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Let’s make the Tannery a true District


Kitchener is on the verge of making a decision that will determine if the Tannery District will indeed be a district with a vibrant street life or just the Tannery building. The difference is the future of several smaller buildings across Joseph Street that the developer would like to demolish to make way for a ‘temporary’ surface parking lot. Saving the buildings creates possibilities that we can never recapture. The worst part is we would be settling for something significantly less than what we know is possible.

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Rebirth of Lang Tannery is wonderful

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge supporter of the redevelopment of the former Lang Tannery by Cadan. When I first got involved with JM Drama, it used the building as rehearsal and storage space and I fell in love with the building—actually a series of connected buildings—and dreamed about what might be possible. The adaptive reuse of this site requires a significant $30 million investment that is generating new life for a facility that has been underused for too long. Even before the project is complete, a rebirth is occurring with the opening of the Downtown Community Health Centre, the Little Tot Spot, Pharmasave and plans to locate the Canadian Digital Media Network there. But so much more is possible and I am committed to having the project entirely fulfill the vision that was established by the developer.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Kitchener architect John MacDonald who has brought this matter to the public’s attention and kept it there. My own interest is a result but I am not alone. There were as many as 80 people who showed up on a cold Saturday afternoon for a Jane’s Walk of the warehouse district including the Tannery that demonstrated the strong public interest in the future of this area.

What follows are my thoughts as a result of the information that I’ve learned and my resulting thoughts and recommendations.

Kitchener’s version of the Distillery District?

Calling the project the Tannery District deliberately invites comparisons to Toronto’s Distillery District—another place that has a special place in my heart—especially after announcing Balzac’s as a tenant. Having spent a fair bit of time at the Distillery District over the years, it’s at this point that the local project starts to fall short of expectations without the smaller buildings. What makes the Distillery work as a district are the large outdoor areas dedicated to pedestrians and patios in amongst the former distillery buildings. There’s an exciting mix of uses in these buildings—everything from the Mill Street Brewery, to restaurants such as the Boiler House to art galleries, offices for arts organizations, Soma chocolate and Balzac’s coffee. It’s functional while attracting both tourists and local residents. It’s an eclectic, funky, artsy mix that functions as a place where people work everyday, where they can live nearby yet draws crowds in the evenings and weekends.

How is the Distillery different than what is being proposed for the Tannery?

The Distillery District works because it’s a true people place. Drawn there for a variety of reasons, people are inspired to explore once they are there. They feel alive from the energy they get from being around so many different and interesting people. The magic of the Distillery District could not exist if it was a single building which forced people inside to their destination and left them without any options for lingering and exploring. Rather the large outdoor spaces create an exciting shared experience, they inspire a desire to find what is over there or to sit down and soak in the atmosphere or enjoy experiences that don’t exist anywhere else.

Yet Kitchener is being asked to settle for a Tannery building rather than the more ambitious and rewarding district that we were promised. We’re being asked to be happy with an adaptive reuse of the main block of buildings that people use for a single purpose such as working or taking their kid to play rather than a place that draws people in and gives them reasons to stay and explore. By keeping the smaller buildings across Joseph Street, we fulfill the promise of a “Tannery District.” We create life on the streets, a reason to stroll around and explore, a reason to see what is around that next corner, a reason to enjoy the company of others. By taking down these buildings, we may have an updated building with many individual draws but they are not as likely to work as cohesively since people for the most part will come for one specific purpose and then leave. Much better than what we have had at that site previously but a far cry from the dynamic district that we can still create.

And what do we get in return? A gravel parking lot with a lonely chimney in the middle—and a promise to build a parking structure at some unspecified time in the future. Maybe.

Imagine the possibilities

Take a look at the buildings to be torn down.


Then take a look at photo gallery on the Distillery District website. Imagine the possibilities and get excited. Don’t they start to remind you of the wonderful old building that is now Solé restaurant in Waterloo. Let’s capture those exciting possibilities and bring them to life. Isn’t that what Desire2Learn is looking for by relocating there?

But where will people park?

First off, we must ask “will they need to park?’ We’re making a historic investment in an LRT line that will take people right to the Tannery District. The nearby population has also increased significantly with the conversion of the Kaufman Footwear Factory and the old Eaton’s buildings into lofts. Buses go right by frequently to the nearby GRT Terminal. Parking starts to become a less pressing need in this context.

But let’s accept the assertion that more parking is needed. Can we have more parking and a lively people place too? Definitely, yes. There are several options that must be considered before taking the easy way out. The City of Kitchener could, for example, convert the soon to be abandoned Braun Street Works yard into parking—at least temporarily until a longer term use is found that enhances the warehouse district. There’s also an apparently abandoned warehouse across Joseph Street from the works yard that has plenty of pavement that can be used today for parking. I estimate it would be the equivalent of what can be gained by tearing down the ancillary tannery buildings.

