Why Save the Charles Street Transit Terminal?

Although it’s not in immediate danger, circumstances are conspiring that might one day put the Charles Street Transit Terminal in harm’s way. Slowly evolving plans for a new transit hub near the intersection of King and Victoria threaten to make the current terminal redundant, and there is a constant drive in downtown Kitchener to add higher density residential development. The terminal block seems like an ideal location for such redevelopment.

And this block absolutely should be redeveloped! A high concentration of people living on that block would service the downtown with many more evening-and-weekend patrons that would complement the growing nine-to-five downtown workforce well. Furthermore, it would add more activity and liveliness to Charles Street, which along with Duke Street has suffered seriously from car-centric planning for about half a century now. Anything that would repair the dispersed landscape of parking lots, garages and enormous institutions that line those streets would be a blessing at the moment.

If and when the Region does sell off the property (or forms a public-private partnership of some kind), they should seriously consider protecting the main terminal building as part of Kitchener’s postwar heritage. Admittedly, in the past I’ve argued for some very polemical heritage sites (like the old courthouses on the Civic Centre block which have similarly been made redundant recently) but I believe this building truly is sufficiently attractive, distinctive, sturdy, historically noteworthy, and harmonious with its neighbours to be seriously considered as a heritage building.

Like the courthouse, the building was designed by local modernist architect John Lingwood, who very much left his mark on the region. In fact, when Lingwood’s Pressworks Building (above) was threatened with demolition, local developer Marsland Centre Limited stepped in to dismantle this “exceptional piece of architecture” and carefully reconstruct it on their own land.

Although some of his other buildings are more dour and brutalist, the terminal strikes a brilliant balance between a futuristic aesthetic and a historic, vernacular one at the same time. It may not look it to us now, but when it was first built in 1988 to replace the ratty old transit building, it was described as “one of the most modern bus terminals in North America,” sporting escalators and climate control to accommodate an aging population. A seasonal farmhand interviewed by the local newspaper at the time described it as feeling “like a small airport.” Around the same time, TeleRider was launched in Waterloo Region, a groundbreaking “artificial intelligence” that could tell patrons when the next bus would be arriving over the phone in a computer-generated voice.

Meanwhile, some of the visual vocabulary Lingwood draws upon for the terminal offers something different, almost contrary to the emerging sci-fi world of Kitchener, 1988. With its rough-hewn masonry, metal roof, and modest ornamentation (all pictured above), I’m instantly reminded of the recent renovation of the Cambridge Mill, a grist-mill turned high-end, sustainable restaurant and wedding venue. Both share a compelling combination of modern and rustic vernacular sensibilities, though admittedly Lingwood swerves sharply toward the modern inside the building with exposed pipes and postwar materials.

Obviously, if the building were retained, the block would still require substantial redesign in order to accommodate a high-density residential use and hopefully some ground floor commercial spaces too. But with a little love and attention (and possibly the demolition of some of the more transit-specific structures near the back of the property), I think the terminal building could age handsomely into a recognizable neighbourhood place.

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