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Could the future of the Tannery be as a true district for people?


The Tannery is an amazing project. It’s an amazing building. Every time I step inside it seems to be more amazing than the time before.

The Tannery deserves all of the awards that it has been given for adaptive reuse of a part of our industrial past. My most recent tour was just this week. Just walking in the the “Velocity Garage” was awe inspiring. Walking through the halls on the second floor had a similar effect on me. I can not heap enough praise on it or find enough words. The Tannery is now home to Waterloo Region’s future.

I’m truly in love with what is happening there. I always knew that I would be. Since my first post about the Tannery over two years ago, I have said so as often as I could.

Tannery is not a people place

I fell in love with the idea of the “Tannery District” because I had already fallen in love with Toronto’s Distillery District.

I chose to get engaged at the Distillery District because my wife and I love the energy of all the people. We loved the atmosphere of all the old industrial buildings hosting art galleries, chocolate shops, bakeries and more. We loved the wide open spaces filled only with pedestrians that encouraged you to mill about and to see what is around the next corner. We loved the opportunities for fine dining or sitting out on a patio oozing with character.

So from the moment, I heard that John MacDonald was trying to save the four smaller building on the Tannery’s second block. I was in with both feet. Without those buildings, we would be left with just one massive building (actually many buildings but tied together as if one). That building and what was to happen inside it promised to be amazing but we risked losing our best chance to turn the project into a people place.

I’m told that the Tannery is a people place. Things are happening there all the time and folks are wondering in off the street all the time. I’m sorry but that doesn’t meet the definition of a successful public space which I refer to as a people place.

When you have guests from out of town, you are not going to take them to the Tannery to mill about and investigate the shops and galleries. There essentially are none. There is a Balzacs but it primarily serves the workforce in the building. It’s not the same kind of people watching destination as its Distillery counterpart. You might drive by and say that’s where Google has offices but you’re not likely to make a point of it and you’re almost certainly not going to stop. I doubt many engagements happen at the Firkin.

The Tannery is a great success on the inside. It’s a place you go to when you you have a reason to go inside. For the vast majority of visits, that means to work. When you go outside, you are going outside to leave. There is nothing outside the building to grab your attention and inspire you to linger or to side track you. A large group of people on a Jane’s Walk this spring agreed.

The Tannery is not a successful public space.

Just as I predicted.

When Lana Sherman of Cadan gave a group of us a tour two years ago, I tried to explain to her that as much as trying to save the buildings we were trying to save the big open spaces around the buildings. The combination of the two would be where the magic could be found. She pulled me over and showed me a public courtyard and said that they did have big open spaces. We were clearly not on the same page.

I knew then that the space I was being shown would be the type of space that maybe people might use to have a break or eat the lunch they brought from home. It would never buzz with people or energy unless it was hosting an event.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen more than one person on that courtyard anytime that I’ve check. From Joseph Street, the gate is normally closed. I understand it’s unlocked but the message to stay out is clear. Even though it is close to where I work, I would never think of eating lunch there the way I do for the entrance to Victoria Park.

Contrast that with these photos of the Distillery at 10:45 on Thursday, July 12. There were already people hanging out and tourists exploring. And you can tell that later in the day and on weekends, it’s definitely a successful public place.

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The Tannery can have a future as a true district for people

Call me naive. Call me stubborn. As long as the hide house has remained standing, I have maintained hope.

I still believe that the Tannery can be a true district for people. More importantly I think it should be.

Along with the hide house, the chimney continues to give that block its original ambiance. If Allied Properties chose to, it could direct a design team to turn that space into the kind of space that includes funky shops, artsy spaces, cool bistros and fine dining and lots of large open spaces. With any luck enough of the original materials from the demolished building or in renovating the main complex are still around that they could be reused. If not, I’m sure that the right design team could find ways to replicate the ambiance and character IF the will exists.

Doing so would make the Tannery a destination for people living in Waterloo Region and out of town visitors. It’d also serve people in the Tannery, Allied’s property across Victoria Street, the UW Health campus, the Kaufman Lofts and even the Breithaupt block in a way that currently does not exist. It’d be a logical extension of the downtown and could even help to connect people with what the core offers.

What I don’t want to see is another large office building with minimal entrances and nothing of interest to get pedestrians to walk down Jospeh or even along that stretch of Victoria. There’s more than enough of that in the Innovation District already. What we need is a space that naturally attracts people to be outside or to duck into a shop or sit in a coffee shop and watch the people walk by.

If my vision of a Distillery District like place is not realized, I recommend at the very least that the office building be fronted along Victoria and Joseph with the retail and service spaces with frequent entrances and wide sidewalks. Some additional residential would also be welcome.

A variation could see a grocery store occupy most of the Victoria Street side and smaller businesses along Joseph.

We have a second chance to take an amazing development and realize its even greater potential. Let’s seize it!

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2 comments on “Could the future of the Tannery be as a true district for people?

  1. Well stated but I think your love affair with the distillery district is over stated. I like what the distillery district attempted but what I don’t like is that it’s void of organic material. It desparately needs green and some shade. It’s a brick jungle, no gardens, trees other than token pots. I would never ever consider going to the distillery district during daytime in June, July or August especially during a heat wave.

    That on the other hand is what the Tannery has going for it. It’s not a big expansive complex, it’s welcoming to strangers, the coffee shop, pub and hub do wonders. The fact it’s on the edge of Victoria park is amazing. Why not grab your lunch and head out to eat under the shade of a giant maple and watch all the amazing people using that beautiful space :)

    I do agree with your sentiment that it can still become so much more, but my view is that it’s already a better spot than the distillery district, cause I’d take a 100 year old tree over a choclatier any day.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Graham.

    I don’t see it as an either or choice. Victoria Park definitely offers things like 100 year old trees that I value but that the Tannery can’t offer. But I don’t see that as a reason not to create a people place at the Tannery. The more destinations that downtown Kitchener has, the more reasons there are for someone to go there, stay there and want to come back.

    I’m also not suggesting that we need to replicate the Distillery District exactly. Just to use it as a model. We can apply some Waterloo Region innovation to the concept to make it work even better and in a way suited to the people living in this area and those we want to attract to visit or live.

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