The new year could bring a new opportunity to re-imagine the future of Queen Street in downtown Kingston, Ont.
City planners and residents say the street is ripe for residential intensification and beautification projects, even though the nine-block route with its narrow sidewalks is better known for its legal battles over highrise buildings and is generally loathed by drivers and pedestrians alike.
“I don’t see a lot of love for Queen Street but I see a lot of potential,” said Nico Koenig, a resident of nearby McBurney Park.
Koenig, a self-described community organizer who has written about Queen Street’s potential in a neighbourhood newsletter, wants the street to be more inviting to cyclists, pedestrians and people who’ll live there in the future.
He views Queen Street’s four lanes for traffic as more of a shortcut for drivers looking to get to and from the LaSalle Causeway. He says the street, which has consistently ranked poorly in the CAA’s annual survey of Ontario’s worst roads, can be transformed into its own downtown destination with proper planning for residential buildings, stores and other amenities.
“Not many people like Queen Street. Nobody is walking Queen and drivers, according to the CAA, say Queen is one of the top 10 worst streets in Ontario.”
Some of his ideas could be viewed as radical or progressive.
These include closing the entire street to drivers and turning it into a linear park with benches, trees and park space, and building a lookout platform to view the lake and Royal Military College. Failing that, he advocates removing at least one or two traffic lanes in order to give cyclists and pedestrians more elbow room, to make it safer and more inviting.
While many of Koenig’s views focus on beautifying the street itself, City Hall is grappling with the types of buildings that should border it.
“We can add more residential to bring more people downtown, which I think more critical than ever coming out of the pandemic and supporting the businesses here,” according to Paige Agnew, the city’s commissioner of community services.
Agnew, who served as the city’s chief planner prior to her promotion, believes future highrises can be built in thoughtful and sensitive ways that won’t detract from the downtown’s historic charm and tourism appeal, but says having community buy-in is key.
“We need to have more people living downtown and we have to have a conversation in the community and agree on how to do it. Otherwise, we get locked up in appeal after appeal and nothing gets built and the community suffers as a result.”
While Queen Street may never rival the downtown’s main drag of Princess Street, which runs parallel to Queen one block away, with its restaurants and unique stores, many agree it’s a key piece of the downtown puzzle that needs more attention.
Agnew says there are at least five proposed residential buildings along Queen Street that are in various stages of the planning process.
One of them is already underway – the Crown condo.
Formerly known as the Capitol condominium, the residential tower project by IN8 Developments finally broke a six-year logjam of citizen appeals by striking a compromise deal to cap the building at nine floors, a big drop from the original plan at more than 20 storey’s.
IN8 president Darryl Firsten says it will take more than his building to rejuvenate on Queen Street.
“I think it’s definitely underutilized with a ton of potential. It has a lot of vehicular traffic coming up and down, but no one is really stopping and shopping and walking and using the street. I think it has more potential if it had residents living on the streets.”
Demolition of the former Capitol movie cinema at 223 Princess St. began late last year to clear the way for the building’s construction, next to the Global Kingston media building.
Firsten says Queen Street is ideal for downtown density and intensification – the planning terms for cramming a lot of residential units into a small footprint usually through taller buildings – and the back portion of the old theatre along Queen is where his building will be situated.
Opponents of the height of buildings should instead focus on creating a thriving downtown with more people living there, he argues.
“The notion of an economy driving itself on tourism just isn’t going to work. The future is we need more people living downtown. They’re going to be there 365 days a year.”
However, opponents continue to push back with appeals against what they say are over-the-top building height demands by developers, including the proposed 19- and 23-floor buildings by Homestead Land Holdings on lower Queen Street.
Other high-rise projects currently being planned are at Queen and Barrie streets and near Queen and Division streets.
Agnew says downtown vibrancy and density can be achieved with attractive building designs that don’t overwhelm the low-rise surroundings.
“With these new projects coming it’s going to change the look and feel of Queen Street in a way I think is going to be positive and, hopefully, bringing vibrancy and new people downtown.”
She says finding the right balance between what a developer wants and what the community will accept – with local politicians and planners (and often appeal tribunals) making the key decisions – is critical to the street’s future rejuvenation.
Agnew says a city-sponsored Density by Design process will focus on creating a vision for suitable downtown growth, including Queen Street, later this year.
“We need to holistically deal with the whole street. If we allow things to build out incrementally, that’s not helpful. We need a vision and that’s our top priority for 2022.”
Koenig says if there was ever a time to reimagine Queen Street, that time is now, noting the street will lose some of its shortcut appeal to get to the causeway once the $180-million Third Bridge crossing opens in late 2022. There’s also $61,000 the city has received as a community benefit from the Crown condo developer which is earmarked for a Queen Street redevelopment study.
“With that amount of commitment I’m not sure what you can get, but I’d say put it in for an international prize. Let’s get feedback from around the world for how we can redesign Queen Street to make it the best street in the world.”