Lofty goals for Northdale

By 2029, one of the most heavily student-populated neighbourhoods in Waterloo will have quite a different look.

The Northdale area, which is bordered by King Street, University Avenue, Philip Street and Columbia Street and comprised mostly of student houses, has been the subject of an ongoing study looking for the best way to use that land in the future. And at Monday night’s Waterloo city council meeting, the first phase of that study was unveiled.

And it paints quite the pretty picture.

The report was carried out by the MMM Group, a consulting firm from Mississauga, with a lot of input from local organizations such as the Northdale Special Project Committee (NSPC). On Monday night, these groups presented their vision and principles, which focus on transforming Northdale from a neighbourhood made of a small, post-war houses to a “revitalized,” “reurbanized,” modern community while simultaneously serving the needs of students, families and professionals.

“It’s a community that’s clearly in need of revitalization and in need of some change. Council has declared that the status quo is not acceptable anymore,” said Chris Tyrrell, managing partner of planning and environmental design for the MMM Group.

“The urban fabric and the built form was designed and developed in the 50s and the 60s as basically a single-family suburban neighbourhood. It was not designed to accommodate what it currently is accommodating, which is principally students.”

The vision and principles were unanimously passed by council and met with great praise from city officials.

“[The MMM Group has] gottenup to speed incredibly quickly,” said Waterloo councilor Jeff Henry, who’s Ward 6 encompasses Northdale. “They are very responsive and thoughtful in hearing the needs of the community.”

“This is a great beginning,” added Waterloo mayor Brenda Halloran.

However, not everyone in the council chamber was so quick to heap praise on what appears to be happening in Northdale. Paul Ellingham, a landlord and former resident in Northdale questioned council on the timing of the study and its vision that involves the far-off 2029.

“When I moved [here] about a dozen years ago, all people were talking about was all of the issues that were in Northdale,” said Ellingham after the council meeting. “At that point, at least there was an escape route for the seniors who had built those houses.”

Ellingham also expressed concerns over what could happen to the affordability of homes in Northdale, should the kind of development outlined in the vision-which leans towards, new mixed use buildings- go forth.

“I don’t have to be a construction engineer or a high financier to tell you that new construction is expensive,” he said. “New construction is very expensive and if you’re going to have the best new construction someone’s going to pay the price and if [the housing] is directed at students, it’s only going to be the most affluent students who can be in it.”

Ellingham expressed particular concern for the many students that live in the area, feeling that because of how quickly they come and go they may not understand the issues at play.

“The students need somebody who can say ‘here’s the lay of the land now, you go run with it because this is working against you,’” he said. “Students need to know about this and for the welfare of students in the future… We need choices for students, because many of them won’t be able become educated at the University of Waterloo or Wilfrid Laurier University because there isn’t affordable housing available for them.”

In the summer, Ellingham attempted to organize a mass sale of 39 Northdale homes as two blocks, however could not get interest from developers when the city denied the groups request to have the area re-zoned to allow for mixed use buildings.

The main catalyst for that sale was a new housing bylaw, approved last year that will, among other things, limit the number of renters in most rental homes to three, when it comes into effect in April 2012.

“We could have a pretty significant crisis for affordable housing in Waterloo,” said Ellingham, who believes the bylaw is unfair to both students and landlords.

Throughout the attempted sale in the summer, the city remained committed to the ongoing study, and in response to the criticism around the timing of the project and the 2029 timeline, Henry said a lot of the complaints are based on a misunderstanding.

“There’s a misconception, when we say 2029, some people think that means that nobody will do anything for 20 years, when it’s quite the opposite,” he said. “What’s most important to remember is that the day after council approves, should it approve what comes forward from the consulting team, people are free to start acting, to start helping us bring the vision into reality.”

Both Henry and Tyrrell added that with this first phase of the Northdale Land Use study complete, things only get tougher from here.

“Relatively speaking, this is the easy part,” said Henry. “The next step is where things will start to get interesting. It’s where we’ll really have to roll up our sleeves and start discussing about what the vision and principles mean. It will certainly be a more challenging process.”

That next step, which involves discussion on how to implement aspects of the proposed vision is expected to be presented to council this winter, with the final report being brought forth in June.

For the report on the approved vision and principles for Northdale, click here.

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