Suddenly, ‘multiplex at the mall’ idea upends never-ending Cambridge debate
Cambridge Centre called a better option than Conestoga College
CAMBRIDGE — After countless meetings, dozens of suggestions and a few public rallies, Cambridge still doesn’t have a location for its most expensive and divisive project.
It’s been 17 months since protesters first took to city hall to express their dismay over council’s first choice at the time, a piece of leased land at Conestoga College.
A lot has happened since then.
Council put the project on pause. It struck a special task force to create a set of site-selection criteria. It listened to residents.
The list of possible locations for the massive, multimillion-dollar recreation
facility suddenly grew from one to more than 40 and was then whittled down to just five.
Then the possibility of splitting the facility into multiple pieces came into play. So did the option to just start the entire process over.
Council spent the summer mulling over all of these choices with the intention of returning on Oct. 2 to move toward a final decision. But now a new possibility has surfaced: The Cambridge Centre mall wants in. On Monday, council will decide whether it wants to add the mall to its list.
Mayor Doug Craig’s proposal is to build half of the multiplex at the mall and the other half, the aquatics centre, at Conestoga College with the financial help of a partner.
It’s an idea that has stirred excitement and skepticism. The mall is on Hespeler Road — as central as you can get in a city formed through amalgamation. It has public transit, restaurants and easy highway access, all the things people want from a recreation facility.
The year-and-a-half fight has been about location. This is the most expensive project the city will have undertaken. Its price tag was last pegged around the $80-million mark.
The city asked residents: Where do you want to put this multiplex, with its shiny twin ice-pad, 25-metre pool, triple-gymnasium, walking track and meeting rooms?
Some people argued that a central, easily-accessible location is the top priority, and the city should take its time to find the right spot for such an expensive project.
Others did not — and still don’t — agree that location is the most important factor or that the city should waste any more time.
“The city’s facilities are just not adequate,” said Alex Hourahine, president of Active Cambridge, a local nonprofit that promotes sports and fitness.
“We’re less concerned about the location and more concerned about the facilities at that location.”
Since the beginning of the multiplex debate, Hourahine’s group has pushed for new athletic amenities like an indoor walking track and a 50-metre pool.
He sees sports groups struggle to get the ice time they need, to find a place to run indoors in the winter and to get in the necessary laps to swim competitively.
He said many sports groups are “thrilled” about the idea of putting part of the multiplex at Cambridge Centre mall.
“All roads lead to the centre and the mall could use a boost,” he added.
The proposal that will be presented to council on Monday also includes the possibility of a 50-metre pool at the first-proposed college site.
It was the ultimate dream for Hourahine and Ron Campbell.
The head coach of the Cambridge Aquajets, a local swim group, said swimming has become quite popular among local youth.
“We’ve had to turn people away this year,” Campbell said.
“I know Conestoga College has its challenges, but it’s closer than the places we have to use now.”
This year the group has moved all its swim meets to the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford because it does have a 50-metre pool — a necessity for swimmers looking to train competitively, according to Campbell.
He said the city’s pools are old and crumbling, just like its arenas. If a 50-metre pool can be an affordable reality at Conestoga College, bring it on, he said.
“I don’t care where it (the new pool) goes, just put it somewhere soon.” The college controversy
Last year, some residents raised questions about how the city came to choose Conestoga College as a possible location for its big recreational project.
Council was set to vote on a 60-year land lease for a parcel of land at the college site just south of Highway 401. It would cost $2.5 million to lease the land.
The possibility angered residents who argued the location is too far for most people in Cambridge and isn’t accessible by public transit. Others were upset at the thought of Kitchener residents using a facility their Cambridge tax dollars will pay for.
Then there were some, like Bill Kirby, who questioned the lack of transparency in selecting that particular site. He launched a petition, held town halls for residents and demanded council start the site-selection process over in a transparent manner, which council did when it created the task force. Kirby was one of its members.
Now more than a year later, Kirby doesn’t feel like anything has changed.
“The issue is still process,” he said.
While he thinks the mall location is geographically a much better choice than Conestoga College, he questions why this option wasn’t given to the task force when it was considering sites last year.
“All of a sudden there is this option at the 11th hour.”
“Where did that come from? It came from the same place as Conestoga College.”
Craig announced his desire to introduce a motion to include the mall in multiplex discussions at a council meeting last week.
At the time he said the idea to build part of the complex at the mall first came up about a year ago. With the possibility of the Sears outlet store closing, there could be space for some sports facilities in the mall.
The mayor said the proposal was kept under wraps because of sensitivity around the store-closing issue. He rejects the idea anything underhanded is at play. “That’s nonsense, there is no conspiracy here.”
“It was a matter of people possibly losing jobs,” Craig explained. He said as mayor it would have been inappropriate to have even suggested the idea without knowing for certain if Sears was going to close or not.
