Monday, May 26, 2008

Uptown Waterloo: Parking, Hotels, Groceries, and a Thriving Core

The plans are moving ahead for building a new Westin Hotel in the parking lot on Willis Way, across the road from the south entrance to Waterloo Square.

I have one concern about this project, but it's a serious one. It concerns the viability of the grocery store in Waterloo Square.

If the entrance to the hotel is on Willis Way, we will lose half the street parking that is close to the mall entrance. We will also lose the temporary parking spaces where the hotel will be built. We are already losing the convenient parking between Waterloo Square and King Street because of the new public square that City Council is building this summer.

That leaves only one parking area for Waterloo Square, the lot to the north. It is not terribly convenient: you have to walk, then cross rail tracks, then walk up a long ramp or flight of steps. Even that convenience may be reduced by the new LRT track that may run alongside the existing rail line.

The north parking lot will also be threatened by the parking strategy that City Council recently adopted. It includes a proposal to make all street parking on King Street require payment, and it proposes the most inconvenient form of payment: we'll have to find a machine that sells tickets and then walk back to our cars to display the ticket on our windshields. This will encourage many more people to try to park in the only remaining convenient free parking - the Waterloo Square north lot - which will make it even more difficult for grocery shoppers to find a convenient spot.

Council and the developer are currently haggling over who will pay for a 100-car parking garage that would be part of the Westin Hotel complex. That garage will be useful for hotel guests and people who are spending at least several hours in uptown, but it is not a solution for people who want to run into the grocery store.

When there is no convenient parking for Waterloo Square, the Valu Mart in the mall will get much less business. In particular, it will lose the business of people who want to run in and buy a few items quickly. A decent grocery store is imperative for a thriving community of uptown residents. The grocery store also anchors Waterloo Square. It brings in a lot of business, and people then use the drug store and other shops.

A Westin Hotel doesn't need a grocery store or a shopping mall. The Westin will likely be just as glad if Waterloo Square goes bankrupt and is replaced by a movie theater (a previous plan for the area). But for uptown residents the loss of amenities will be disastrous. Families and professionals may choose to move to more convenient locations, abandoning the uptown to student housing.

Waterloo city planners have decided that we have tons of excess parking in the uptown: they figure that at peak times we have 540 excess spaces. But empty spaces in the station lot on Regina do not help Waterloo Square. Nobody is going to park three or more blocks away when buying groceries.

A solution is to position the hotel so that its car entrance is on Caroline Street, so that it has minimal impact on the parking on Willis Way. The restaurant of the hotel could face onto Willis Way to encourage walk-in traffic.

Beyond the immediate parking issue, I don't know the long-term effects of building a large hotel in a small downtown area, particularly when we already have two more large hotels planned across the street in the BarrelYards development.

I live across the street from Waterloo Square and so have personal interest in maintaining a healthy neighborhood, but there is a larger rationale for the entire community to maintain a thriving city core. Kitchener let their downtown fail and have spent untold millions of dollars trying futilely to get it back on track.



tom s. said...

I assumed the Westin was a replacement plan for the Barrelyards hotel. Not so?

Yappa said...

Hi Tom,

Nope, the BarrelYards project is still in the works, although I'm not sure why we're not hearing about it these days... it could be due to the economic slow-down.

Yappa said...

Update: Apparently Waterloo city council approved the latest stage in the BarrelYards plan last week, and it is progressing as planned. It's certainly not easy to find news about it, however.