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Council approves massive developments with hope they will 'revitalize' cores

Neighbour opposition to 193 Water St. South and 255 King St. West fails to sway council from voting in favour of projects it believes will support local businesses by creating much-needed housing
Developer says residents on Highman Avenue will only be able to see eight of the proposed 15 storeys for each of the five buildings.

Towering construction cranes will soon be looming over Galt and Preston after council voted in favour of two massive residential developments Tuesday.

The projects coming to 193 Water St. South and 255 King St. West, will see the construction of a combined 1,600 residential units the city says will "contribute to the revitalization" of the cores and provide homes for some of the 70,000 new residents expected to call Cambridge home over the next 30 years.

Council voted in favour of the developments based on the recommendation of city planners and the economic prosperity staff believe the projects will bring to the city.

The decisions were weighed over concerns raised by many about traffic, environmental damage and threats to the city's heritage landscape.

Council also voted in favour of the far less controversial proposal for 212 Queen Street West in Hespeler.

The vacant, brownfield site that was once a gas station, will soon be the home of a three-storey, 37-unit rental apartment building with underground parking and a green-roof terrace overlooking the Chilligo Conservation Area.

In Preston, concerns about the three-tower, 600 unit development at the former Kress Hotel property centred around traffic impacts at what Coun. Nicholas Ermeta called an already "horrendous" intersection.

He referenced a letter from nearby residents, not tabled at the meeting because it was received late, that raised concerns about traffic volumes that are so bad on King and Fountain now they cause significant delays for people exiting their homes or businesses.

But Kristen Barisdale, vice president of GSP Group, downplayed those concerns, citing a traffic impact study that showed the towers would only lead to an increase of between 154 and 181 morning and afternoon trips.

The planning consultant for North Development Corp called it "quite a small contribution to existing volumes" and said she's confident the Region of Waterloo's sign off on plans to make the King Street East access to the property an entrance-only access will alleviate those pressures.

Traffic out of the development will be through a Fountain Street access.

The city and developer also believe some of that traffic pressure will be reduced when the ION light rail transit arrives in Cambridge, given the Preston Springs station will be built less than half a kilometre from the development.

Addressing noise concerns raised last week by owners of the neighbouring mill, Barisdale said P&H Milling's president has since talked with the developer about possible mitigation measures. 

A noise feasibility study demonstrates no impact from surrounding industrial land uses, but she said noise clauses may still be included with some units in the condo towers.  

Neighbouring property owner Michelle Goodridge, speaking on behalf of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario's Cambridge branch, said the ACO is opposing the development, along with the city's own heritage advisory committee, because of its impact to built and natural heritage in the Speed River valley.

Goodridge said the parking garage will cut into the slope of the hill at the back of four heritage properties on Fountain Street, potentially weakening the ground underneath them, with portions of the development set back only three metres from some of those homes.

But geotechnical studies refute those concerns, Barisdale said, and it's the opinion of those advisors that the parking garage will act as a retaining structure to improve slope stability.

Coun. Donna Reid praised the project, saying it's time the long-vacant property was redeveloped in a way that makes that corner a "great gateway into the core area of Preston."

But Coun. Jan Liggett said she couldn't support the project due to concerns about traffic and the number of units, which is almost double what zoning permitted.

"I see nothing but problems in that area transportation wise," she said.

Ermeta echoed those concerns. "I would like to see development at that site. I just think this is the wrong way to do it," he said.

Coun. Scott Hamilton said location was the key to his support of the project in fitting with the region's goal of building so-called 15-minute communities where businesses, parks and other amenities are within a 15-minute walk.

"The only way we're going to revitalize our cores, with the nature of today's economy and the way businesses are moving, is that we need people. We need people in our cores to live there, shop there and it's the only way we're going to be actually able to sustain smaller scale businesses," Hamilton said. "If people have to get in their cars to drive, well, they're going to go to a big-box shop."

Coun. Mike Mann declared a conflict of interest as an owner of a unit in a neighbouring building.

Coun. Mike Devine was absent, so the vote was 5-2 in favour of the project, with Ermeta and Liggett opposed. 

