National Post (Latest Edition)
On the Map
The Gaslight District a $100M development coming to Cambridge
Growing up in Cambridge, in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, Scott Higgins had an unfortunate nickname for his hometown. “We called it Lame- bridge,” he said. “Everyone always wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere more exciting — Waterloo, anywhere.”
The feeling is understandable. As with many Ontario towns, the economic drivers were foundries and mills along the Grand River. Those had long closed or moved elsewhere. Most of shops and restaurants in Galt, the historic town centre, followed, leaving a collection of quaint, often empty Victorian buildings behind.
When Higgins became the president of Waterloo-based HIP Developments in 2012, after working in real estate finance for TD and BMO, he had an opportunity to make his hometown much less lame. A collection of 150- year- old factories in south Galt became available. On the five- acre lot there had been an old Tiger Brand facility and a foundry that was once the headquarters of machinists Babcock & Wilcox, more recently an outlet mall.
“I felt like if the site was in Toronto, it would have been developed 20 years ago, or 10 years ago in Waterloo,” says Higgins. “My question was, how I can turn what was the economic engine of the past — the old factories — into the economic engine of the future?”
Although large, mixed-use urban renewal wasn’t yet common in Cambridge, Higgins bet that people in the community would show up and buy into the same things becoming popular in faster- growing cities: a central place to live, work and play, a blend of character architecture with modern amenities, much like the mix in Toronto’s Distillery District.
Within his $ 100- million development, called The
Gaslight District and currently under construction, he planned for a publicly accessible square acre ringed by restaurant patios and bars, and dotted with $ 3- million in public art, including an interactive light installation by Montreal’s Daily Tous Les Jours “that will make people want to dance,” Higgins says. For evening entertainment, he’s included a 30- foot- high permanent outdoor movie screen. Most of the historic architecture has been designated for 80,000 square feet of new commercial space, including a craft brewery, 11 artists’ studios and the 20,000-square-foot Tapestry Hall event space ( already open, and used last winter for an indoor skating party, although the rest of the campus won’t be finished until 2022).
Abutting the historic architecture are two contemporary, clean- lined condos. Each is 20 storeys tall, with approximately 200 units apiece — 65 per cent of which are two bedrooms averaging 1,100 square feet. “The idea was to try to attract end- users, not just investors,” says Higgins. “Investors tend to like smaller units, but end- users tend to look for more space.” Overall, he expects about 500 people to be working at Gaslight, and as many to be living there every day.
Higgins’s ideas have so far been successful. After the condos sales were launched in fall 2017, with a $500,000 community party featuring sets by Serena Ryder and former Barenaked Lady Steven Page, the project came close to selling out within hours ( a few units remain for sale by inquiry), and 90 per cent of them were sold to Cambridge residents. “There wasn’t really an existing market for highrise condos in Cambridge,” says Higgins. “I just knew a lot of people would want to live down there. There’s a theatre nearby. It’s beside the river.”
But Higgins’s ideas have also been controversial. As the initial plans were being approved by the city in 2016
and 2017, area architects, historical preservationists and at least one city councillor objected. There was concern that the condo towers were too tall for the low- rise city and would mar the skyline.
“We worked with the heritage preservation concerns to come up with something that worked,” says Higgins. The height and overall bulk of the towers was reduced to create a less obtrusive appearance.
Ultimately, Higgins believes that some of the opposition was because “people sometimes don’t want anything to change,” he says. “To them, history should be preserved exactly as it is.” The problem with that approach is that if a building goes unused for too long, it will simply start to decay, eventually tumbling down. By finding a contemporary purpose for old structures, it’s possible to extend their life, giving them, and the surrounding city, new meaning.
One beds starting at $ 340,000, two beds at $ 550,000. For more information, visit thegaslightcondos.ca or email info@ hipdevelopments.com.