The changing face of student housing

Northdale, which is bounded in a loose square by Columbia Street, University Avenue, Phillip Street and King Street North is getting a facelift. According to the Northdale Improvement Plan, which aims to find a balance between long-term residents and short-term students residing in the area of Northdale, come 2030, the community will be changed for students and residents alike and the hope is to foster a safe neighbourhood for the expanding Waterloo city.

“It’s a 20 year vision,” said Waterloo city councillor Jeff Henry.  “So, it’s something that will take a bit of time to get to, we all recognize that we won’t get there overnight.”

Henry stressed the importance of creating a diverse, vibrant and dynamic community, which will feature a range of buildings, from town houses to multi-bedroom apartments. “What we are trying to make sure that we do is tip the market a little bit in terms of sizes that are being provided and obviously trying to encourage good amenity space in these buildings.”

“Going into high quality is about diverse options for students, and so as long as there is a mixture of town houses, and three-bedroom apartments and five-bedroom apartments [and so on], that’s the direction we would like to see,” added Adam Garcia, the vice president of education for the University of Waterloo federation of students.

The plan was approved at the end of June, and was comprised by various representatives in the city of Waterloo. From Students’ Union representatives to landlords to developers and of course, city council, the improvement plan fosters a variety of opinions and ideas on a “new” Northdale.

“We are trying to encourage the city to develop those incentive plans that are also outlined in the strategic planning process to ensure that there is diversity and options for students,” said Chris Walker, vice president of university affairs at the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union.

While the overall aim of the plan is to balance the students with the long-term residents of the neighbourhood, the majority of the population is, and will be students. Garcia said that the plan outlined “accessible, affordable, quality housing,” and from their students’ union understanding of the plan, “none of those should be compromised.”

Walker also addressed the need for practical and safe housing within Northdale.

“From the students’ union perspective, we are largely in favour of the plan because it sets a clear direction,” he said. “[However], we are a little skeptical, we want the market to respond appropriately to what the students need and not to be building these sky scrapers that aren’t going to be full or are not the best of quality.”

Walker’s concern is not irrelevant. In the course of a couple of years, King Street has witnessed the rapid rise of apartment buildings from North to South, all aiming to house the growing population of Waterloo. According to the Northdale Special Project Committee Report, students will see a gradual shift in the nature of this are. From the decaying properties and neglectful landlords, to cleaner, safer houses and regular maintenance and care.

Another student concern surrounding this plan is affordability.

“High end does not necessarily mean high-quality but it does mean high-cost,” said Walker, who hopes to see new, attractive buildings, but ones that will last and not drown incoming students in loads of rent debt. When asked about affordability, Henry simply stated that, as long as there is a range of buildings, the prices should be affordable. “Because when there are options, there is better choice. And when there is better choice, there is generally better pricing.”

According to Henry, the main goal of the new plan for Northdale is a true long-term solution, rather than a shorter-term fix.

“You don’t spend the amount of time and effort and dedication we’ve put into this project to go backwards, we do it to go forwards,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t stumble every now and then but it’s a significant investment that the city has already put in [to the community].”

While it will take some time to see this plan put into motion, Henry believes it is a step in the right direction, and one that is necessary, “We knew the time had come to get a better Northdale.”

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