Neither of these options good enough? Then let’s get a bit more creative while remaining pragmatic. Across Francis Street from the Tannery is a full block of parking for Manulife. If a parking garage is to be built, let’s put it there and sooner than later. Let’s include street level retail and perhaps some office space while we’re at it. Surely that’s an investment that would be in the interests of both Manulife and the money behind the Tannery?

What if the number crunchers can’t be convinced? There’s also a surface parking lot owned by the city that is kitty corner to the Tannery between Charles and King. More parking could be put there—maybe in partnership with Manulife and the Tannery?

Let’s clearly state: We prefer a vibrant people place

In short, replacing the smaller building is viewed as the easy solution—the path of least resistance. Let’s stand together across that path and loudly say “No!” to both the City of Kitchener and Cadan. Let’s clearly say that we want the full package of historic buildings to be preserved and to be turned into a vibrant place for people to gather and celebrate life.

Is it too late?

As I get ready to post this to my blog, I learned that The Heritage Impact Assessment has apparently been approved by staff, and so the demolition has taken another, and potentially final, step. So does that mean that it’s too late? In short, no. But the odds have just gotten a lot longer and if you are concerned about the health of downtown Kitchener, we need your voice heard more than before.

Polite, persistent pressure needed on Cadan and City Hall

I recommend that we put pressure on Cadan as the developer and City Hall to ensure they know that the people who live in Kitchener and care about its downtown want the vision of a “district” fulfilled. We need to ensure that Cadan stands behind what it was originally quoted as desiring:

“Give us an opportunity to revitalize and reuse as opposed to demolish, which is what most developers start off with, and we enjoy the opportunity to make positive change, both socially and economically,” [Lana] Sherman [managing director with Cadan] said.

“We are creating a convergence centre, where creativity and business will flourish, a place that caters to people beyond the nine-to-five.”

The Record: May 27, 2008

At the same time though, I’m hoping that we can do so without creating an “us vs. them” situation. Let’s keep it polite and continually remind the City and Cadan that we support the project—but that we want it to be all that it can be. But we’ll need to be large in number and persistent to be successful.

Let’s use these three means to apply this pressure on our friends:

  • Join the official Tannery District Facebook page and write on its Wall or add a comment to the link to this blog I’ll add. Indicate that you like the link to this post or share it with your FB friends.
  • Let Mayor Zehr and your city councilor know what you think. I understand that the demolition is a staff decision that does not go to City Council but that does not mean there is no role for our municipal politicians. They are in a position to persuade the developer to make the Tannery a true district and could play a leading role in helping make this a reality through playing an active role in identifying and creating alternative solutions.
  • Use the power of social media and traditional media.

    • Let’s make Wednesday, May 19 Tannery District Day in social media. On that day if you are on facebook, post this as your status: Cadan and City of Kitchener, let’s turn the Tannery into a true district for people. Twitter users can do the same adding: Please RT. If you have a blog, write about this effort on or before May 19.
    • Write a letter to the editor of the Waterloo Region Record.

If you have other ideas that are consistent with this approach, I would love to hear them.

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14 comments on “Let’s make the Tannery a true District

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Will Spaetzel, David Marskell. David Marskell said: RT @KingandOttawa: Let’s make the Tannery a true District: http://wp.me/pMJti-1q […]

  2. James, your comments are right on the money. When I worked at Washerama as a kid just down Victoria Street I always walked by the buildings and envisioned a cluster of either restaurant/pubs, antique shops, or artist spaces. Could a Little Theatre or even the Registry Theatre work better in this location? Even today I think it would fit in with the existing plan since the living & working population in that are will double in the next few years.
    Look at the city’s track record of vacant sites…..King and Gaukel by the American hotel. There were about 7 buildings torn down over 30 YEARS ago for development and what have we got…parking. The block beside city hall torn down about 10 years ago for development and what have got….parking.
    The existing buildings footprint appears to take up about 25-30% of the site so surely there’s still enough parking available. Are those buildings really worth about 80 spaces? There’s a church only 1 block away that I’m sure would love to earn some weekday parking from one of the businesses locating at the Tannery.
    Come on City Council….make the RIGHT decision and keep the history!!!

