If the purpose of rapid transit is to move as many people as possible as quickly as possible, then its very purpose flies in the face of the way people use Uptown Waterloo. For example, jaywalking is not a sin in Uptown: it is part of the pedestrian-friendly, small town ambience that is a big part of what makes Uptown work. Turning Uptown Waterloo into a high speed corridor for rapid transit would be disastrous.
Uptown is ringed by seniors’ facilities, such as Terrace on the Square, Waterpark, Luther Village, the Lutheran Church residences on Willow, the George Street senior residence, and the Adult Recreation Center at King and Allen. There is a concentration of seniors in Uptown Waterloo, many of whom use walking aids. There are also many young people with baby strollers; people in wheelchairs; and many bicyclists.
Rapid transit stops are planned to be large, long barricaded stations that could block sidewalk access. Tracks on King could hinder wheels crossing the street. These problems are preventable: rails must be flush with the road; there must be no barricades around stations.
While in Uptown, the speed of rapid transit vehicles must suit the slow pace of Uptown. We must continue to be able to shut off traffic in our uptown to have street festivals, and have a flat street that is suitable for festivals.
We need abundant parking on King Street and in the Waterloo Town Square parking lot. Street parking is vital for the economic viability of shops on King Street. Parking close to Waterloo Town Square is vital to the viability of the grocery store, which anchors the mall and means that local residents are not car-dependent. Parking is also an accessibility issue; for example, many seniors can drive but not walk distances.
Parking on King Street between William and Erb could be completely wiped out by the plan to have train tracks (for LRT) or dedicated bus lanes (for BRT) down the middle of King Street. If the rapid transit route follows the option to turn west off of King Street towards Waterloo Park, parking in Waterloo Square will be greatly lessened, or at the least separated from Waterloo Square by a two-lane road and railway track. Rapid transit must not be allowed to displace street parking, and rapid transit can't bisect the Waterloo Square north parking lot.
Uptown Waterloo currently has trees and planters that are very attractive. Our current streetscape also allows outdoor cafes. A couple of times a year we shut down King Street to hold outdoor festivals.
The need for wider streets to accommodate the rapid transit lanes may lead to the loss of planters and trees on King Street. An LRT may have overhead wires. The platforms/stations for rapid transit stops are planned to be long and may have barriers around them. Care must be taken to retain all the aesthetic appeal of Uptown.
Whether a loop or two-way King Street route, there are grave issues with rapid transit turning left from King to head west to Waterloo Park: in particular, issues with safety and traffic flow. The current plan is for rapid transit to travel north on King and turn left either at the existing tracks in Waterloo Square or at Erb Street. Both plans will be disasters. If rapid transit needs to run from Waterloo Park to King, then it must run in the opposite direction, so that rapid transit makes a right turn on to King.
The proposed routes from King to the park is also a problem. If rapid transit runs alongside the existing rail line, it will reduce the size of the Waterloo Square parking lot and reduce accessibility of cars to the mall. This will threaten the economic viability of the grocery store and the mall it anchors. This route will probably also require destroying part of the public square the city of Waterloo is currently building. That’s just not acceptable. The other option, directing the rapid transit down Erb Street from King to Caroline, is almost worse, as that is a busy three-lane, one-way street that thousands of residents use daily to get to the expressway and other locations to the east. Running rapid transit down it would reduce flow and make it difficult or impossible for cars to access Albert Street from Erb.
Another turning issue is the Caroline-Allen and Allen-King turns specified in the loop option. Given that regional staff told us that rapid transit needs a wide turning radius, these turns do not seem possible unless the Adult Recreation Center (ARC) is torn down, or at the least if the ARC parking lot is greatly reduced. The ARC parking is already stretched to the limit. If the Region decides to tear down the ARC, they must replace it with a similar facility in the Waterloo Uptown core.
The Caroline-Erb intersection is the connecting route between Uptown Waterloo and Waterloo Park. Running rapid transit across it, especially in the loop plan where rapid transit will run off from the north-west corner in two directions (one route south and one route east) will create a barrier between Uptown and the jewel of Uptown, Waterloo Park. There may be a way to run rapid transit through this intersection without turning it into a nightmare, but we should accept the concept of rapid transit in Uptown Waterloo only on the condition that this issue, and the others I've outlined, will be fully addressed by rapid transit planners.
Just a couple of miles along King Street from Uptown Waterloo is downtown Kitchener. When I was a kid Kitchener had a great downtown. I remember going Christmas shopping there every year. It was full of all kinds of shops, the best bookstores in the area, department stores (like Goudy's, with its pneumatic tubes for sending cash receipts from all the separate departments), restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, a big army surplus store, and six or seven movie theaters. It was a bustling, successful place, much bigger and better than Uptown Waterloo is now, and it was full of local businesses that had been there for many decades. There are lots of theories for why downtown Kitchener failed: the surrounding neighborhoods were gutted; the anchoring stores became too far apart; the movie theaters were turned into discos; too many social service organizations moved into a small area; and a host of other theories. The things we know for sure are: it failed very fast; and despite decades of smart people spending a lot of money to try to revive it, it has resisted being revived.
The success of Uptown Waterloo is fragile. It's great that we have been able to take it for granted, but now there is a serious threat to the ongoing sustainability of our downtown core, and we must stand up and protect it.