Speech against the Ira Needles development

On Monday, June 22, Waterloo City Council considered the proposed development and zoning changes for the huge Ira Needles mixed-use development at Ira Needles Boulevard and University Avenue, which would straddle the border between Waterloo and Kitchener.

The public input sessions regarding this proposal were only conducted in the immediate surrounding suburban area, so there was poor awareness of this project. Several of the presentations at the meeting were by the developers and associated people. One lady argued against the proposal because of its proximity to the landfill — her concern is that the development will be unusable and unsafe as a result, and that this will have unfortunate consequences for the landfill’s operation. Another argued that it will contribute to serious water contamination issues. My speech, reproduced below, was the only one against the very idea of the development. A number of people later came up to shake my hand for giving the speech.

Unfortunately, City Council disregarded their own misgivings as well as the concerns raised, and voted unanimously in favour of the development. In writeups about the ruling, the Record and the Waterloo Chronicle mentioned my comments with varying degrees of accuracy.

Mayor Halloran, Members of Council,

I am here to say that the emperor has no clothes. The development you are presently considering is utterly ridiculous. It is an enormous blow to ongoing efforts to make the City of Waterloo and the Region sustainable areas with strong urban cores and decreased car dependence.

There’s a lot of places I could start, but it may as well be size. I’m sure you all know that this is a large development. Take a look at the Preferred Development Concept; it doesn’t look that big, does it?Ira Needles development size

Let me put it into perspective: it is exactly the same size as the University of Waterloo’s main campus inside Ring Road. Just the parking lots cover a space the size of Wilfrid Laurier University. And what do you get for that space? A whole slew of minimum wage jobs in retail and 4000 parking spaces.

First and foremost, the development is big box retail. All of its buildings face inwards towards a sea of parking. The claimed pedestrian- and transit-friendliness is a farce.

Consider the pedestrian aspect. First of all, how does a sprawling suburban area produce pedestrians in any significant quantity? But let’s say that it does, and they wish to deposit their time and money into the development. To get there they will have to traverse roundabouts that will have enormous numbers of cars going at high speeds in and out of the mall. And then there’s the issue of the size of the development itself – which is over a kilometre across!

The plans describe the “internal capture” that keeps customers in the development for multiple purposes. But they won’t be pedestrians while doing it. Technically, people could drive to this mall, park, and then visit multiple parts of the complex on foot. But we all know this won’t happen. The distances in the development are far too large for this, and the dullness of crossing the endless parking would discourage anyone attempting to traverse it on foot. It is abundantly clear that for all of this “capture” of customers, people will get in their cars and drive to get from one part of the complex to another, and another. It’s even clear from the diagrams of the development — the tiny dots are cars parked as close as they can to their respective big boxes. The developer knows this place is so big that it really does matter how close you parked to your destination.

On to transit. The plans talk so little about parking, and so much about transit. Is having a bus stop there supposed to make it all okay? Anyone who gets off the bus — at the one stop planned within the site — becomes a pedestrian. And I already mentioned why this development is not pedestrian-friendly. A very small proportion of visitors would walk or use the bus to get there, much smaller than the kinds of developments we should be focusing on.

I believe it is clear that this is a very car-centric development. And it is a huge one at that. I don’t know how we are expected to believe that Ira Needles Boulevard or other arterial roads in the area will not be affected by the development. The reports claim that the road will have to be widened by 2013 anyway, and that subsequently the development won’t contribute much more traffic than the alternative. From what I can glean, this supposed alternative is not the lack of a development, but just a slightly smaller one. Common sense and Kitchener planning staff agree: the proposed development will be a huge contributor to traffic and will necessitate serious road expansion. The fact that sizeable traffic would also be caused by a reduced development is cold comfort. Consider that the development aims to be a success; knowing its car dependence and size, it is not difficult to picture the effect of that success on traffic and roads in that area.

The new Regional Official Plan almost certainly would not allow this project, for pretty much the same reasons that I am opposed to it. It is precisely the kind of car-oriented suburban sprawl-promoting development that we must avoid at all costs. Section 2.G.6 of the plan says that new Retail Commercial Centres will only be permitted within Urban Growth Centres, Major Transit Station Areas, or Major Local Nodes. Further, they must not adversely affect the planned function of any Urban Growth Centre or Major Transit Station Area.

While perhaps forcing bus service to outlying suburbs can make this development appear to be at a “Major Local Node” it is very clear that the development would have adverse impacts on the downtowns and the Central Transit Corridor. It will create a very large supply of jobs and retail away from the core, certainly funneling development and consumers away from the areas in which the province and the region mandate intensification.

Now, I don’t know whether the new Regional Official Plan applies to this development, but hopefully the plan will prevent future sprawling development. However, if you are about to go on a much-needed diet, gorging yourself in preparation defeats the purpose.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that this development does not get built. If indeed that is the case, it is prudent to at least make a serious attempt to minimize the development’s impact on traffic and to maximize its transit friendliness. To that end, I suggest that this developer be required to contribute a sizable portion of the planning and construction cost of a streetcar line along University Avenue. Such a line would connect this end of Kitchener-Waterloo with the light rail line at the core, and provide a real — not token — way of getting to this development without a car. This is not a rhetorical example, and I hope you fully consider this possibility.

It is ironic how this project touts itself as being modern, sustainable, green, pedestrian-friendly, and transit-friendly when at its heart, it is nothing other than a power centre and a few strip malls put together. All the talk of “urban design” of this inherently suburban development is no more convincing than lipstick on a pig.

This development is clearly buzzword-friendly. However, it is not pedestrian-friendly, it is not transit-friendly, and it is not even traffic-friendly. Above all, it is not future-friendly. I ask you to take a firm stand against suburban sprawl and this development in particular.


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3 responses to “Speech against the Ira Needles development”

  1. Adam Fraser says :

    Reading this was as if I was reading my own writing. We share the exact same oppinions, though you have some more, and so do I. I’m 18. This city is my future, and I can’t let it be destroyed like this. the cookie cutter house made so the city could expand fast, the shopping centre, the roads, rediculous. I’ve gotten myself enough attention with my letters to the editors and complaints to the city that I was contacted by a developer/planner dealing with this. He wants to ask me some questions and stuff. Im happy! Im planning on going into Urban Planning at Waterloo. I don’t know how they think it’s positive for the future of our city. I know we’re not the only ones. Everyone I’ve spoken to, after being propperly infromed about the situation, agreed with us. I really wonder if anyone actually wants this, knowing the affects. Sorry, I’m probably ranting.

    Thanks for your time and efforts,


    • Michael D says :

      Thanks for your comment. If it helps any, I’m fairly sure this project will be the last of its kind in the region, owing to the new official plan. And it’s not even clear that all of it will get built. I think the region is slowly but surely moving away from this kind of development and thinking.

      Don’t get discouraged, continue to speak up, and best of luck with your studies.

  2. Dennis says :

    Excellent speech, I must not have seen it in the local media outlets. “Ira Needles Commercial Centre” is exactly what KW doesn’t need another car friendly big box centre.

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