Over the past decade, post-secondary schools, giant tech companies and condominium developers have made their mark in downtown Kitchener — and made a "positive, abrupt change," says former mayor Carl Zehr.

In the late 1990s to early 2000s, big plants were closing and people were getting laid off.

The city's solution at the time was the economic development investment fund in 2004, to create an "education and knowledge creation cluster" in the downtown core, said Zehr, who was in office between 1997 to 2014.

"We had no idea at the time how that money that we were investing in that would actually be the tipping point to getting things going," he told Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition on CBC Radio, Wednesday morning.

Innovation district grows

The changes came in quick succession.

Talks with the universities led to the School of Social Work from Wilfrid Laurier University and the School of Pharmacy at University of Waterloo setting up shop downtown. This year marks 10 years since the pharmacy school opened.

"It's very gratifying to see the progress of the school, and also the progress and the growth of downtown Kitchener," said David Edwards, who is an associate dean and has held the position of Hallman director at the school since 2011.

He said he worked in downtown Detroit for many years but never had the opportunity to see the same type of "redevelopment or renaissance" there before he moved.

"To come to a city like Kitchener and watch such tremendous rejuvenation in the downtown area has been quite exciting," Edwards said.

After the schools put their foot on the ground, the tech companies started moving to the core.

From Desire2Learn to the "star power name" Google moving into the Tannery building, changes to the area "started to snowball," said Zehr.

"I recall very clearly actually, saying to people, you won't recognize this place in ten years," Zehr said. "And I can say the same thing today."

Growing a city

The spring of 2018 is the expected delivery date of Grand River Transit's light rail service — the ION.

"That's going to have a major change over the entire city," Zehr said.

The plan for the city is to grow density so more people will work and live in downtown, especially nearby the LRT stations. He said this type of density growth will happen all across the line down between Conestoga Mall in Waterloo to Fairview Mall in Kitchener's south end.

Getting more density usually means more condos, and part of people's concerns may be that Kitchener could end up being overrun by them. Zehr reassured that with careful planning, there won't be a "tunnel of towers" in this generation or the next.

"I do not expect downtown Kitchener to be like downtown Toronto," Zehr said, "You can get density without having large towers."

The Tannery

The Tannery in downtown Kitchener is home to both Communitech and a Canadian branch of Google. (CBC News)

Growing cost

Although Kitchener may never turn into downtown Toronto, the cost of living is still going up steadily.

"It's getting way more expensive to find a place to live," said Patti Lennox. She visited Kitchener regularly for five years before moving to the city three years ago.

The spring of 2017 saw the average price of a home surpass the $500,000 mark. The average price to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the Waterloo region was $1,093 in October last year — the 16th most expensive in Canada.

"There are people who can't even afford to put food on the table and live while they're working through three part-time precarious jobs," she said.

Lennox hopes the city will include the cost-of-living consideration when planning for growth.

For now, Kitchener continues to grow and Zehr said people need to be "nimble" and prepared for the next big thing.

"The dramatic change was from the industrial side, to the knowledge side, the education side. But we don't know what that next change is going to be," he said.