Feature - Developing Story
“We’re slower than we were.”
Joan Krajzewski, a cheerful brown-haired woman with glasses, is standing in the spot she occupies most days, behind the counter of PaperBacks, her used book store on the north side of Princess Street between Drayton and Concession. Because the storefront is tucked in under a projecting overhang, Joan’s store is a bit hard to spot, but inside PaperBacks is light and airy, a pleasant place to browse. Sadly, though, fewer and fewer browsers show up these days.
Things were different when Joan opened up in 1984. Back then, PaperBacks was one store among many. “This whole block, it was all retail. There was Lights and Lamps, there was a clothing store when we first moved in, Fashion and Curios. The Star Diner, they’ve been there forever. A hairdresser, Flindall’s [a dry cleaners], and a drug store on the corner. Across the way, there was Logos, a religious bookstore.”
As I am unlocking my bicycle outside, something else we touched on is obvious: the tenant in what used to be a retail store on her left is now a government program — and there only temporarily, if its cardboard sign propped in a dusty plate-glass window is any indication. The stores on her right are empty, and one has its windows and door covered with plywood. Between her place and the corner of Drayton (yet another empty store) there are just two operating street-level businesses: a karate school and the aforementioned Star Diner. Cars rush by, but apart from a few people taking in the warm May sunshine on the patio of the motel bar across the street, there is scarcely a human being in sight. Despite the empty storefronts, Joan’s stretch of Princess Street at least feels filled in. Farther down, closer to downtown, I pedal through empty stretches — bordered by oddly shaped, cracked paved lots hemmed with concrete barriers.
THE REACTION ACROSS THIS DIVERSE GROUP
WAS UNIFORMLY POSITIVE. THESE STUDENTS HAD
CLEARLY PLANTED AN IDEA: THE DEAD STRETCHES
OF PRINCESS STREET COULD BE REVITALIZED.
The contrast to its surrounding neighbourhood cannot be greater. Known as Williamsville, the area’s borders are Division to the east, Concession on the north, Sir John A. Macdonald to the west and Johnson to the south. Because of the way Princess Street bisects it diagonally, Williamsville’s street grid is a jumble, with some side streets orienting to Princess, others to its major boundary streets. Historically working class, particularly north of Princess Street, this compact district has been changing in recent years. The Memorial Centre, threatened with sale and demolition a few years ago, has instead been renovated, thanks largely to neighbourhood pressure, and now boasts a new pool and a recently opened farmers market. Signs of gentrification are obvious as you walk the streets although Sue Bazely, head of the Williamsville Neighbourhood Association, says proudly the area “is still very diverse. From doctors and lawyers to people in halfway houses.”
Princess Street once served as Williamsville’s main street. Today it is more barrier than thoroughfare, dividing the neighbourhood from itself, its rundown condition and overall lack of stores and services harming not only the neighbourhood’s long-term health, but Kingston’s. This is also about the tax base. About battling sprawl. About regenerating and preserving our downtown neighbourhoods. What happens to Princess here affects the entire city.
Originally a half-rural jumble of barns and general stores, by the forties and fifties, the 1.7-kilometre Williamsville stretch of Princess had evolved into Kingston’s “car corridor,” a classic postwar suburban strip development of gas stations and car dealerships, motels and drive-in restaurants. Princess Street was the urban Kingston portion of Highway 2, Ontario’s main east-west artery, and this area carried a lot of traffic. “Once the 401 was built,” says Carl Bray, a Kingston-based heritage planner and adjunct professor in Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, “the transition started.” By the early sixties, motorists could choose to bypass the city, and most did. The motels and drive-ins started losing business. At the same time, Kingston grew. The city leapfrogged the traffic circle at the intersection of Princess, Bath and Concession that once marked its boundary and kept going. Gas stations and car dealerships are very much suburban enterprises. As the suburbs moved, so did they. The process wasn’t instant — there are still one or two car lots on this stretch of Princess — but it was the overwhelming and irreversible trend.
In the winter of 2009, Bray let the students in his community design course loose on this stretch of Princess. “We inventoried the street and then divided up the study area into small chunks, with groups of students being assigned their own area. We started looking at these in accordance with the best practices in urban design.”