  3. Keep up the good work.
    People don’t go to see a parking lot.

  4. To all who wish to Make the Tannery a True District:
    Contact us at margaret@johnmacdonaldarchitect.ca to receive John MacDonald’s updated reports on the status of the future of the Lang Tannery.
    Presently, John is preparing a report of last night’s committee meeting at the City Hall for all who wish to stay informed. Thanks to all who attended. Your support in the Council Chambers is the most powerful way to communicate to our elected representatives how wrong it is to demolish the remaining historic buildings on the block to gain a few parking spaces, and that the rich and vibrant downtown we all want is not made with surface parking.
    Next week we will be at the City of Kitchener’s Council meeting fighting the battle. We encourage you all to be there as well, the more the better – strength in numbers works. Come as a delegation, or just to listen in. Both are great. We hope to see you there.

  5. Thank you James, for taking on this fight. Your analysis of the potential and how much will be lost if those buildings go down, makes it very clear what needs to be done. See you at City Hall!

  6. Spot on James. These ideas are exciting; a vision of something so much more than the same old car-centric planning.

  7. {Edited version}

    Thank you to everyone who has lent support to date regarding our efforts to move the City and the developer off its derriere with respect to the Lang Tannery and the streetscapes that surround it.

    I have sent correspondence to the Councilors once again, and have asked the Mayor for a meeting. He has agreed to meet me on Friday afternoon.

    Melinda Dalton of the Record is doing an article, in Terry Pender’s absence, and she has interviewed councilors, the developer, Alain Pinard (the fellow who decided this was a good idea and approved it at the City), myself and perhaps others.

    From that quarter I gather that perhaps the developer may now be saying things like: “What choice do we have?” and “We don’t want to tear them down either but what else can we do?” I might be mistaken there, and it’s second hand, but at my meeting with the mayor I will continue to press for an alternative solution that assists the developer in getting interim parking at the Bramm yards. That continues to be our best hope, I think.

    Staff and the developer generally obscure the issue by talking about the hundreds of spaces “required”, and I’m trying to focus council on the fact that taking the buildings down provides only a net gain of about 100 cars. That’s the real trade for the heritage and the adaptive re-use opportunity.

    I am registering as a delegation at next Monday’s council meeting, and would like to ask for your support in attending the meeting, registering as a delegation, and making your views known.

    At this point there are two lanes of activity:

    setting aside the Heritage Impact Assessment and stopping the site plan approval process, which might be possible if staff is instructed to conform to the letter of policy regarding these items. Mr. Pinard stated to Council that staff is following the letter of the City’s policies. I think that’s true only with respect to one part of the policies. If Council sees that there is passion and support for following the Municipal Plan, and that the letter of City policies should be followed in order to back that plan up, rather than negate its statements and spirit, then staff will have to get creative.
    providing an alternative solution, which I think involves the Bramm yards. I went for a tour of the yards last night. I will be making the point that the City’s winter plow equipment, sanding equipment, and lots of seasonal items and stuff lying around can be relocated immediately elsewhere, and portions of the Bramm yards turned over to interim parking quite quickly, and the developer can move forward. Jason Hammond very eloquently reiterated this solution to the DTS committee meeting in his remarks, and it’s something I’ve been pressing the city about for some time. It makes the mayor look like a leader and a winner, and the City as “saviours”. The developer gets more assistance, and the community gets a reprieve for the quality of its downtown and warehouse district.

    I think at this point it’s no longer about the facts, about the reality, since staff are deaf to reasoning. On Monday I’m going to try to reflect some of the passion that we feel about this issue, and see if rhetoric can get the Councilors over the top. We’ll continue to make the case with facts and ideas behind the scenes, but I’ve taken to shaming our City into doing the right thing. It’s embarrassing for us all.

    I might try for a meeting with Councilors Gazzola and Vrbanovic.

    For anyone who can pass the word, create visible presence in the Council Chamber, write to the Record, e-mail all councilors and the mayor, I urge you to do so in the next couple of days. This is the final push I think. If Council will not act, then the issue will drop below the radar.

    Thank you to all who feel this issue as we do.

    A good idea has a thousand voices, but when you lend your voice, your efforts, and your engagement, we all are richer for it.

    If you need contact information, let us know and we can provide it.

  8. Hi! I fully support your views James, and I hoping the Bramm yards interim parking works out.

    I’m a Desire2Learn employee who is moving into the building near the end of the summer. I have the great pleasure of walking to work now and will continue in the future, as I live in the Cherry Park area. I would love to see more mixed use and development of street activity in that area.

    I think you will find that many employees in our company are not only concerned but have also been very vocal about keeping the historic buildings as a streetscape vs. a parking lot. I had hoped that the City of Kitchener had followed their downtown strategic plan and we would see more adaptive re-use sites. Originally I remember the plan for the Warehouse District was not only to encourage the retention but also to look for opportunities for the development of an arts space, so I second Chris’s suggestion above around clusters of artist spaces or even a little theatre.

