Williamsville looks to attract students

A Main Street Study passed by City Council in February looks to revitalize the west side of Princess St.

The strip West of Princess and Division Streets is currently home to mostly defunct commercial space. The City approved plans for the revitalization of the area in February.
The strip West of Princess and Division Streets is currently home to mostly defunct commercial space. The City approved plans for the revitalization of the area in February.
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The upper side of Princess St. may be getting a facelift if developers are quick to act on the City’s recommendations for redevelopment. Under the Williamsville Main Street Study, new transportation and parking infrastructure, more student housing and revitalized commercial spaces were passed by City Council this February.

The target area is the 1.7 km stretch of Princess St. that runs from Bath Rd./Concession St. to Division St., and borders the Student Ghetto. The strip bears little resemblance to its neighboring thriving downtown core and currently features a long stretch of defunct commercial space.

If the plans come into effect, students will see the first of the new housing settlements along Victoria, Nelson, Alfred and Albert Streets.

According to Varsity Properties President A.J. Keilty, the company jumped at the chance to develop more student housing, including a 30-suite townhouse development at Albert and Princess Streets.

“Queen’s University is unique in that there are many barriers [for] development close to campus,” Keilty told the Journal via email. “There is a lake [at] the south, a heritage district to the east and small, hard to assemble lots to the north of Princess.

“That means that Williamsville (specifically Princess Street) is our best option to develop large buildings.”

The Williamsville District, which has just over 10,000 residents, encompasses Bath Rd./Concession St. and Sir John A. MacDonald Blvd. to Johnson and Division Streets, which includes the Memorial Centre, Kingston Frontenac Public Library and much of the University’s student housing.

Williamsville properties have been in the works for a while, Keilty said, and despite the current state of the Princess St. strip, Varsity, a company that targets Queen’s students and offers mainly apartments for rent, is confident that students will be interested in their properties.

“During planning stages we can only make educated guesses as to who would like to live in the development,” he said. “While we prefer students, if they weren’t interested in our development, we would absolutely rent to non-students.”

The strip currently has few housing options for students. Keilty said housing more students along it would benefit local residents.

“We believe that it is best for students to be housed in large developments on main arterial roads, so as to leave the quiet, less trafficked streets for downtown families and their young children,” he said.

Sue Bazely, a Williamsville resident, said a mixed housing environment can be better for the city than one made up solely of students.

“When we’re looking at new development, the key is to keep that diversity,” she said. But while the Williamsville Main Street Study recommendations were approved in February, it remains unclear just how much physical change will occur in the future.

Williamsville resident and member of Williamsville Neighbourhood Association, which sits on the the Near Campus Neighbourhood Advisory Committee, John Grenville said he believes businesses could remain absent on the strip due to the student population’s fluctuating presence in the city.

“Part of the problem is that there’s a lot of people that are students … that creates its own dynamic and its own source of problems,” Grenville said. “It’s a good market to draw on but it’s also a market that’s only there for maybe seven months of year.”

“It’s a tough environment as a retailer to do business in — it’s tough when half your clientele goes missing for four months.” In 2011, Statistics Canada reported that Kingston is home to 123, 363 residents. The majority of Queen’s 25,000 students opt to leave Kingston during the summer months.

Grenville, a longtime Williamsville resident who lives near the Memorial Centre, said it’s difficult to deny the need for improvement in the area’s Princess strip. The area contains an obvious stretch of unappealing, empty space — formerly home to businesses including car washes and gas stations.

“If you drive or walk or bike through that section you’ll see clearly there’s a lot of vacant and underutilized land. There’s quite a few buildings that are underutilized as well,” he said. “They’re on the main street of the city — that in and of itself points to need for attention.”

These vacancies pose a problem to both students and permanent residents, Grenville said.

“I think it’s something that we share,” he said. “We have a desire for good accommodation and good commercial space in walking distance from where we live, particularly for those who don’t have vehicles.”

Despite receiving City Council approval, students may not see new development in Williamsville during their time living in Kingston.

“I would say a minimum of 18 months, more likely two to three years … it may seem nothing is happening but the plan provides framework for things to happen.”

And, despite glaring vacancies in one of the largest streets in the city, students have been slow to indicate interest in the revitalization. Public meetings were held in April, May and October of last year to gather feedback for the Main Street Study, but they largely attracted business owners and permanent Williamsville residents, Grenville said.

Before the area is fully redeveloped, the City needs to finish work on their comprehensive zoning bylaws – something that has prevented them from actively approaching businesses about the rejuvenation.

In the meantime, interested developers, like Varsity Properties who already meet zoning bylaws have informed the city of their intentions. Williamsville Councillor Jim Neill is confident that Varsity’s combined residential and retail development will prove alluring to both current and future students.

“It’s been a model that’s been successful,” he said, citing ground floor commercial development with above-ground retail in cities such as Calgary as examples.

“You can revitalize the core of the city by bringing in residents,” he said, citing the temporary nature of student’s time in Kingston as a problem. However, there are advantages to combined residential and retail development.

“You move in a bunch of students above you and you have virtually eight hundred consumers living in your building,” he said, adding that he estimates the Williamsville district is made up of 80 per cent students.

Aside from student housing, Neill has high hopes for the future of the strip.

“Downtown is distinct but its very much kind of entertainment/restaurant/tourist kind of area,” he said. “I think there’s place for things like … a butcher shop, green grocer.” Whether the strip will attract these businesses remains to be seen, but according to Neill, the area’s aesthetics need it.

“There are huge vacant concrete lots. The result is frankly a stretch that reminds of Detroit after the riots.”

— With files from Rachel Herscovici and Vincent Matak

An accessible pathway

Bike lanes could also be part of the revitalization project if the City is able to appease local businesses’ Bike lanes weren’t included in the original Williamsville Main Street Study. After Neill approached the consulting firm, an amendment was made and bike lanes were included in the study’s recommendations.

The city’s challenge in implementing bike lanes in Williamsville lies in accommodating neighbouring businesses’ interest in parking.

“That’s the problem cities give to engineers,” he said. “The problem right now is the pushback we get when you take parking off the street.

“Parking … is something the business district never want to give up, but right now they have less than 40 per cent usage.”

It’s not just the current businesses oppose bike lanes, — some student and city lobby groups think cyclists should be treated as vehicles on the road, Neill said.

“If a cyclist wants to respect the rules of the road … people should be respectful of that. But for families and young riders, I want a bike lane,” he said.

Neill said he sympathizes with cyclists who use the sidewalk, despite difficulties they may pose to other pedestrians.

“If there’s somebody riding on the sidewalk slowly and carefully because the city hasn’t given them a bike lane on the road … I can see the rationale for not wanting to take their life into their hands,” he said. “There are some belligerent, road-rage drivers.”

A decision regarding the creation of bike lanes in Williamsville will be made in September.

— Jessica Fishbein

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