Intensification is an urban planning buzzword today. Bray’s students suggested essentially that over time the city encourage increased density by allowing buildings up to four storeys and built out to the street, and spread retail along the strip in line with the city’s newly adopted Official Plan. When Bray’s students presented their findings in April 2009, they invited local residents from the Williamsville area, along with “the press and planning department representatives, and other interested parties, such as commercial property owners.”
The reaction across this diverse group was uniformly positive. Bray’s students had clearly planted an idea: the dead stretches of Princess Street could be revitalized. Not too long afterwards, in 2011, the City of Kingston issued a request for proposals for a study on the redevelopment of what it was now referring to as the Williamsville Main Street.
It is an afternoon in early February 2012 and a good-sized crowd has gathered at city hall to hear the final report of Brook McIlroy, an urban design and planning firm hired by the city to discuss the Williamsville Main Street Redevelopment Plan. The room is ringed with large panels on easels, outlining the history and future of this stretch of Princess.
The Brook McIlroy plan breaks the street down into three sections, noting that one of these is particularly ripe for redevelopment. This is the stretch of Princess crossed by Victoria and Alfred. Scene of many of the street’s vacant lots, these “nodes,” as the report calls them, are particularly suited for commercial redevelopment. According to the report, new construction along the street would be designed to be at least potentially convertible to ground-floor commercial uses, even if all residential to begin with. Bray’s students had opted for an ideal height of four storeys — faster to get built. The Brook McIlroy plan calls for a maximum height of six for most of the strip, more substantial but also considerably more expensive because of Ontario’s building code requirements. To avoid a canyon effect, the study recommends taller buildings with their upper floors stepped back. A real effort would be made to orient the street away from the car; where possible, sidewalks would be widened and bicycle lanes added. Trees would be planted, and benches and street lighting more suitable for pedestrians than cars would be added.
Kingston audiences have heard a lot of this sort of talk before (think of the longstanding struggles with the redevelopment of Block D) so when the presentation opens up to the floor there is a certain tone of skepticism in the questions. And to be honest, looking at the panels, listening to the presentation and watching the requisite PowerPoint show, it’s easy to feel a little dubious. The streetscapes shown have a generic quality, featuring the happy, diverse pedestrians found only in architects’ renderings (and indeed one seems to feature a Toronto streetcar just off to the side, suggesting repurposing from an earlier proposal). The scope is ambitious, and the assumptions, enormous.
And then a tall young guy in the audience pipes up. “We do want to develop in there.”
This, I later found out, is Oskar Johansson from Podium Developments. Bernard Luttmer, Oskar’s business partner, later explains that Podium’s specialty is urban in-fill — they’ve done projects in Toronto, in Guelph and in Kingston. Working with local partners (Podium is in the construction, not the rental, business), they have already finished one three-storey rental building on Alfred Street just off Princess, a handsome mansard-roofed affair, and are working on a similar project on the other side of Princess on Albert. Next up is a project on nearby Mack Street, but after that there is a property on Princess Street they are looking at. “It may be retail and residential,” says Luttmer, “it may be all residential, we don’t know yet, but we definitely want to go ahead.
“Generally speaking,” he says, “we have a lot of support for our projects.” (At the May meeting of the Williamsville Neighbourhood Association, which both Luttmer and Johansson had driven from Toronto to attend, Sue Bazely singled out their Alfred Street building for praise, noting in particular how it fit in with the neighbourhood.) The city wants development in here, says Luttmer, and they are happy to do what the city wants. “We’d like to keep going,” says Luttmer.
“We’re going to do our part to bring the vision to life.”
“I’ll be the first to admit this is an ambitious plan.”
Councillor Jim Neill, an impish lively presence whose earlier career as a high school drama teacher comes as no surprise, represents Williamsville. The Starbucks at Princess and Sydenham is a favoured hangout of his. It’s a bit of a comment on the state of Princess Street farther west, where it crosses his district, that we have wound up farther downtown. A long-time municipal politician, scarcely a minute goes by when he isn’t smiling and nodding hello to someone over my shoulder.
