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Thursday, March 21, 2013
Green community in Waterloo turning heads
Victoria Common project highlights urbanism in Kitchener-Waterloo
Development features townhomes, condos and parks around a central piazza.
By:Tracy HanesFreelance Real Estate writer, Toronto Star
In the not-so-distant past, Kitchener was known as a blue-collar town, home to large factories that produced goods such as meat and shoes.
Now, it’s a city of “dreamers and doers,” as a glossy brochure from the economic development department tells it.
The city has successfully weathered a post-industrial transition to become a centre for innovation, home to tech companies such as BlackBerry, Google and Desire2Learn. It’s also a hotbed for start-up companies and the site of insurance, manufacturing and finance business clusters.
Along with that business transition, residential innovation is also taking place in the city, including a new project on a formerly derelict industrial site at St. Leger and Louisa Sts., surrounded by a residential neighbourhood.
Victoria Common by Queensgate Developments and Losani Homes will rise on a site that formerly housed a tannery and a panel veneer factory, and then sat vacant for two decades. The property had to be extensively remediated, with 90,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil removed and replaced.
Although the New Urbanism-style development of townhouses, condominiums, parks and piazza is in Kitchener, it is about the same distance from uptown Waterloo as it is from downtown Kitchener, in the heart of the Technology Triangle.
And although the province’s Greenbelt legislation has been spurring redevelopment of brownfields in the GTA, “it’s especially forward thinking for a municipality like Waterloo Region,” says Tim Ingold, sales manager for Victoria Common.
When it’s complete, there will be 220 townhouses and 640 condominiums on the 16-acre site. The condo buildings, built by Queensgate, will range from four to 12 storeys. Losani will build the townhouses. The project will take about a decade to build out.
Victoria Common is intended as a pedestrian-friendly community, with downtown, shopping, cultural amenities, parks and transit all within walking distance.
At the heart of the development will be the Piazza, an urban park that will feature a clock tower, concert podium, benches, café-style seating and a splash pad that will convert to a skating rink in winter.
It’s the largest master-planned community in Waterloo Region. Phase I sales opened in November with the Claridge, a four-storey condo with 77 suites.
It will be one of the most advanced green communities in Canada, with one of the largest geothermal systems in Ontario providing heating and cooling for the entire community. The vertical geo-exchange system will bore holes deep into the ground, and then pump water and glycol through tubes to draw heat in the winter and discharge heat in the summer.
Rooftop solar panels will feed the community’s electrical system, while reflective membranes on other roof areas will reduce heat gain. Natural gas generators will be used for backup when electricity from the grid is at peak rates, and exhaust heat will be recovered and fed back into the geothermal system.
Architecture Unfolded has designed the Claridge to reflect aspects of the city’s industrial past in its red brick façade and dark-paned windows.
“I think that’s a smart design for this neighbourhood,” says Ingold. “It looks like a conversion and it’s on former industrial lands.”
The condo will also raise the bar for features and finishes: the model suite and common areas are designed by Bryon Patton, the man behind many of the GTA’s most elegant condo interiors, and all units will have 9-foot ceilings.
The lobby will have the feel of an urban boutique hotel with a contemporary gas fireplace, and amenities include a party room and an exercise room with a view of the outdoor gardens.
“Our (Kitchener-Waterloo) condo market is still in its infancy and it’s really the land of opportunity right now,” notes Ingold. “A lot of these features are new to this market.”
He suggests Victoria Common will appeal to anyone from first-time buyers working in the tech sector to older parents with children attending post-secondary education in the area (the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College are all nearby).
It will also be attractive to investors, since the vacancy rate for rental units in Kitchener-Waterloo is less than 2 per cent.
With its blend of history and high-tech, a rich cultural scene, a revitalized downtown, healthy job market and affordability, Kitchener is poised to enjoy robust growth. The region of 510,000 people is expected to expand to 750,000 by 2029.
“Kitchener has the sophistication of Toronto, but a smaller footprint,” says Ingold.
Prices are much lower than in Toronto, with the Claridge condos about $100,000 less than comparable units in the big city.
VIA and GO terminals are just a few blocks away from Victoria Common, and a nearby future transit hub will include VIA, GO, Greyhound and Grand River Transit stations. Work is expected to begin in 2014 and be completed in 2017, says Ingold.
Also accessible are two malls, several parks and the Grand River Hospital. Three blocks away is a cluster of cultural amenities, including Circle in the Square arts centre, a public library and art gallery.
The downtown revitalization began almost a decade ago, starting with the modern version of its popular farmers’ market, which features goods from local farmers, artists and crafters.
Four years ago, the city started reconstructing King St., its main thoroughfare, by adding new lighting, widening sidewalks and lowering curbs to make it more pedestrian-friendly and better suited to outdoor events and festivals.
For all the progress, though, remnants of the past serve as a reminder of Kitchener’s proud industrial past. One symbol is the Kaufman Lofts, a former factory converted to residential lofts that paved the way for Kitchener’s condo market.
“The owner of the Kaufman shoe factory decided to convert it to condo lofts,” explains Rod Regier, executive director of the city’s economic development department. “It took a leap of faith, despite a study that said there was no market here for residential condos. It sold out immediately.”
Some Victoria Common residents will likely work nearby at the Tannery, a building that represents the repurposing of the 1850s Lang tannery.
It has become a dazzling, 340,000-square-foot space for tech firms such as Google, Desire2Learn, and the Communitech hub, which is home to IT, digital media, biomedical and other companies. A daycare centre, fitness centre, music school, pharmacy and restaurants are also located there.
Roland Rom Colthoff of Toronto’s RAW Design took on the task of re-fashioning the haphazard maze of old tannery buildings into a cohesive, vibrant space, with high ceilings, exposed beams and natural light.
“There’s nothing like this in North America,” says Regier. “All these start-ups have a cool space to land. With our concept of Start-Up City, we want start-ups to feel this is the best place to grow their companies.”
He’s also hoping people will see downtown Kitchener as the best place to live and work, and points out there is 5 million square feet of “grossly underutilized land” close to the Tannery that would be ideal for mixed-used development.
Based on interest in the Tannery, Regier suggests “if this rate of leasing continues, we’d be looking at 10 more of these complexes.”
Although Kitchener-Waterloo offers the opportunity to live, work and play in the same area, Regier points the city is also “exactly the same distance from Union Station as Barrie, but people don’t seem to realize that.”
Many Toronto workers see the northern city as a viable commuting option but few have considered Kitchener-Waterloo, he says.
Description:Four-storey, 77-suite condominium that is the first building in a New Urbanism project that will include 220 townhouses and five condo buildings on 6.4 hectare (16-acre) site.
Suite sizes:One- and two-bedroom plans, with or without dens, from 490 to 915 square feet. Some units can be combined to create larger residences.
Features:Nine-foot ceilings, 6-inch squared baseboards, laminate flooring, kitchens with granite countertops, undermount sinks, Euro-style cabinetry, glass mosaic backsplash and stainless steel Energy Star appliances.
Prices:From $187,900 to $284,900. For a limited time, kitchen island with granite breakfast bar, under-mount valance kitchen lighting, potlights in washrooms and mirrored sliding closet doors are included with purchase.
Building amenities:Stylish modern lobby, party room with gas fireplace and outdoor barbecues, equipped fitness studio, bicycle storage area, security cameras in parking garage.
Sales centre:310 Louisa St., Kitchener. Hours: noon to 5 p.m. weekends, 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, or anytime by appointment. Call 519-585-0500 or go tovictoriacommon.com.