By Luisa D’AmatoRecord Columnist
Fri., Aug. 20, 2021
A beautiful new grocery store has just opened in downtown Kitchener.
Marché Leo’s Market has a pizza oven, a deli and an upscale pastry counter. It sells perfect flowers by the bunch, plus staples, nut milks, organic cheeses and many different kinds of olive oils and vinegars.
It’s at 276 King Street W., right next door to the church where Rev. Preston Parsons works. He was excited to go inside.
But then he discovered that, for him, it might as well be in China.
Parsons uses a wheelchair – and there is no way for him to get into the store.
From the street, you have to climb up eight steps. There is no ramp and no elevator for people with mobility issues. There’s no accessible back entrance either.
“It makes me feel like I don’t belong, in the city I live in,” said Parsons, who is rector and priest of the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist on Water Street.
He got in touch with the company headquarters of the store to discuss this with them. That was a week ago and he has heard nothing.
Another disappointed customer is Jennifer Adams, who uses a scooter and a walker to get around.
She approached the store and sat outside the front entrance for a couple of minutes as she wondered what to do. A few people asked if they could help her.
Eventually she sat on each step with her back to the front doors, pushing herself up to the next step with her arms as she laboriously got into the building. She left the scooter behind on the sidewalk.
Once she was inside, the staff were “very kind” to her, she said, but she felt embarrassed by the experience.
“I’d been so looking forward to this store opening up in downtown Kitchener,” she told me Thursday.
She started to cry. “This whole thing about losing mobility is very hard.”
I wonder: Can’t we do better than this?
Surely the government should be minimizing the difficulties that people like Adams and Parsons experience on a daily basis, instead of allowing them to be shut out of even more buildings.
You would think that a newly renovated space like this grocery store would be required to be accessible to people with mobility challenges.
But according to the people who enforce the Ontario Building Code, that’s not necessarily the case.
In the case of this building in Kitchener, although there were renovations involved before the store could go into the building, they weren’t major enough to allow city inspectors to require the provision of inclusive features like ramps or elevators.
“This is what the code considers a basic renovation of an existing building,” said Tim Benedict, manager of the building division of the City of Kitchener.
“It allows existing buildings that are renovated to remain as is.”
“We always encourage property owners to make things accessible,” Benedict said, but there’s only so much they can do, given the legislation.
The building, which also includes condos, is owned by Perimeter Development Corporation, which has many projects in Kitchener and Waterloo, including the Walper Hotel and Breithaupt Block (where Google’s offices are).
In an email Thursday, the company’s chief executive officer, Craig Beattie, said the building at 276 King St. W. had been vacant for well over a decade.
The building’s unusual structure meant it was not possible to build a ramp or elevator as renovations went ahead.
“We invested significantly in base building renovations,” he said, including new facades along King and Water streets, new electrical and mechanical systems, and partitioning to create the individual retail units.
All this work attracted “a long desired and needed urban grocery market to the core,” he said. It’s an important amenity for the growing downtown population.
But it’s also true that this new market is not for everybody.
It’s just for able-bodied people.
And in that sense, it’s a little bit like downtown Kitchener itself.
“We’re rejuvenating Kitchener,” said Parsons.
“Are we building a Kitchener for everyone, or a Kitchener for some?”
Luisa D’Amato is a Waterloo Region-based staff columnist for The Record. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org