View from the ‘Loo: On old buildings and new ideas Anthony Reinhart January 23, 2014 Communitech, View from the ‘Loo Since Tuesday’s big venture capital announcements here at the Tannery, a few words from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne have been ringing in my ears. “We’re in an old building filled with new ideas,” she said as we learned details of the first “fund of funds” the federal government is launching, in partnership with the province and private investors including Waterloo-based OpenText. The Premier was talking about the former Lang Tannery, which sat silent and underused for more than 50 years before it was reborn as a teeming node of innovative activity that houses the Communitech Hub, Google’s Canadian development headquarters, Desire2Learn and a host of other enterprises. But her words could just as easily apply to the whole of Waterloo Region, a 200-year-old community in the midst of its latest transition to the future. A few hours after the event, I bundled up for a brief walk into downtown Kitchener to Vidyard, a video hosting and analytics company, to chat with CEO Michael Litt and his brother, Stephen, a developer of multi-unit housing in the core. I already knew that the four-storey brick structure that houses Vidyard, known as the Simpson Block, was also “an old building filled with new ideas.” It’s also home to Quantica Trading (formerly Embium and Cyborg Trading), which makes automated trading technology; the CBC’s 10-month-old radio-and-online bureau; and the building’s owner, Perimeter Development Corp., whose properties are helping to lead the core’s transformation as knowledge workers flock downtown. But, by the time I left an hour later, I was even more convinced, due to what the Litt brothers told me. “Out of 37 people (who work at Vidyard), 35 of them walk to work or take transit,” Michael said, adding that many are motivated, at least in part, by the extra $150 per month they get to keep if they don’t need a parking pass. How many workplaces can you name with such a low rate of car commuting? As for Stephen, he’s been steadily improving and increasing the supply of rental apartments downtown, many of which get snapped up by workers like those at Vidyard, whose numbers are growing across the tech sector. The Litt brothers, raised in Kitchener on Germanic roots, are among the newest wave of urban pioneers – entrepreneurs, retailers, artists, restaurateurs – whose work is making this region’s core a more vibrant, people-oriented place. In other words, they’re filling this old building with new ideas. This isn’t easy to do. It takes a tolerance for risk, an ability to overcome doubters and patience with people and processes that can be slow to adapt to change. There are also setbacks. Stephen, like his brother, is an enthusiastic supporter of the region’s light rail project, which will serve as the central spine of an improved transit network that includes several new express bus routes. It aligns perfectly with the infill housing units he’s bringing to the core, which are increasingly inhabited by young people who don’t own cars. And yet, a recent change to municipal regulations means he’ll have to provide more parking for tenants, even if fewer of them want it. To Stephen, more parking means fewer apartment units, and seems to fly in the face of one of the LRT project’s chief goals – to increase downtown density, reduce suburban sprawl and induce car users to switch to transit. “How can you suck and blow at the same time?” he asks of local officials. “They’re spending the money on LRT, yet they’re asking for two to three times as much parking.” It’s a good question that highlights the tension between what our community has been – a place of mostly low-density, suburban, car-oriented living – and what it’s becoming, a place where urban living holds increasing appeal. It also reminds us that, before you can fill an old building with new ideas, you need to be willing to clear out some of the old ones. That willingness will be tested more and more as the new ideas keep coming. The Litt brothers are among the ready. Are the rest of us? Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.