Photo: Dead air: Vast swaths of surface parking hold huge redevelopment potential in Kitchener’s burgeoning innovation district.

Would you give up a parking space in return for a more vibrant downtown?

It’s a question worth pondering as tech-sector growth increasingly concentrates in the heart of Waterloo Region, which itself is becoming a more urban community.

It’s also timely given next week’s CityAge conference in Kitchener-Waterloo, which will take a deep-dive look at the challenges we face as we urbanize (Communitech is a key sponsor, and there’s still time to register).

When I walk into the Tannery in downtown Kitchener, where the Communitech Hub, Google, Desire2Learn, other large companies and more than 100 startups are housed, it’s hard not to be energized by all the activity, and all but impossible to avoid random bump-ins with interesting, creative people.

It’s a different story when I step outside and walk along Charles Street, where acres of asphalt sit topped with parked cars, and above them, dead air.

Talk about a buzzkill.

Wouldn’t these prime inner-city spots be more valuable as spaces humming with activity, where we could bump into more interesting, creative people?

In downtown Kitchener, that’s actually the goal for the area around the Tannery.

City officials have placed the point of a compass at the site of the future multi-modal transit hub near King and Victoria Streets and drawn a circle around it. The circle’s radius of 600 metres is a distance most people can walk in five minutes – people such as highly skilled tech workers, more of whom would commute into Waterloo Region if we had frequent, fast, inbound rail service from Toronto.

The untapped potential inside this small circle is astounding: Another 10 Tanneries, 20,000 workers and 4,000 new downtown residents could fit into its under-used spaces, half of which are now surface parking lots.

This would give a massive boost to the kind of entrepreneurial density that Brad Feld, one of the startup world’s most respected investors, cites as a foundational trait of the best startup communities.

But what to do with all those cars?

“It’s a real Catch-22; every one of those parking lots is a fantastic redevelopment opportunity, and to fully capture the value embedded in that real estate, it should be redeveloped,” Rod Regier, Kitchener’s executive director of economic development, told me this week. “That’s the kind of built form we want to work in. Walking out into a field of parking is kind of a soul-destroying experience.”

By creating large, lifeless gaps in the urban landscape, surface parking lots impede the easy physical interaction that creative workers rely on to innovate, the kind of connections that happen naturally every day inside the Tannery, where there are no such barriers.

In a parking lot, “the wind is whistling and you’re not looking at anything stimulating, and by the way, there’s nobody in that parking lot who wants to be there,” Regier said. “As opposed to a high-quality, urban built form, where people are living and working and eating and drinking and creating – for this community, most importantly, it’s creating stuff.”

At the same time, Regier acknowledges that for many downtown workers – including some of these same creative people – driving seems the only practical option, given how long it can take to ride transit into the core from suburban areas.

That should change once the region’s combination of light rail transit in the core and express buses feeding into it from suburban areas comes online in 2017, with the multi-modal hub at its centre.

Also, with a half-dozen condo buildings now under construction and more to come, the market for urban living is ramping up in Waterloo Region, after decades of suburbanization.

Still, it’s going to take more than an improved transit system to pave the way for less pavement and more dynamic spaces for people to work and live.

It’s going to take a mind-shift, away from the idea that cars are the only way to get around, and that cheap and abundant parking is an unqualified benefit to our community.

It’s going to be a tough shift for some of us to make, given how much of local life here is built around the car.

Born and raised in Waterloo Region, I was as car-dependent as anyone; cars, which my dad sold for most of his career, fed our family.

During my 20-plus years as a newspaper reporter, a car was a condition of employment, given the time sensitivity of news. Among other things, I covered a lot of car accidents.

My relationship with cars evolved when work took me to Toronto. Even as I railed internally against the cost and scarcity of parking and the non-stop congestion, I fell in love with city living – the abundant energy, the critical mass of interesting people, those random bump-ins.

In time, I learned to tame my indignant inner motorist, and to accept the inconvenience of driving (and parking) as a cost of living and working in a vibrant, creative city. I kept the car, but started to walk, cycle and use transit more often, and in time, came to prefer these other modes of getting around.

When I moved back to Waterloo Region in 2010, where my wife and I could afford a house and be closer to family, I saw my old hometown through new eyes. Free and cheap parking – and huge parking lots, often with empty spaces – were everywhere, even downtown. People drove everywhere, even just a few blocks, often alone in their cars. And still they felt there wasn’t enough parking if they had to park more than a minute’s walk from their destination.

I almost fell into my old driving habits when I was issued a parking permit at work. Then I realized how close my home in central Waterloo was to downtown Kitchener, a distance I used to walk without blinking in my Toronto neighbourhood.

I started occasionally biking to the Hub (a 15-minute ride), and swapped my parking permit for a transit pass (my bus ride is about five minutes, with another 15 minutes of walking wrapped around it). That’s a lot longer than a five-to-10-minute drive, but I find value in the exercise, in the time I can spend catching up on e-mail on my BlackBerry, in the eliminated stress of traffic, and in not burning so much fossil fuel.

I also see value in not parking a car on prime downtown land for eight hours, which I compare to lugging a 3,000-pound briefcase to work. If everyone who works downtown expects to be able to do that, what kind of downtown will we have?

More to the point, what kind of innovation cluster will we be able to build, and how much of our creative energy will be lost amid the parking lots?

At stake here are “the social dynamics that you see playing out at the Tannery, or up on King Street, where Vidyard and Thalmic and Embium and other startups are starting to congregate,” Regier said. “The concentration of these firms allows for this collision experience to take place in coffee shops and bars and public spaces, in a way that cannot be replicated if you have a building surrounded by a sea of cars.”

So, would you give up a parking space in return for a more vibrant downtown?

Park your thoughts in an e-mail to anthony@communitech.ca, or tweet to me @ajreinhart.

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.