events like live music and movie nights) and Matter of Taste, and specialty clothing / secondhand stores like In Orbit, Out of the Past and RareFunk have transformed King Street into a viable shopping and leisure area of the city.

Though acceptance in Toronto should not be the only yardstick of success in Ontario or the rest of Canada, it certainly doesn’t hurt, and recently this transformation has received some recognition from Toronto in a rather roundabout way. Two major renewal projects in Toronto’s downtown, John Street and Yonge Street (north of Dundas), are using Kitchener as a model for their designs. In both cases, the designers are hoping to make the streets more pedestrian and event-friendly space, while still potentially maintaining automobile traffic. Kitchener’s unique “flexible boulevard” (allowing parking on the sidewalk sometimes and pedestrian traffic others) provides a perfect balance, allowing for increased pedestrian flow without hampering morning deliveries and other necessities. In the case of Yonge Street, Kitchener’s scheme was mentioned as an inspiration in the same breath as New York’s plans for Broadway Boulevard.

Now that said, I think it’s important to look at some of the things that downtown Kitchener still seems to be lacking. The stretch of King Street between Frederick and Water Streets is where nearly 100% of the transformation has happened. Certainly, that area needed the facelift the most, if only because it is considered the heart of the city, but what about the rest of downtown? Duke Street and Charles Street, which run parallel to King, as well as almost all of the side streets that connect the three of them have hardly benefitted from the much-applauded renewal of King Street (though admittedly, the aforementioned Cafe Pyrus is in fact on Charles Street). These other streets still do not feel pedestrian friendly, busy or exciting for the most part. Why?

Land-Use Chart for Downtown Kitchener

This land use chart and the accompanying “character assessment” of the downtown put together for the city in the early 1960s as part of an earlier attempt to revitalize the downtown provides an answer if one considers it in terms of Jane Jacobs’ ideas about borders vacuums. To a certain extent the land-uses in this map have disintegrated, and at the very least are far less enforced. New condominiums in the primary retail area, not to mention the Lang Tannery and Kaufman Lofts (ugh, what a website) which have been converted to other uses with great success, all violate this proposed land use chart. Ironically, what remains from this plan is not the coloured areas, but rather their borders.

Chapter 14 of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is titled “The Curse of Border Vacuums” – a curse that downtown Kitchener suffers from acutely. Though Jacobs largely considers borders to occur at the edge of districts, many of the symptoms that she describes can be seen working on a smaller scale within the district of Kitchener’s downtown. Even though the map is more than 40 years old, most of the dotted lines on this map still roughly correspond to physical barriers in the city that hinder foot traffic from moving beyond the new King Street haven (the thick line running down the centre of the bright red area on the map). In this chapter, Jacobs explains that such physical barriers, like train tracks or large single-use blocks, are part of what create borders of city districts, and the subsequent vacuums of use that occur in these areas. In her words:

Different as railroad tracks, waterfronts, campuses, expressways, large parking areas and large parks are from each other in most ways, they also have much in common with each other – so far as their tendency to exist amid moribund or declining surroundings is concerned. And if we look at the parts of cities most literally attractive – i.e., those that literally attract people, in the flesh – we find that these fortunate localities are seldom in the zones immediately adjoining massive single uses (Jacobs, 159).

Kitchener has infuriating amounts of this type of barrier. Large, single-use, low-density blocks surround the newly revitalized King Street. One particularly bad area exists on the dark burgundy and brown part of the land-use map between Duke and Weber Streets. The character assessment described this area of the downtown as the “Monumental Zone” because of its incredible concentration of large civic buildings. The planners of the time were so affectionate of this architecturally grandiose area that they extended it about twofold by adding the massive Civic Centre block bordered by Frederick and Queen Streets (depicted as a large green wedge shape containing various oddly-shaped, white buildings).

However, if you walk down most of Duke, Frederick, Weber or even Queen Streets today, you can see Jacobs’ border vacuums at work. One side of the street is large institutional and office buildings, and the other is parking garages and lots. Coupled with the busy street with few safe pedestrian crossings, we find an area that is absolutely dead. Certainly, the civic centre gets a certain amount of use by people who work there or people who have appointments or need to find a book at the library, but their presence isn’t felt on any of the nearby streets because they can park on site and leave immediately afterwards. Who can blame them?

Another particularly bad border is created by the Market Square Shopping Centre and the Delta Hotel at King and Frederick Streets, which corresponds exactly to one of those pesky dotted lines on the land-use map. These two massive buildings form a dead zone that divides the revitalized downtown core from the strange “transitional retail area” that stretches Eastward on King Street. Other than the entrances at the corner of King and Frederick, both sides of King Street offer no stimulus to pedestrians except for the danger of cars charging out of parking garage doors and side streets. Like the castle wall that is the Monumental Zone, this bottleneck on King acts as a deterrent to pedestrians, and I think potentially puts a cap on the benefits that King Street beyond this point may reap from the fantastic revitalization that has taken place in the core. Look at the new Farmers’ Market building. It has a few street-facing storefronts attached to the main building that they intended to rent out, however about half of these spaces have sat empty since construction ended seven years ago, likely because the rent in the new facility is too high given the location. The other storefronts in the area are pawn shops, secondhand stores (and not the trendy ones in the revitalized area), etc. – mostly low-rent affairs in older buildings, I would imagine. Most businesses that can afford the disproportionately expensive space at the Market probably want to open up shop in the new, revitalized downtown core, not the “transitional retail zone.”

Imagine how different this area could be if the Market Square and the Delta had street level shops facing onto King Street instead of a bottleneck of empty walls. At the very least they would fit into the rest of the streetscape a bit better, though both the building heights and the pedestrian bridge (which I have never seen used) add visual borders to the area as well. I believe that initiatives of this type need to be undertaken if the rest of the downtown is to not only benefit from the work on King Street, but also support it. Interactions in the city are never one-way, and breaking down the borders that stop such interactions (especially when they occur so frequently in such a small geographic area as Kitchener’s downtown) is crucial to cultivating mutual benefits within a district.


  1. Although I agree with much of what you said, it sees to me that some attention should be paid the “content” of downtown – stores, services, employment opportunities.
    I think more could be done by the city to support and encourage smaller scale enterprises.
    As someone who lives in the area I find it discouraging that I generally to drive to buy a bottle of wine, groceries and household items. Much of the downtown is closed up after the business day ends.
    I hope the plans for improved transit will intensify the population in this area and provide a base to support a broader range of retail and services.

    • I absolutely agree. I’m hoping that having more residences downtown at a higher density and more transit will help, however I’m fairly sure the amount of residences they are currently adding to the downtown is not NEARLY enough to make business downtown sustainable. A single one-block condo on King Street will not solve everything. We need more widespread densification in the area.

      But can the city actually intervene and change the content of the downtown? I think all they can really do is create a viable framework for private interest (large AND small scale) to take interest in the area.

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