    I realize parking is a concern; it’s a concern at the space we are in now as we have staff spread over multiple lots all across the downtown. However, there are options, and tearing down those buildings should not be one of them. We are hoping the biggest battle we have to face in moving into this space is who gets this view from their window: http://twitpic.com/1ngyhp.

  9. We’ve just returned from a meeting with the Mayor, Margaret and myself. There was some discussion of the issues involved, but no good or real news with respect to the issue of the Lang Tannery buildings facing demolition.

    The Mayor has quite rightly pointed out that my language in the item we forwarded previously to Jame’s site is over the top, in views regarding individuals in this matter. Our frustrations should not lead to disrespect. {Note from James: These comments have now been removed as have some references to them in this comment.} He has taken me to task regarding my expression of these frustrations. This is fair comment, and I wish to apologize to any who have been offended by the frustrations as they have been expressed, and clarify a couple of items. We have been faced for many weeks with no answers to legitimate questions regarding what for us is a simple matter of respect for heritage opportunities, the quality of our streetscapes, and the Municipal Plan. The way this process has flown under the radar as an internal matter, without airing the issues publicly and fairly, has in our minds been a disservice to this community. At Council Committee last week we believed we saw more of the same, where process appeared to twist and turn in the wind in response to Councillors questions. Notwithstanding, the frustrations should not be allowed to boil over.

    I wish to clarify the following:

    Comments regarding Mayor Zehr “not being far away from this issue” were intended to acknowledge only that where public funds are spent, political pressure to deliver the fruit of the Economic Development Fund investment, the many millions of dollars earmarked for downtown projects, is great. The Mayor has a strong stake in the success of the Tannery District project. That said, we all have such a stake, and in our Downtown and Heritage as well, which must be balanced. We may differ on what that balance may be.

    The Mayor understands that we are all frustrated, but asks that the debate be respectful. For my part, I will try to set a better example.

    John MacDonald

  10. Thank you John for retracting those personal comments. While I can understand your frustration, I am confident the best way to proceed is to be supportive and twist arms in a positive manner to fulfill the vision of a district built for people.

  11. We have received support today from a new quarter, culture. Majdi Bou-Matar of the theatre group MT Space asked what they could do to help.

    I suggested they examine the Boiler House (next to the stack) as a potential venue for the 100 or so seat theatre space that they are looking to create. They’ve visited the Tannery District, and I’ve sketched for them how the amazing vaulted interior, with its steel structure and monitor roof windows, could serve their need. As a multi-functional space, it would compliment the larger Lang building and can serve as event, conference and meeting centre, in addition to supporting evening performances of all kinds.

    Majdi is going to be attending Council, and hopefully will describe this idea in more detail. A fabulous possibility.

  12. I’ve been reviewing the accepted Heritage Impact Assessment. I’ve not had time to go over it completely, but there is a very significant change.

    The final version accepts that the Lang Tannery as a whole could be considered a “significant cultural heritage landscape” under the Provincial Heritage policy statement. This is an important admission.

    Notwithstanding, the report goes on the argue that the buildings be torn down, because of parking concerns and concerns for the economic success of the main building.

    Here is the text:

    Within Kitchener’s larger warehouse district and in proximity to other buildings that represent the industrialization of Berlin, the Lang Tannery complex could be considered part of a “significant cultural heritage landscape” as per the definitions in the Provincial
    Policy Statement. These types of sites require active uses to be viable and introduce change to their existing conditions as part of adaptive reuse projects. At the Lang Tannery complex, Site “A” has proven to be a successful adaptive reuse project. Instrumental to the success of
    Site “A” was the removal of buildings to aid in the new programming at the site.
    Even though both Sites “A” and “B” are considered part of the larger industrial area, alteration and change are required. In order for this complex to continue to succeed, the implementation of parking services is a significant and critical requirement.
    The removal of the Hide House, Boiler House, Water Softener Building, Bonded Warehouse and building at 14 Linden Avenue will ensure the conservation, long term protection and continued success of the heritage buildings on Site “A”. The parking serving as amenity to Site “A” programming will ensure the ongoing viability of the entire complex.

  13. One large conglomerate of a building does not a district make. Parking needs should not be central to redevelopment.
    Mark Yantzi

  14. Very concerned about representation of the issues on the VPN website. No mention of the lack of any comittment to build anything beyond a lot in any reasonable time frame on behalf of the developer-I am hopeful this will be corrected, but also no mention of the parking alternatives nor the options available to the developer that have been discussed/offered.

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