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Council greenlights Cambridge Mill tower development

Concerns about height outweighed by need for more density in the core to support transit targets and local businesses
Cambridge Mill
A 28-storey, 146-suite hotel and 37-storey, 253-unit condominium project will be built on Water Street North. It's been named Cambridge Mill Hotel and Condominium .

The owners of the Cambridge Mill have been given the go-ahead to build a 37-storey condominium tower and 28-storey hotel on a vacant brownfield property at 130 Water St. North.

Council approved the landmark development Tuesday after hearing nearly three hours of delegations and debate on zone changes that increase height and density limits to accommodate a 146-suite hotel and 250-unit condo tower with more than 20,000 square feet of retail space, restaurant, and spa.

Touted as the gateway to downtown Galt, the development by Hamilton-based Pearle Hospitality is expected to generate about $4 million in annual property taxes, create 250 short term construction jobs and 300 long term positions.

The project is designed to provide public access to the riverfront with an enhanced trail system, making it a placemaking feature for the city.

Three councillors opposed to the project cited height as their main concern.

“The height; I can’t accept that,” said Coun. Jan Liggett in explaining why she couldn’t support it. “Once we allow this height...another developer is going to ask just like this one did.”

She also worried about the Cambridge Fire Department’s capacity to respond to high-rise fires knowing resources are lacking to adequately respond to fires in the city.

Fire chief Brian Arnold assured Liggett that if a fire were to happen in a high rise today, with modern building features like sprinklers, non-combustible building materials and other fire safety features in place, Cambridge firefighters would have time to respond, remove the occupants and contain a fire to the unit of origin.

But he said projects like this add weight to the need for expansion of the west Galt fire station, including additional apparatus and up to 20 more firefighters by 2024. 

Arnold said analysis of the challenges, risks and hazards aren’t done for individual developments and are instead based on general growth projections.

Coun. Mike Devine agreed with Liggett's concerns, saying he just couldn’t support the height of the project.

The height also bothered Coun. Mike Mann, who didn't like the idea of towers rising above the city’s protected tree line and competing with heritage views of the river.

But Coun. Donna Reid urged council to support the development, noting how with the Gaslight District, it will bookend the Galt core and support its redevelopment.

“This has been a really tough one,” admitted Coun. Scott Hamilton, who struggled coming to his decision to support the project he believes is “a fantastic opportunity” for the core and for Cambridge.

“As we know the core of Galt is struggling,” he said. “For me, getting people into our core and doing it well is essential.”

Noting how the project can’t offer affordable housing, instead calling it’s less expensive units “attainable” housing Coun. Pam Wolf asked Pearle Hospitality president and CEO Aaron Ciancone if his company would be willing to offer a per-unit donation to one of the city’s supported housing initiatives instead.

“Absolutely,” Ciancone said, adding they are in negotiations to provide about $2,000 per door, which would equate to about $500,000 towards affordable housing.

“We’re here for the long run. We’re here for the area and we want to be part of the community and part of the solution,” he said.

Several delegations representing local business interests spoke in support of the development, including Darren Drouillard of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

“I could not be more excited for such a remarkable development opportunity,” he said, adding it will bring vibrancy to the downtown gateway as well as foot traffic and excitement to the core. 

“Cambridge has always been an aesthetically beautiful town with strong history and community and has been on the cusp of something great for a very long time,” he said, urging councillors to support the development. “But we have, at times, lacked the courage to be bold and entertain exciting projects just like this one.” 

Milestone Integrated Marketing owner and developer Terry Polyak said he fully supports the project as a “monumental step forward” for the city.

“I support it because it’s a gift,” said Polyak, who went ahead with his fourth major heritage-sensitive renovation in Galt’s core in an environment of empty stores, boarded up windows and restrictions he believes have stifled growth.

“It’s no secret downtown Galt has been on a bit of a life support for far too long and it’s hurting and it needs help.”

“This is the defibrillator you’ve been waiting for,” Polyak said, adding his investment in Galt wouldn’t have happened had he not understood how projects like the Gaslight District represented a catalyst for change.

The man behind the Gaslight District condos, HIP Developments president Scott Higgins, offered his support for the Cambridge Mill project, noting how rare it is for competing developers to support each other but he knows Pearle Hospitality is committed to Cambridge and the project.

“This is going to be a landmark building in Ontario, period, not just southern Ontario,” he said. “It is beautiful and will do a lot of things to our downtown in terms of expanding people’s confidence in living there and investing there.”

Referring to the city’s recent decision to endorse a consumption and treatment services site on Main Street, Downtown Cambridge Business Improvement Area executive director Brian Kennedy called the development a “huge step toward a healthier and more prosperous downtown.”

“Now, more than ever, we need to breathe renewed hope into our business community for a brighter, prosperous future downtown.”

Not everyone speaking Tuesday was in support of the project.

Cambridge resident Michelle Goodridge called the development “inappropriate” and the towers a “monstrosity” in presenting concerns “not clouded by profit or an unwavering determination to justify the LRT brutalizing our downtown core.” 

She also called Kennedy’s claims of full BIA support for the project untrue, citing letters from members who weren’t polled and some who aren’t in support.

Calling the height of the project unsustainable, Goodridge questioned the shrewdness of approving the towers without considering the viability of a parking garage proposed for property across from the hotel. 

Two stories of parking, one below ground, are included in the building plans for 130 Water St. N. An additional three to four storey parking garage is being proposed for properties across the street that would be connected to the hotel by a pedestrian bridge built over the road. 

The property is already zoned appropriately for the parking garage and can go directly to site plan, according to city staff. Its approvals are being expedited to serve the Cambridge Mill while construction of the two towers gets underway.

Karen Scott Booth, vice-president of the Cambridge and North Dumfries branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, echoed Goodridge’s concerns, saying high rise intensification is more about profit and economic growth than sustainability.

“It may prove more toxic to humans and the planet than urban sprawl,” she said, quoting experts.

Dan Clements, who lives in the Waterscape condominium tower next to the proposed development, said he and many others living there support the design, particularly the setback from the river to protect their views and create better access to the riverfront.

CLARIFICATION: The Downtown BIA comprises a Board of Management elected to make decisions on behalf of the BIA membership. The entire board supported the Cambridge Mill project.