16-20 Queen Street North

This is the text I used for my remarks to the City of Kitchener Heritage Committee Advisory meeting on Tuesday, June 1st. Delegates were allowed five minutes, so I had to make some last minute cuts to stay within the limit. No space restrictions here, so I’ve re-inserted the deleted passages, which are in italics.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak. I signed up as a delegate, but I don’t currently have a relevant association, so I hope it’s OK that I speak only as a citizen of this city and this region.

I can’t add much to what distinguished, knowledgeable voices like Karl Kessler and Jean Haalboom have said in public statements recently. 

So I’ll speak personally and generally. I’ve always admired 20 Queen North, and thought long and hard about all the wonderful uses it could serve, especially from an arts&culture perspective. Not so long ago, when the late Ron Doyle told me that he and his partners had taken possession of it, I shared a few of my imaginings with him, because some of my thoughts were inspired by his various visions. He was gracious enough to at least listen with what seemed like a receptive mind.

But it wasn’t until a couple of days ago, when Councillor Chapman posted her “heritage alert” on social media, that I fully realized what an absolute treasure it is, as it stands, in miraculously good condition: a true wonder, given that it stands in a city that has been foolish, negligent and unfortunate with its heritage.

16-20 Queen is a treasure as it stands, but also because of where it stands, on this relatively small lot so near the city’s iconic royal crossroad, where East meets West, and South meets North. 

I recommend that we start treating Twenty Queen North of a piece with the freshly restored American Hotel, the miraculous Walper Terrace, and the splendid CIBC edifice: 

All four of these buildings warrant being valued, enjoyed and celebrated by future generations, and anything built near and around them should complement and enhance what they represent.

A lot of people I’ve been speaking to have given up already: Kitchener just doesn’t respect heritage, they say. They tore down their magnificent city hall to build that ridiculous mall. 

I can’t say I’m optimistic, but I have managed to keep some hope alive: I honestly believe we have an opportunity here to turn the tide: This is not 1973. It’s 2021. We know better now. 

Back then, they argued and argued, and then decided in the worst way possible, through a “yes or no” referendum. Sixty per cent of the turnout voted thumbs down for heritage, thumbs up for the mall developer. In 2021, we reflect back on that debacle 48 years ago and say: “What were they thinking?

The turning point can be right now, and right there, at Queen and King. From now on, and from that junction out, a more respectful, more considerate 21st century approach could take root, and then spread, up and down the block eastward, westward, southward and northward, until the radius of the circle encompasses the whole “Kilometre of Culture”, as it was called in Kitchener’s first CulturePlan.  

My initial reaction to Councillor Chapman’s call for input was: Couldn’t the site be traded for a parking lot or two somewhere? Let them pile up 100 storeys if that helps sweeten the deal, just don’t do it here.

There is so much room left, from King and Queen on out until you reach the countryside line. I didn’t fully appreciate how much until I saw what these developers propose to do with this tiny, tiny footprint. There must be a thousand sites of this size without any heritage buildings on them, which means there is room to double the population of the city without disturbing so much as single brick on anything of lasting architectural value. 

But it is not an unlimited amount of room to grow, and we need to start using what we have left wisely and judiciously. 

I’m hoping we can begin moving away from making decisions one building lot at a time, in response to the particular vision of each developer coming forward, in line with whatever is currently fashionable. It is time to take a holistic approach. It is time to be proactive.

Let’s take a moment to ask, as Rick Haldenby of Waterloo Architecture asked in his talk at KPL a couple of weeks ago: What kind of city are we building? 

Before we go any further, let’s take into consideration the whole city, and the other cities and towns and villages around us, and then decide when, what and where to build, or allow to be built, or, better, invite citizens to imagine, and architects to design for developers to build and sell.

That’s all I’m saying: Just slow down, and think it through. This building has stood for 112 years. Let’s not rush to deciding its fate.

Regarding its fate, and without considering the larger context and all possible alternatives, I’m speaking up for the conservation and continued good use of the building in its entirety, as close as possible to the way the architects designed it, as the labourers and craftspersons built it, out of respect for the materials that it is made of, and for the ways it has served this community generation after generation. 

A building, especially one of this quality, has a kind of life that, properly tended, can go on virtually forever. 

The facade would be just a souvenir, like a bear skin, an ivory tusk or a mounted set of antlers in relation to a majestic living creature.

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