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Our City, Our Spaces: Revitalizing buildings for community benefits in Ontario’s mid-sized cities

Ontario's mid-sized cities are facing a unique challenge dealing with historic, vacant buildings that have the potential to fill a need in the community.
A view of a downtown Brantford street.
Top image caption: At one point Brantford's downtown was the third largest industrial centre in Canada, a fact reflected in its rich collection of pre-Confederation and pre-First World War buildings/

Published on November 01, 2017

Mid-sized cities have a unique trait — many are full of under-utilized physical assets such as vacant storefronts, abandoned factories, or old post offices that can be used by and for the community. Leaders in mid-sized cities have started applying new approaches to reanimating and reinvigorating these spaces for innovation.

There are three different types of mid-sized cities, with Evergreen's work focused on "centre cities" — regional hubs with historic centres that function as autonomous economies and self-standing communities. These communities offer many benefits to residents, such as providing employment, higher education and health services, but also have a wealth of under-utilized spaces. 

Our recently-released  report, Our City, Our Spaces (PDF, 7.2MB), explores the adaptive reuse of four of these assets in Brantford, Peterborough, Kitchener and Hamilton.

Hamiltonians take part in a community activity at the Hamilton Storefront.

How can we make these cities great places to live, work and play? They thrive when we design them for the needs and interests of our communities. The revitalized buildings in these four Ontario cities all fill a need in their communities.

Brantford: A reimagined downtown

When Wilfrid Laurier University chose to build a campus in Brantford, they located it in the heart of downtown. Once called “the worst downtown in Canada,” Brantford has since undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming a thriving residential, commercial and business-oriented centre for the city.

Laurier's Carnegie Library in downtown Brantford.

A total of 21 buildings downtown have been redeveloped to become part of Laurier’s Brantford campus, with the most prominent being the Carnegie Library. While the redevelopment of the building meant adding modern amenities, many of the space’s defining features, such as the arched entrances, high ceilings and elaborate mouldings, have been preserved.

Since the Carnegie Library’s reopening in 1999, a number of other downtown buildings have been redeveloped to become part of the campus, including 38 Market St., an old bank building, and 97 Dalhousie, an adult entertainment club turned campus art gallery.

Peterborough: Building a community hub

Recognizing a need for a “hub for affordable housing and food,” the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network began the redevelopment of a farmhouse that was redeveloped as a convent in the 1890s.

The Mount in Peterborough was originally a convent.

The Mount Community Centre brings together affordable housing, food security and community services to fight poverty in a holistic and sustainable way. Currently under phase two of development, 43 rental units have already been built and rented out, with another 38 under construction.

The Mount in Peterborough.
Kawartha Now

The heritage features of the building, including the chapel, French radiators, tin ceilings and staircases, have been restored. Future updates for the site include a commercial-grade kitchen, community spaces, and rental venues for events, weddings and concerts.

Kitchener: Sustaining the tech economy

Through the work of local leaders in the public and private sector, Kitchener has supported a dynamic local tech economy of its own, before only really captured by twin-city Waterloo.

The Tannery in Kitchener.

Once the largest tannery in the British Empire, the Lang Tannery is a 450,000 sq. ft. facility. Its large space, combined with proximity to transit, new university buildings and other downtown amenities, made it an attractive space for a large office development that would become home to the Communitech hub.

Communitech in Kitchener.

The redevelopment of the space combined the open-concept design tech spaces are known for with the historical features of the building. Walls were removed, the stone and brick features maintained, and large windows that look out onto the landscaped interior courtyards provide lots of natural light.

Hamilton : A storefront for the community

In 2014, Evergreen launched a project in Hamilton to help increase community awareness and involvement in Hamilton's West Harbour Redevelopment Project. Since then, the space has evolved to be a dynamic and shared community space, providing a diversity of opportunities to support and encourage a more sustainable, collaborative and inclusive future for Hamilton.

The Hamilton storefront on James Street North.

Together with hundreds of community groups and associations, local artists and change agents, we have collectively transformed a vacant commercial storefront on James Street North into a dynamic community hub that responds to local needs by providing opportunities for civic engagement and action.

Crowds at the Hamilton storefront.

The open interior was altered to include temporary dividing walls so the space can be transformed to fit a variety of purposes for the community. To date, the Hamilton Community Storefront has hosted hundreds of meetings and workshops involving a multitude of different community groups and organizations. The goal of the initiative has been to improve communications and coordination among the community, local government, and non-profit groups to address the broader challenges faced by the city.

Studying adaptive reuse of urban spaces for community benefit in these four cities offers different approaches to challenges facing Ontario's mid-sized cities. None of these initiatives were the result of one actor. Leaders from the community are essential to their success, whether as the visionaries who started the initiative, or the individuals and groups that made it their own by engaging with it day in, day out. Multiple partners had to participate to create the conditions for successful growth, from upper levels of government to municipal and civic leaders.

The challenges facing mid-sized cities are complex and unique, but there are common factors across communities. Many mid-sized cities are dealing with downtown renewal, the need for economic diversification, a lack of affordable housing and the need for community-strengthening infrastructure. These four studies provide inspiration for other mid-sized cities and their communities on how to address community challenges through transforming space. 

Want more information on Evergreen’s “Our City, Our Spaces” report or on reusable assets? We’ll be hosting a panel and tour in Brantford on January 30, followed by an event in Kitchener on February 21. Learn more about the event on our website.