Friday, March 15, 2013

Encouraging Developments

Edit: video was moved to a new location, link fixed.

It's sometimes hard to spot concrete evidence of actual progress in our community on a week-to-week, month-to-month scale. But if you look closely, the signs are there. Kitchener-Waterloo is evolving.

A major obstacle in the face of intensification-- namely, mandatory parking minimums in new development-- is starting to erode. There are two reasons why parking minimums are so damaging to urban areas:
  • Vehicle use is ultimately a function of the space devoted to vehicle storage. An oversupply of parking encourages car use over other modes, even when that contributes to congestion and when a car is not necessary for certain trips.
  • People love free parking, but the cost of providing it is high: borne in construction costs for buildings which must provide parking structures to hit their target density, or more often just borne in wasted surface space that spreads a city apart like stretching at a piece of fabric. This decrease in density, in turn, makes the city less navigable without a car.
Ever been to the Sunrise centre? Have you parked at one store, shopped, and then driven to your next stop within the same plaza? I know I have. And the reasons are (a) there is an incredible abundance of parking that I can get close to each store, and (b) the incredible abundance of parking pushes all of these stores so far apart around a windswept, concrete expanse that I don't want to walk. These traits apply doubly for the ironically named "Boardwalk".

The blight even divides Uptown from surrounding neighbourhoods.

Cities in North America have mandated parking minimums built into their zoning rules for virtually every use, on the logic that a new development will increase the need for parking (which is often true). But parking is created in such quantities, and for singular purpose, that taken as a whole there is vastly more parking than we need in virtually all parts of our communities. And often when parking is tight, there is still plenty of supply available, but a territoriality (Parking for Customers Only!) that precludes using it.

That's just the supply side, and I'm not going to touch the demand side beyond suggesting you google "The High Cost of Free Parking" by Donald Shoup.

Back to KW.

This massive Sun Life parking lot straddles the border of Kitchener and Waterloo.

We're not yet at the point where our municipalities are ready to sit down and say "fine, no parking minimums". Our downtowns are (in my opinion) quite ready to let the market drive the amount of parking a new development should provide, but our governments are not ready to make the leap even for our densest, best transit-served areas. But the good news is, we are inching closer.

The Transit Hub at Victoria & King

Aiming to combine LRT, bus, GO, VIA and Greyhound all at the same location-- along with residential and commercial uses, the block bordered by King, Victoria, Duke and the CN tracks has (I believe) now been zoned with a reduced parking minimum of 0.7 spots per dwelling unit for the residential use. (There will also be parking for other purposes at the site.)

This is important, because it will mean that many new residents at this location-- possibly the most accessible location without a car anywhere west of the GTA in Ontario-- will purchase units without a parking spot at all.

It also sets a precedent that Kitchener is open to negotiating on parking minimums. If the market doesn't justify a certain level of parking, developers will be happy to forgo the expense of it, and it appears that at King and Victoria at least, these conditions are expected to exist.

Interestingly, diagonally across the street is the One Victoria development. The company building this, too, is seeking reductions in parking minimums. If there's anywhere in KW this is justifiable, this corner that has access to All The Transit has got to be that place.

Now all the downtown needs is a supermarket.

Meanwhile, what's going on north of the border? Last we checked, Waterloo seemed to be struggling with its priorities, as the 155 Caroline project edges ever closer to approval, bringing to Uptown an overabundance of parking and a rerouting of the Iron Horse trail. In addition, the University neighbourhoods are sporting many a stucco-clad monstrosity, building after building of 5-bedroom student slums driven by existing zoning rules that drives a 1 parking spot per apartment minimum.

But wait... change is afoot. The first fruit of Waterloo's new Northdale zoning rules (which aren't properly in effect thanks to appeals to our ever-meddling OMB) are on the horizon.

300 Phillip Street, Waterloo

A new development is being proposed at the Ontario Seed location for a property package along Phillip that also reaches to Columbia Street. Four buildings are planned, along with significant surface parking. It doesn't look very inspiring, but it manages to do a lot of things right:

  • Mixed use, providing some actual street presence
  • Mixed unit sizes, with 1, 2 and 3 bedroom units that will have much broader appeal than 5-bedroom dormitory apartments
  • A reduced parking requirement of ~0.65 spots per unit. 

Waterloo! I'm impressed! But how is this development possible?

The new zoning rules which (as I mentioned) are not in effect yet allow for a per-bed parking rate of 0.25. This allows for developments that are much more healthy than one full of five-bedroom units. Unfortunately, the 5br buildings we have accumulated will be a legacy we must live with for the next few decades.

The city and the developer have worked together to craft this proposal so that it could be considered as a zoning change. The result is a couple hundred fewer parking spots, as well as a design which brings a good street presence to Phillip and a mix of apartments that are in woefully short supply in this area. Bravo Waterloo.

The Community Building Strategy

The Central Transit Corridor project has published a draft Community Building Strategy report (available on their website). It is an impressive and comprehensive document, covering many aspects of how we can transform our city. A necessary component of the CBS is Transit Oriented Development (TOD), a set of guidelines that will allow central areas to intensify with better environments and a reduced emphasis on automobile travel. This includes reduced parking.

And it is not a moment too soon. The rapid transit project, as soon as it was passed by regional council in 2011, unleashed a lot of pent-up demand for development that had been holding its breath and waiting for a final decision.

Since then we have seen many interesting new developments, but also a few examples that aren't so flattering in light of what our goals are. The aforementioned 155 Caroline, as well as the "Northfield Station" project, are examples of Transit Proximate Development: denser development that fails to take advantage of transit, or contribute to making the place pedestrian friendly or accessible.

The CBS is badly needed: it must become a reality, and survive the transition from strategy to implementation. The sooner, the better.


The municipal staff and councils of Kitchener and Waterloo deserve a pat on the back and congratulation for the positive steps they have taken, but this is only the beginning.

We run the risk of intensifying in ways that undermine our urban environment, and leave us with a city that is still lacking at the human scale. We are in a period of precedent setting, where the pattern of future development can still be influenced by what we do now.

There are many positive steps being taken, and our local governments show they understand the challenge they face. And yet, there is still considerable danger that we will not rise to the challenge, that we let past habits and status quo bind us to obsolete and misguided goals.

Parking is just one small aspect of the complex interconnectedness of a modern city. Our need for it will not go away, but we must learn the difference between feeding this need, and legislated gluttony. All things in moderation, and that definitely includes parking. Otherwise, we are going to have a lot of trouble staying in shape... and getting around.


  1. Can you please please write a post about how bad the Boardwalk is for pedestrians and cyclists? I took a video of several complaints I had about it with my cell phone a couple weeks ago, but ultimately decided not to post it because I am not an expert at urban planning, nor am I terribly eloquent.