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Waterloo LRT spurs billions in development

The Breithaupt Block - Google HQ
With billions invested in scores of new developments along Waterloo Region’s new transit corridor over the past 10 years, Waterloo’s ION Light Rail Transit (LRT)/Bus Rapid Transit project is living up to the grandest hopes stakeholders had when the system was approved.

A Region of Waterloo report documents some 80 projects along the corridor that have been completed or are moving through the planning and approvals process. One published report indicated a total of $1.4 billion in building permits was issued in the 36-kilometre corridor last year alone with the latest projects coming on stream looking to be among the most ambitious yet.

Good fortune seems to be playing a factor, say stakeholders, with a strong economy, a large parcel fabric in the vicinity of the LRT stations that invites major investors to participate and a string of underutilized industrial warehouses sitting ripe for redevelopment all contributing to investor enthusiasm.

"What you see here is a confluence of factors that would be tough to replicate," commented Rod Regier, commissioner of planning for the Region of Waterloo. "Some is good luck and good fortune, some is the product of work and intentional investment."

It has all added up to a prolonged boom for the local construction sector, said Grand Valley Construction Association president Martha George, one that provides lots of work for contractors but is not without its headaches.

For instance, right now there is a major shortfall of drywallers, she said. One contractor who recently contacted her said his firm is desperate and looking to foreign workers.

But with phase one of the ION project set to wrap up next year after a four-year build, George sees the end of a major disruptor with its benefits continuing to flow.

"There is the pain of having the LRT built, it has been difficult to drive anywhere in the city without running into a detour, but we are getting past that now and there are great opportunities along the LRT route for investors," said George.

Stage one of the 36-kilometre LRT/BRT project consists of 19 kilometres of LRT from the Conestoga Mall terminal in Waterloo to the Fairview Park Mall terminal in Kitchener and 17 kilometres of BRT from the Ainslie Street terminal in Cambridge to Fairview Park Mall.

Stage 2 will see the BRT converted to LRT, linking the three cities with 37 kilometres of LRT.

All three levels of government are funding the $818-million project. GrandLinq, with major partners Plenary Group, Meridiam Infrastructure, Aecon, Kiewit and Keolis, has the design, build, finance, operate and maintain contract extending 30 years.

A traffic corridor was envisioned in the first planning documents for the new Region of Waterloo back in the 1970s, Regier said, but even as plans for the LRT/BRT project become more focused a decade ago, there was no anticipation of some of the new building forms that have sprung to life, in particular in the former factories dotting the corridor.

"It is remarkable the way people have come together around this vision of utilizing those resources better to create a more dynamic community, also one that is more productive," he said.

"These assets, many had gone to waste and were not producing, for example, employment income or tax revenue, and now if you think of it, the Breithaupt Block was a former Collins and Aikman, when it closed it had 80 or 90 people in it, now it has I think over 500 Google staff in it and growing.

"Thirty years ago people didn't see the value there. Now they are highly valued."

The Breithaupt Block was developed by the Perimeter Development Corporation. Google's arrival in town bolstered the region's status as a major North American tech hub, following the lead of RIM/Blackberry, founded two decades ago, and the tech expertise incubated at the region's two universities.

Other completed reuse, redevelopment and infill builds documented by the region include the Arrow Lofts, located in the former Arrow shirts factory, the Blacksmith lofts, the East Avenue Developments — residences on a former gas station site — the Grand Lofts and the Simpson Block.

Regier cited another significant factor leading to investors being able to embark on large-scale redevelopments.

"The fact that the station areas have large parcel fabrics mean it is much easier to assemble properties that have an economy of scale," he said. "From a practical point of view, it is simpler and probably more cost effective and less disruptive than if there had been a very fine grain parcel fabric at a station area and the developer had to go out and negotiate for five or 10 properties."

The next crop of developments will continue the momentum, Regier said.

"More and more of our projects are reurbanization projects and being built on idiosyncratic parcels, so people are looking at mixed-use projects which is a new thing in this region, retail at grade and perhaps even some offices in a podium with residential above," he said.

Among the major projects in the works are the 25-storey Charlie West condos from Momentum Developments and the Zehr Group, the 30 George condo development in Cambridge from Lidamac, the Victoria Common mixed-use development in Kitchener from Queensgate Developments, the Gas Light District mixed-use development in Cambridge from HIP Developments and Six0, a mixed-use development in Kitchener from Zevest Development.

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