Waterloo Region on verge of becoming "a really big city"

By Rose Simone, Record staff

KITCHENER — Imagine a dense, large city, cosmopolitan in nature, with lots of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, plenty of highrise condos and condo townhouses in the core, and streets bustling with traffic.

That describes the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo of the future, says Joe Berridge, a partner at Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based planning and urban design firm.

“You are becoming a really big city, and a whole lot of things come with that,” Berridge said at a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. annual housing outlook seminar held Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Kitchener.

Big city transit options, such as light rail transit, or some type of fast and efficient transit system, will no longer be a choice but a necessity, Berridge added.

“It means that you will have to intensify and turn into a more pedestrian- and transit-based community than you have had in the past. However you figure out how to pay for this, that will have to be in the works,” Berridge said.

He said people will need to see investment in the transit system in the same way they regarded investment in universities. “It is an investment in the next generation,” he said.

Berridge said although this region won’t become a giant like Toronto, it will nevertheless be a large city that is “much more compact and dense in its centre.”

Conference participants were told that in the shorter term, the housing market in Waterloo Region will return to a steadier and more stable period of growth in 2011 compared to the “roller coaster ride” of up and down swings in sales and prices that characterized the market in recent years.

“The wild ride is over,” said Erica McLerie, a senior market analyst with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

But Berridge said over the longer term, this region is growing faster than most other mid-sized cities in Ontario because the post-secondary institutions here have made it the “brain capital of Ontario.”

Waterloo Region has already passed the critical mass of a half-million people and it is expected to grow to more than 700,000 people by 2031. That gives it the second fastest population growth for a mid-sized city in Ontario, right after Barrie, he added.

The region “is assuming, very rapidly, a dominant position in Ontario,” Berridge said.

But it doesn’t have the ability to allow more sprawl on the outskirts, he added.

The Ontario Places to Grow Act is not likely to be changed too much by the present or future provincial government because people living in the smaller villages in the outskirts will also resist the urban sprawl, he added.

“There really isn’t a lot more land coming on in the next 20 years, so that does mean that you are going to be looking more and more at intensification sites and building more in the existing built-up area, reusing buildings for multiple and intense forms of dwellings,” Berridge said.

The region’s three cities will become more like “one big city,” he added.

In the past, this region has been characterized by big single-family detached dwellings, much like other small- and mid-sized cities in Ontario. But that, too, will shift somewhat. There will be growing demand for other housing options such as apartments and condos.

“That is just a fact of life for anybody who lives in a big city,” Berridge said.

Trends in the global economy are going to push up the costs of fuel and will change the way people view housing and transit options, he added. “Congestion is already becoming nightmarish and the cost of gas is going up and that will very slowly start to get reflected in the people’s housing choices.”

In many ways, Waterloo Region is experiencing the issues that come with being a growth success story, Berridge said. The “incredible investment” in higher education “is now being repaid with the incredible retention and attraction of a younger workforce.”

As a result of the investment in higher education, this region is also drawing larger numbers of highly educated immigrants with university degrees. So the very nature of the region is changing fast, Berridge said.

Compared to places in Europe and elsewhere, Ontario has actually done a good job of successfully integrating its immigrants, and “I am convinced that the successful transition into home ownership is one of the crucial parts of making that process of settlement successful,” he added.

Meanwhile, McLerie said that for the coming year, the sales and prices in the Kitchener housing market should be fairly balanced, with growth happening, but at a slower and steadier pace.

She said the housing market has been “very volatile” in recent years, because it experienced a big drop at the end of 2008 with the financial crash, then surged early this year when people were trying to buy ahead of the anticipated higher interest rates and harmonized sales tax, and then dipped again afterwards.

Although the global economy is still shaky, the local housing market is supported by population growth, a gradually improving job market and the expectation that mortgage rates will remain relatively low, she added.

“What we look forward to in 2011 is a period of more stability. After three years of volatility, the markets will return to their longer-term trend,” McLerie said.

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