Neill eagerly wants the Williamsville stretch of Princess Street redeveloped, but he knows the problems. The challenge is that the area’s empty lots aren’t necessarily desirable for redevelopment. “Starting in the nineties,” Neill says, “there were concerns about seepage from [gas storage] tanks and that sort of thing. They told people you need to replace your tanks.
“But a lot more needed to be done. A lot of these smaller operators basically went bankrupt. And we ended up with these god-awful vacant lots.” Brownfield remediation, the cleanup of land contaminated by pollution or hazardous waste necessary for new development, can be costly and time-consuming. But there are ways around this, says Neill. The problems in the Williamsville corridor are not, as brownfields go, excessive. “I refer to those former gas stations as ‘light brown’ fields,” says Neill. “They don’t have the degree of remediation that you need with a tannery.” Part of what is planned for this stretch of Princess is a program to help with brownfield remediation. Potential developers will be eligible for grants for an initial environmental study. They could have their property tax waived for the time they are rehabilitating and redeveloping the property. They could receive grants to help them cover various fees, and be given further breaks on their taxes.
Another key concern identified in the Williamsville Main Street plan is infrastructure, specifically sewers. This stretch of Princess Street is served by two separate “sewersheds” and there are serious capacity issues. The sewers along Princess Street are being redone, but says Neill, “because of its impact, there’s a kind of agreement to do it piecemeal.” The area that has the most potential for redevelopment in the middle of the stretch “is on the Kingscourt trunk.” This section, says Neill, is “at capacity.” There is a 10-year plan to increase that capacity, but the city may need to create storage tanks in the meantime to deal with increased use brought on by redevelopment. Says Neill, “No one wants to see development stalled because we don’t have the capacity.”
Neill is enthusiastic about the plan as a way of tying Williamsville together. Development would also ensure the density needed for improved public transit along Princess, something else the city wants.
There is another, far more pragmatic reason, for pressing ahead.
At present, says Neill, council typically goes for an annual 2.5 per cent target for tax increases, although given that this is meant to cover “inflation of between two and 2.5 per cent plus one per cent for an infrastructure surcharge to help cover the costs that older cities have,” it can be higher.
“I know it drives a lot of people crazy. But to maintain our current level of services [takes] over five per cent. What offsets that is growth. I think we need to be careful but we can’t embrace a total NIMBY attitude and build nothing,” says Neill.
Putting in development where the infrastructure is already in place gives the city a better return than it would get from a suburban greenfield site (even with the various breaks for developers). “When the Williamsville plan came out,” says Neill, “the CAO [Chief Administrative Officer] told us that area with the greatest [potential] tax impact in development right now is the Williamsville Corridor.
“If life was easy we would have unlimited green fields and we would just continue with urban sprawl. Unless gas goes to 28 cents a litre, it’s not practical, economically or environmentally.”
Princess Street in its run through Williamsville won’t be remade with the wave of a wand. There is no one big developer waiting to go in and do it all. And the city on its own doesn’t have the resources to lead yet, either. The expectations seem almost unreasonably high: the street will be a transportation corridor for buses, and feature wider sidewalks, and boast bike lanes, and still have lots of parking. The way that Princess slices diagonally across the neighbourhood causes problems too. Says Carl Bray, “Those lots are difficult to develop because of those crazy shapes. Ideally for main street development, you want rear alley access [for deliveries]. [In here] it’s difficult to get any continuous rear alley system.”
That said, the political will is there. The commercial interest is there, too. And the neighbourhood is behind it. Queen’s new Innovation Park, located on Princess just west of Williamsville, will be growing in the next few years. People working there will want to live nearby, within walking and cycling distance of their jobs. City planners are already working on the language for the needed amendments to the city’s Official Plan and its zoning bylaws. There will have to be further consultations with the public and with other levels of government that might be involved, for example the Ministry of the Environment. Ultimately city council must approve the proposed amendments.
So jump ahead 15 years, and what do we see on Princess Street in those middle barren lands? Changes will be slow, one empty lot at a time, but the potential is there.