66 Queen Street South: A Downtown Revitalization Project

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, June 2003

To create is to construct, and to construct cooperatively is to lay the foundation of a peaceful community.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Barbara Coloroso attributed this quote to Herbert Read, an English poet, essayist and political activist. Read believed that refined aesthetics could lead to social harmony.

Essentially Read’s words describe exactly what The Working Centre is hoping to accomplish as it moves into another construction project. This spring, the Centre was offered an opportunity to purchase the empty building next to us at 66 Queen St. South. This 2-story, 15,000 square foot building (including basement) has been empty for the past 5 years. In its lack of repair and recent history of disuse, it is in many ways identical to the 43 Queen building.

66 Queen St. today stands in stark contrast to the proud picture and advertisement that appeared in 1906 in the book Berlin Today. This picture depicts the owners of the Randall and Roos Wholesale Groceries and Liquors standing in front of their recently constructed building. The business was originally located in the Arhen’s Block. In 1898 Randall and Roos completed construction of their own two-storey brick building. The picture also shows another building on the left (now Charles St.) and an empty lot where 58 Queen was soon to be built. Randall and Roos operated their store until Weber Hardware moved next door from 58 to 66 Queen. During the Depression, 58 Queen was often vacant until Sidney Wright established Ontario Office Outfitters in 1935. In 1959, Ontario Office Outfitters purchased 66 Queen and made it the base for their provincial retail operation.

When The Working Centre first rented at 58 Queen, we were a young organization whose ambition was to provide basic, supportive job search assistance in the Kitchener downtown. In order to sign the lease, we were instructed to meet the owners at Bruce Wright’s house in Beechwood. There we met Bruce Wright the oldest brother, Ted Wright the younger brother who was actively involved with maintaining the building and Jean Barkley, the sister who had had an equal role in the family business. This family had worked side by side with their father to build up Ontario Office Outfitters. As the name suggests, Ontario Office Outfitters was a fixture not only in downtown Kitchener but also well beyond the confines of Waterloo County. The three siblings sold the business to Willson’s Stationery in 1977 but still retained the buildings. On that day Bruce reminded me, “Son, do not forget that the rent you will be paying is our retirement income.” Mr. Wright thus made it clear that the rental of property was not to be taken lightly.

Ten years later the Wrights sold their properties and a period of decline set in. The Working Centre was fortunate to purchase 58 Queen in a power of sale situation in the mid 1990s. We have since extensively renovated the building, have re-established apartments in order to generate income and provide social housing and have used every square inch of the building for community use. Anyone who tours 58 Queen is amazed by the mix of services and projects that operate out of the deceptively sprawling building.

During this time 66 Queen was going through a major decline. When a building is not systematically upgraded to meet the fire and building codes, the space not only becomes a fire trap but also becomes increasingly unusable. At this point only a major renovation can revitalize the building.

As with 43 Queen, our plan is a major and thorough renovation. This means completely gutting all the false ceilings and walls and installing new electrical, heating and plumbing. Creating proper exits with quick access to the street is also a major issue with older buildings.

We are fortunate to have Peter Moberly and Greg Roberts who led the building effort at 43 Queen. They have continued to contribute substantially to the Centre. They will work with Geeta Vaidayanathan who has brought her experience as an architect and rural development worker in India to study affordable housing in downtown Kitchener. She has also specialized in energy efficient design which will allow us to integrate solar-generated heat, water and electricity in the project.

What’s exciting about all of this is that we will be creating 15,000 square feet of new community space. Our buildings support hundreds of people and many diverse groups that use our facilities weekdays, evenings and weekends.

Our intent is always to create open space rather than offices, space that can be constantly adapted. Once again, as at 43 Queen, this project will integrate housing with space that offers opportunities for community building. We hope to create two or three shared units and one family unit. The large basement will likely be home to computer recycling and a combined pottery and papermaking workshop area. The sewing area already established in the basement of 58 Queen will expand with a dressing room and other amenities. A greenhouse and rooftop garden will add to our many urban agriculture initiatives and significantly alter the streetscape along Charles St.

After 15 years in the basement of 58 Queen, The Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support will have improved space in the new building. Its programs have grown and expanded in cooperation with The Working Centre, offering access to job search services, the Speak English Café, the craft program and housing.

The Working Centre’s employment services continue to expand. Each year over 2000 people use our services at 58 and 43 Queen. The main floor at 66 Queen will offer more space for this work to continue developing. As the province pays increased attention to the issues of skilled shortages in Ontario, they are encouraging us to provide practical and ongoing support for Internationally Trained Individuals and for people seeking to enter Apprenticeships. We are exploring ways of working with other community partners in responding to these issues, assisting skilled workers to enter their chosen profession and assisting others to find training and or interested employers who can help them to enter an Apprenticeship. As well, we continue to assist people to have access to computers and computer training – from the basic intro courses, IC3 –Internet Core Computing Competency, Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, to the more advanced A+ hardware and maintenance training. We are creatively combining return-to-work supports with computer training and certification.

We also hope to establish a food preparation and training kitchen that would be used in serveral different ways such as using the facilities to gather volunteers to help prepare soups and other meals for St. John’s Kitchen, to support Community Kitchen projects, develop training programs for individuals wanting work in the food services industry, support individuals who need a commercial Kitchen facility in order to prepare food for sale, and perhaps even support a project that processes gleaned produce from farmers fields into useable food.

We expect that this project will slowly take shape over the next two years. The revitalization of 66 Queen will offer hundreds of individuals the opportunity to become involved in the process of working together and developing skills towards the goal of creating a vibrant community resource in downtown Kitchener.

66 Queen Street South Renovations: Image Gallery

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