As one of the tallest buildings on the main street of this southwestern Ontario city, the 12-storey, 1960s-era, glass office tower is hard to miss.
In reality, 305 King St. W. has been hiding in plain sight, half-vacant and overlooked by prospective tenants as a dated space.
But with a new owner and $4-million in renovations, the building has taken on new life as a loft-like, "cool" space for, among others, young entrepreneurs.
The metamorphosis illustrates the potential to rethink old spaces to attract a new generation of tenants.
The transformation of a "pretty mundane 1960s office building" has applications elsewhere, says Rick Haldenby, associate professor at the University of Waterloo's School of Architecture.
"It's clear one needs a vibrant startup ecology and young businesses and people willing to look at things differently, but when I heard about this it was one of those 'aha' moments when I thought the world is changing and this is fascinating."
In Kitchener, a former industrial town rebranding itself as a "startup city," the digital generation has flocked to converted 19th-century industrial buildings for their brick-and-beam charm, high ceilings, natural light and funky ambience.
Increasingly, for price and quality, the right kind of brick-and-beam is at a premium, one real estate broker says.
"The question in the marketplace for some time has been 'What is after brick and beam?' " says Karl Innanen, managing director of Colliers International's Waterloo office, the broker for 305 King. "What's the next thing? What will be cool?"
The surprising answer here is a 1964 office tower, listed by the city as historically significant for its Mies van der Rohe-influenced Modern architectural style of geometric lines using concrete, glass and metal.
David Gibson and Craig Beattie, founding partners of Perimeter Development Inc., eyed 305 King for several years when it was on the market.
The building sits on a future light-rail line and is close to former factories housing a mushrooming population of high-tech ventures. In 2011, with that audience in mind, Perimeter renovated a former rubber-making and car-parts facility, known as the Breithaupt Block, leasing 185,000 square feet to Google Canada this spring.
Waiting to buy 305 King paid off, says Mr. Gibson, given the evolving neighbourhood now has two new condo towers under construction. "It gave us the opportunity to spend time and think about it."
Perimeter purchased the property last fall for $6.5-million after The Honest Lawyer, a ground-floor restaurant with a sign atop the building, vacated the premises.
Mr. Beattie says the sign, "the ugliest sign you can imagine," came down the morning after Perimeter took possession.
"We had a crane on site at 7:30 a.m.," he says. "It was our sign that change was under way."
Inside, the developers gutted vacant offices and removed low-ceiling acoustic tiles to reveal a coffered cement ceiling, adding about 60 centimetres of height.
"It gave that raw look that people like," says Mr. Gibson, with exposed mechanical works adding an industrial feel.
Perimeter removed partitions to create open-concept offices with natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, updated signage to match the building's modern roots and restored the foyer to its original six-metre height. On the ground floor, now leased to two trendy eateries, Perimeter replaced reflective glass with conventional windows to make it easier to see inside and out.
"It has given the whole building a different feel and look," Mr. Gibson says.
Since taking over the 120,000-square-foot building, now about 65 per cent leased, Perimeter has raised rents to $12.50 to $14 a square foot from $4 to $6 previously.
Many of the new tenants are high-tech or young entrepreneurs.
Square, the Silicon Valley mobile payments company, announced last month that its first permanent Canadian office will be at 305 King.
MappedIn, a fast-growing Kitchener startup that develops navigational software for indoor wayfinding, moved in last January from incubator space two blocks away at the Communitech hub in the former Lang Tannery, which is just a couple of blocks away from the Breithaupt.
"We looked at a bunch of places," says marketing director Stacey Tozer. "We wanted to stay in downtown Kitchener and be close to Communitech."
Her first impressions were unfavourable: mismatched carpeting, dropped ceilings and 10 small offices. "It wasn't very warm and inviting and it was not a good environment for collaboration."
But the 1,600-square-foot space has been transformed into a brightly-painted, open-concept setup, with a separate meeting room, office and a "play" space for watching videos. The result, she says, is "an open environment that is a cool space."
Unlike the newcomers, Overlap Associates Inc., moved in a couple of years ago for the low rent and the view.
"It was really ugly and the building was tired but the view [over downtown] was beautiful and the floor-to-ceiling windows were spectacular," says Brock Hart, chief executive officer of Overlap, a strategic planning firm he and others founded three years ago. "That felt inspiring even if the rest of the space was not."
With Overlap expected to quadruple its business this year, Mr. Hart had contemplated moving to Breithaupt, two blocks away. But now the company is staying put, expanding its office to 2,500 square feet.
The building's evolving culture, he says, contributes to a creative work environment.
He and and other young CEOs hold monthly games nights at the building to nurture friendships and corporate networks.
"For an office tower it feels pretty cool," he says.