Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rapid Transit Part 4: How Uptown Waterloo Could Fail

Imagine the following scenarios.

The Region of Waterloo decides to run rapid transit alongside the existing rail line from King to Caroline, cutting across the Waterloo Square parking lot. This creates a new two-lane road beside the railway tracks. The last convenient parking for the Waterloo Square grocery store is thus destroyed; the remaining spaces are across a wide divide from the mall, with only one pedestrian crossing. People stop using the grocery store and it goes bankrupt. The grocery store anchors the mall so other shops in the mall fail, including the drug store that houses the Uptown postal outlet. Residents in Uptown can no longer walk to get their groceries so now drive to grocery stores on the outskirts of town. They drive to the Westmount Place postal outlet to get their packages. Increasingly, Uptown residents drive to retail outlets rather than walk and shop close by. (Note: While there is currently parking on the south side of Waterloo Square, the land nearest Willis Way is owned by First Gulf and is the planned location of development, possibly a Westin Hotel, leaving the north lot the only parking. That's why it would be so devastating if rapid transit cut a wide swath through it.)

Greatly reduced parking on King Street spells the death knell for Waterloo's two Uptown cinemas, the Princess and Princess II. Restaurants that rely on cinema traffic are shuttered. The north end of Uptown (between Erb and Central) starts to spiral downward. Cheque-cashing stores and pawn shops pop up.

The retail jewel of Uptown, the Ontario Seed store which has been in business for decades, is the only business on its block with parking (because of its parking lot in the rear). Increasingly, drivers going to other stores fill up the Ontario Seed lot, blocking its customers, who need close parking to carry out the heavy hardware and garden supplies sold there. Ontario Seed closes shop and opens a big box store on the outskirts of town.

Traffic in Waterloo is constantly backed up because the lanes are reduced from four to two, with gates and signals where the rapid transit turns left from King to head towards Waterloo Park. Increasingly, local drivers learn to avoid the area.

Isolated in an increasingly non-viable block, and with no parking within a 10 minute walk, Words Worth bookstore goes under, just as the resplendent Provident Bookstore gave up the ghost in downtown Kitchener when that downtown core failed.

Rapid transit on King Street makes it impossible to close King for Uptown festivals like the Busker and Icedog festivals. This means that people from the suburbs have no reason to ever go to Uptown; increasingly, they rely the big box stores and the mall in north Waterloo for all their shopping. The downward spiral increases.

As local residents increase their shopping in the north end of town, more and more shop at the new Wal-Mart. While there they increasingly buy groceries, and Zehrs stores all over the area start to close down.

King Street becomes a sad strip of newspaper-lined empty storefront windows. Commercial rents drop, making it profitable to open bars and discos aimed at university and college students. Drunken revellers make the Uptown increasingly unsafe, and garbage blows through the streets.

As the empty trains rattle past without stopping, the residents of Waterloo are incresingly burdened by ever-rising property taxes to pay for the expensive transit system. There are fewer and fewer regular buses to help them live without cars because rapid transit is draining the Grand River Transit budget. As Uptown becomes a shell, residents with money move to the subdivisions surrounding the town, causing Uptown's remaining schools to close.



James Bow said...

Again, with respect, I have to dispute the likelihood of some of these scenarios.

If we take the route of King to the railway tracks, and then following the railway tracks to Waterloo Park (note: to save space, the Region could consider using the current track itself as part of the right-of-way, while still keeping the connection for the tourist railway and freight operations open. Similar arrangements have been made in San Diego and for Ottawa's O-Train). Placing the Uptown Waterloo stop along this corridor could guarantee considerable foot traffic for the local stores, without disrupting too much in the way of parking.

Taking the LRT from King onto Caroline via William, while not my favoured route, would eliminate the loss of any parking in this lot entirely.

It's still possible to close King Street to traffic for festivals under the King-Railway Tracks route. You simply lose half of the street south of the railway tracks, while keeping King from the railway tracks to Erb, and King from Erb to Bridgeport. There are also other options available to handle spillover, including Willis Way between King and Regina.

And again, I just don't see the value of having all that parking in Uptown Waterloo. No, it would not be good to have all parking essentially eliminated, but we should note that the Uptown Waterloo mall came back from the dead after a lot of parking was eliminated and a lot more foot traffic was accommodated. Accommodating cars, in my opinion, is less important than improving foot traffic, and is the real secret behind the success of Uptown Waterloo.

Yappa said...

Hi James -

King to Caroline via William is not an option. Another idea suggested by John Shortreed (but not being considered) is to turn right from King on William and then turn on to Regina; proceed to the tracks and turn left, crossing King with the existing tracks. A building would have to be torn down where the tracks meet King for that to work.

I agree that the pedestrian-friendly feel of Uptown Waterloo is a big part of its success... that's why I'm concerned that a 186 foot long station on King Street and a raised track in the middle of the street are going to mess it up.

I live in Uptown and I know how special it is. But again, we have to be pragmatic rather than idealistic. Many downtown cores have failed because people find it more convenient to go to the mall. To add to the threat, we have a new Wal-Mart on the edge of town. I'm not saying those scenarios are going to happen, but we have to be careful to keep them from happening.

Re festivals, we hold them from Erb to William so that traffic on Erb is not affected. I don't know if you've ever tried to get around town when the Santa Claus parade is on, but that closes Erb Street for just a couple of hours and causes major traffic problems.

Anonymous said...

Whatever else, Yappa has raised legitimate concerns that must be addressed. Sniping, of the sort James Bow is doing, is SOP among bloggers and is OK, but it's irrelevant because it doesn't move the process forward. What's the point of entry for getting the issues Yappa has identified discussed in an appropriate forum? Waterloo Council? Maybe someone knows how to encourage council members to read her posts.

James Bow said...

I thought a discussion was what we were having. How is that sniping? Haven't I kept my comments respectful?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, JB, I used the wrong word [and it distracted attention fom my point].

Yappa said...

I've been thinking more about Waterloo Square. It was only recently transformed into a successful mall. For decades it was only half full of businesses and they tended not to do well. There was sometimes a grocery store, but not always.

It appears to be struggling again. Another store is going out of business right now. The building of the new public square has been hard on most businesses there.

City and regional government seem hell bent on reducing parking. They want to encourage people to walk, bike and rollerblade for their health and the good of the environment. But they still allow urban sprawl development, box stores that require cars, and heaps of convenient parking around Conestogo mall. They aim all their anti-parking zeal at uptown.

On top of that, imagaine the effects of having King Street closed for a year, probably just at the tail end of this recession, to build rapid transit down it. This isn't going to go well.