A remarkable urban transformation is undergoing in Waterloo, Ontario. The inner suburban neighbourhood of Northdale is changing from single detached houses directly to dense, mid-rise urban buildings. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen, though perhaps it should. I’m going to try to explain how this came to be.
Northdale was established after World War II as a classic post-war subdivision on the edge of the city, at that point barely a kilometre from Waterloo’s downtown. As it happened, the small college immediately to the south grew, and also gave rise to a second institution that was established to the west of Northdale. These are now Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) and the University of Waterloo (UW), respectively, and number over 50,000 students in total.
All those students need somewhere to live. That had mostly been on campus, but in the 1980s and 1990s UW housing didn’t keep up with enrollment. In addition to newer apartment buildings and townhouse developments further from campus, students started living in the small suburban houses near campus, in particular within Northdale. By the 2000s, many houses were duplexed or had large additions constructed — not necessarily within the city’s rules, which frown on density increases. A house might hold upwards of eight bedrooms. Some served as party houses. Litter and property damage became issues. The neighbours, many of them longtime older owners, were not pleased.
Meanwhile, the Region of Waterloo, the upper-tier municipality containing the City of Waterloo, was formulating and implementing a sprawl-limiting land-use vision. In particular it meant that the City of Waterloo did not have much greenfield development land available.
The city conducted a series of studies in the early 2000s to plan how to accommodate population growth and student growth in particular. Its conclusion? Build up high-density residential-only “nodes and corridors”, and preserve low-density residential neighbourhoods. In the university area, it tried to prevent and reverse duplexing, and increase the minimum distance between licensed lodging houses.
Along the main streets — King, Columbia, University — some new student apartment buildings did start sprouting up, creating new residential space but conspicuously lacking the commercial amenities main streets usually have.
However, enrollment grew as well. The city plan did not seem to be working to change the student ratio in the interior of the neighbourhood. By the late 2000s, there was more attrition of longstanding homeowners, and many of those left were not optimistic about Northdale being returned to its former quiet suburban self. They complained to the city that the plan wasn’t working, and advocated for an overhaul that wasn’t led by the city. Some were hoping a new plan would work better, but most seemed content with having a way to sell and move on.
(Note: I did not live in the neighbourhood, but I was part of a group advocating for change, and wrote this newspaper column at the time.)
In January 2010, city council agreed to revisit the vision for the area. A stakeholder committee was formed, and there were some heated town hall meetings. In July 2011, the city hired external consultants to prepare a new plan. In November the city approved a new urban vision, and in June 2012 it approved a comprehensive new plan that included a full rezoning. (It took another year for Ontario Municipal Board appeals to be resolved.)
Meanwhile, the city’s Official Plan was being revised, and the new plan would change the zoning density calculations from being based on the number of units to the number of bedrooms — a response to the 5-bedroom apartments that had been springing up around the universities. For the university-area nodes and corridors, this meant a reduction in possible bedroom density, and this spurred developers to take advantage of the old rules before it was too late. The result was a boom of student apartment towers that has come to characterize the neighbourhood for much of the public.
The new plan includes a rezoning of the interior for dense, urban, mid- to high-rise development. Hickory Street requires active uses (i.e. commercial) at ground floor, many other streets allow them, and some require the ground floor to be convertible to active uses. There’s a plan to complete the street grid by creating new pathways between blocks and through dead-ends.
Crucially, the parking requirements are low. Generally in Waterloo, the city — like most others in North America — requires at least 1.0–1.5 parking spots per new residential unit constructed. And that had been the case for the student housing being built along the edge of Northdale, where developers reduced the parking costs (among other things) by putting 5 bedrooms in each unit. With the proximity of the universities, even this low amount of parking wasn’t all needed. The new Northdale plan roughly maintained this ratio but on a per-bedroom unit, resulting in a requirement of 0.25 parking spots per bedroom.
Low parking requirements mean small-lot redevelopment is feasible. One project on Lester Street (pictured) replaced two detached houses with a 12 storey tower (4 storey podium) containing 1 retail unit and 80 bedrooms across 1- and 2-bedroom units. All of the required parking fits at grade, behind the building and in lieu of some of the first floor. I doubt underground parking would have been possible in that small a lot.
Though the previous student apartment boom was argued to have caused a glut in the market, development in the neighbourhood has continued at a rapid pace under the new zoning. Detached set-back houses are turning into street-facing podium-tower buildings. For sale signs dot assembled clusters of properties. Stacked townhouses are being built that make connections into former cul-de-sacs.
Developments are still being marketed to students, but they’re now being built in a form that has appeal to others too. Adjacent to UW is a cluster of start-ups and established tech companies which would be a natural source of housing demand when the unmet student housing demand dries up.
The first retail in the interior of Northdale opened a year and a half ago. There are now at least ten businesses open, including cafes, restaurants, a hair salon, and a convenience store.
Waterloo may not know it yet, but it’s growing itself a second downtown.
Thanks to Mark Jackson-Brown for feedback on this post.