The Sears outlet store eventually did close this summer.
Morguard, the company that manages the Cambridge Centre mall, sent the city a letter expressing interest in being a part of multiplex discussions recently, Craig said.
Kirby said he doesn’t think that is a good enough reason.
“There is no reason the mall could not have been suggested,” he said, pointing out that the location would have been kept in confidence at the task force just like the other ones.
“I think the best choice for the city to make is to scrap this plan and go back to the drawing board.”
Starting the whole process over is one of the options city staff gave council to consider in June, but it’s an option many sports groups don’t like. Time is crucial for frequent users of the city’s old sports facilities. They have been waiting a long time for upgrades, that’s why Active Cambridge wanted to see a multiplex up and running soon.
That’s part of the reason why it was keen on the original Conestoga College location until the project was stalled by public outrage and heated debate.
“My hope is that we don’t get into any more debates. We’ve spent an awful lot of time doing that,” Hourahine said.
“By the time this thing actually gets built we will have missed a whole generation of kids who can use it.”
That original proposal, the one that caused all the fuss in the first place, is also still an option because council did not throw out the land lease agreement. It was only deferred.
“Our offer is still on the table,” said John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College.
He said the decision to build either the entire multiplex or just an aquatics centre at the vacant college site is ultimately up to council. “All we had done is made the offer.” When asked if the college would consider contributing to capital costs of the aquatics centre, Tibbits said the college’s contribution to the city is cheap land.
“The price they will be paying is quite meagre,” he added.
Tibbits said it is too early to say what a college-city partnership would look like if the city wanted to build an aquatics centre there.
Where does council stand?
Most councillors say they favour this new proposal. Here are some of their thoughts.
“I think the choice the mayor put forward is going to be a popular one,” Coun. Donna Reid said. “You’re ticking all the boxes of the things people wanted.”
“It was promised to be a difficult meeting, but now with this option on the table it feels like a sigh of relief.”
Coun. Frank Monteiro has been the college site’s champion since the beginning of this debate. He has finally changed his tune.
“The idea was to build it all under one roof,” he said. “Because of the affordability, I pushed for Conestoga College.”
But he sees the potential for cost-savings in splitting the facility between the mall and college. It also appeases many of the city’s residents who wanted a central location.
“This is the most central place we can get,” he said.
Coun. Nicholas Ermeta, who has always been the “anywhere but Conestoga College” voice at the council table, also likes the mall proposal, but he wants to be cautious.
“It’s in the middle of our communities and it could be the thing that unites the city,” he said. He isn’t convinced, however, about the college spot for a pool.
Ermeta wants to keep discussions open with other partnership opportunities such as the YMCA and Buckingham Sports, owners of the Cambridge Ice Park.
Coun. Mike Mann is also taking a cautious approach. He didn’t say which option appealed to him best, but he said he can understand the benefits of the mall as a possible location for part of the multiplex.
“I think we need to look at what the arrangement would be closely to see if it is practical,” he said.
“We need to do our due diligence. I’m very uncommitted right now because I want to know more.”
For Coun. Shannon Adshade, it’s a winwin situation because the mall is central and accessible.
“I heard from a lot of people in the community that they weren’t crazy about the Conestoga College site, but this I think could be a good option.”
Coun. Mike Devine said he did not want to comment on the proposal and Coun. Jan Liggett did not respond to requests for comment from The Record.
Council will meet at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 2, for a special multiplex meeting. Politicians will vote on whether to add the new option to the list of possible multiplex locations.
If the motion wins approval, council will direct staff to come back with a report on the feasibility of building part of the multiplex at the mall and an aquatics centre at the college site.
The four options given to council in June
Move ahead with the Conestoga College site.
Build a pool and gym in collaboration with both schools boards and the Idea Exchange on city-owned land in east Galt. Ice rinks could be built elsewhere.
Pick one of the four other shortlisted locations for the multiplex.
Cancel the entire project and start over.
The final shortlisted sites
The site-selection criteria created by the task force ranked each site based on community impact, cost, access, site size with an opportunity for expansion and timing.
220 Pinebush Rd. is a vacant 23-acre parcel and it tied for first place in the task force’s rankings.
112 Pinebush Rd. is a 35-acre site that came in third place. It’s close to the Cambridge Smart Centres.
271 Hespeler Rd., also known as the flea market, tied for first place in the task force’s rankings.
A big empty lot at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Savage Drive was fourth.
Conestoga College was ranked last.
My hope is that we don’t get into any more debates. We’ve spent an awful lot of time doing that. By the time this thing actually gets built we will have missed a whole generation of kids who can use it. — Alex Hourahine, president of Active Cambridge
The Cambridge Centre mall is a sudden new factor in the multiplex debate. The mall has public transit, restaurants and easy highway access. All crucial ingredients, say backers.