Waterloo endorses twin towers, science space in downtown

WATERLOO — Waterloo council has endorsed a big plan to redevelop an old post office for more than $100 million.

It includes twin condo towers soaring above Regina and King streets, and plans for a cultural centre for children who are keen on science.

"We're actually creating a heritage building in the uptown and getting rid of an eyesore," Mayor Dave Jaworsky said when council voted 6-1 Monday to approve the project at 70 King St. N. at the corner of Bridgeport Road.

"I love this project," Coun. Angela Vieth said. "This is going to be an attraction for families to move here with their kids."

"This project breaks the mould enough. It's not another square building on the corner," Coun. Brian Bourke said. "I will roll the dice on it."

The controversial proposal includes a highrise 24 storeys above Regina Street that meets city rules. But the adjacent tower at 11 storeys above King Street is almost triple the permitted height.

That's according to a city plan to preserve a traditional streetscape of up to four storeys along King Street.

"This is a significant increase," city planner Wendy Fisher told council. "It's not minor in nature. Exceptions should be rare."

Council agreed to make an exception after hearing from developer Scott Higgins and other supporters. Coun. Jeff Henry cast the only vote against the King Street tower, calling it "too much."

"This is no slight at all to the intentions of the space," Henry said.

Critics warned council that the project will dwarf neighbours, disrupt the historic streetscape, and set downtown King Street on the path to ever-higher buildings.

"The massing of this structure will overwhelm the existing height of the buildings in the core," said Marg Rowell, of the North Waterloo branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

"My main concern is the scale of this building, which is overwhelming," said Gail Pool.

"You will be leaving a legacy for your successors. So please make sure it's a good one," heritage advocate Kae Elgie said.

The project is proposed on the site of a former Canada Post office. Higgins, of Hip Developments, has proposed 321 residential units with 308 parking spaces and 367 bedrooms, all valued at more than $100 million.

"I feel great. It was a good debate," he said after winning council support. He expects ground could be broken late next year or in 2020.

To help sell the project, Higgins promoted it as a landmark building, a gateway into the downtown, and as a game-changing community-building venture.

Lower floors and street-level space would be partly dedicated to educating children in science and culture, like a minor hockey arena to develop thinking skills. This initiative is called Launch and it would be housed in the building.

"This matters to us," Higgins said. "This is our community and we care about its future success."

He warned there is no guarantee that Waterloo will thrive as an innovation centre without nurturing and celebrating culture, technology and arts.

"We are building an arena of creativity," said Tobi Day-Hamilton, who is helping to get Launch off the ground. "We have a bold vision ... There is an appetite in this community for this kind of programming."

Chef Nick Benninger hopes the development will bring customers back to four downtown restaurants he operates. "Something like this seems like a lifeboat showing up on the horizon," he said. "We need people or we won't survive."

A public committee that advises Waterloo on its "uptown vision" endorsed the project.

Planners estimate the project would provide extra public benefits valued at almost $4 million in high-quality design, public art and community space, to offset extra height above King Street. The design includes an undulating glass ribbon around its lower floors.

"I want to live in a city where the Jetsons want to live," Coun. Mark Whaley said, referencing the TV show about a family in a futuristic world.

"We're really fortunate we've got a land builder coming forward who can really do something spectacular," Coun. Melissa Durrell said. "We're not just breaking rules here."

Coun. Bob Mavin was absent from the meeting.