The sentiment that more residents in the city's cores will boost economic prosperity carried into the next debate over 193 Water St. S., another "landmark, gateway" development for the city.

The five, 15-storey-tower, 991-unit condo project will include 40 townhouse units and is among the largest development proposals the city has seen to date. But it has been met with fierce opposition from neighbours over the last year.

On Tuesday, several delegations voiced concerns ranging from traffic and privacy impacts, to the loss of hundreds of mature trees. All lamented the developer's unwillingness to compromise on the scale of the project with some warning the city hasn't begun to feel the impacts from developments that have already been approved in Galt's core.

Highman Avenue resident Veronica McDonald pleaded with councillors to "open their eyes" to what kind of neighbour this developer is going to be, calling their unwillingness to compromise "greedy and unnecessary."

"If this project is completed as proposed, it will be described as a looming monstrosity," she said.

Neighbour Craig Robertson said although the developer hasn't budged on many of the requests made by neighbours and councillors, the community as a whole will be "compromised with more gridlock, more noise, more traffic along Water Street," none of which seems to have been adequately assessed in a traffic study completed in the midst of COVID lockdowns.

"Everyone I speak to says this is crazy, this is too big. The city can't approve something like this," Robertson said, referring to an online petition that gathered more than 1,300 responses and comments "that ranged from total outrage to, once again, it's too big." 

"I'm pro development that is suitable, and this is not."

An environmental impact of the site concluded the tree canopy is insufficient to constitute a woodland, there are no wetlands to be concerned about, and no threatened, special concern, or endangered species or habitats were found on the property.

The revised proposal will require the removal of 552 trees, 107 less than originally thought, and a portion of them will be replaced.

The developer also added 50 affordable units to the plan, 10 units per building, and will create a pedestrian connection to Highman Avenue for public access to Water Street South.

Cambridge Chamber of Commerce president Greg Durocher spoke about the housing crisis and the commitment of municipalities, including Cambridge, to meet "extremely aggressive" growth targets that will see construction of 1.5 million more homes over the next decade to support business and economic growth.

"We have to start thinking about growing up," Durocher said, even though these types of projects are not the most popular with neighbours. "Places to Grow says you've got to go up, not out."

In comparison to single-family home builds, high rises are more respectful of the environment, he said.

When you look at the core of downtown Galt as the terminus for the LRT, it's projects like this that are giving the city and the region the case for accessing provincial and federal funding, he added. It will be about a 10-minute walk to the future ION station.

Coun. Shannon Adshade put a motion to defer the vote on the table, but it failed to get enough support.

He further stated he wouldn't support the motion, noting the outpouring of opposition in his ward and the negative impacts he feels the project will have on the community and environment.

The "six to 12-year" construction timeline is also too much to expect residents to put up with, he said.

Coun. Pam Wolf supported the project but hoped things like setbacks, the positioning of the buildings and other ideas that could alleviate concerns could be addressed through the site plan process.

Mayor Kathryn McGarry said she supports the development because it "ticks the boxes" on a number of goals under the city's plan for creating walkable, connected communities while helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"I do understand residents' concerns. I do understand residents don't like change in their area," she said.

But she acknowledged the possibility the province could step in under the rumoured "strong mayors" legislation to ask that any vote against a project that creates more affordable housing be overturned.

Asked if she was correct in that assessment, city manager David Calder agreed, "this is something the province would like to see more municipalities support in order to get this type of housing in place quickly."

But Coun. Jan Liggett was steadfast in her opposition, reminding council again that she didn't want staff to even consider the proposal.

"This developer had no intention of changing anything that they did and all aspects of their proposal were egregious," she said, noting the number of official plan and zoning amendments needed to make it work and making it clear where she stood on the recommendation. 

"When the consultant says they considered the concerns of the community, but didn't think they were valid?! I've got a real problem with that because council had concerns and the community had concerns and they didn't care. The number of trees lost is astronomical."

The vote was 5-3 in support of the staff recommendation to approve the project with Liggett, Ermeta and Adshade opposed.