Sud­denly, ‘mul­ti­plex at the mall’ idea up­ends never-end­ing Cam­bridge de­bate

Cam­bridge Cen­tre called a bet­ter op­tion than Con­estoga Col­lege

Waterloo Region Record - - FRONT PAGE - Anam Latif, Record staff

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.

The mul­ti­plex.

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

MATHEW MCCARTHY, RECORD STAFF

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.

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