Cambridge undergoes a renaissance

New Gaslight District features re-purposed historic buildings

As owners of a cozy café in a restored heritage building in the heart of downtown Galt in Cambridge, Monica and Graham Braun often welcome visitors from the Greater Toronto Area who regularly comment on the area’s ‘European feel.’

“People tell us it’s almost like being in Europe,” says Graham, an engineer turned coffee roaster à la Breaking Bad before opening Monigram Coffee Roasters in 2013.

“We’re on the river and have all of this preserved architecture. From our shop, we can see dozens of old stone buildings.

“With the Gaslight District and the mayor’s push to bring us back to the river, we’re at the beginning of a renaissance here in the Galt.”

Graham is also chair of the Galt on the Grand Downtown Business Improvement Area and says any shops that become available are quickly scooped up.

Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig’s is proud to talk about his ‘Back to the Rivers’ vision. “We’re a river city. We have the Grand River going through our community and Speed River connecting into it from the top of our community and these were the foundations of why people moved here. The river is very important to all of us, along with our heritage,” he says.

Craig’s vision involves a number of initiatives designed to enhance the city’s waterfront areas and make them more enjoyable for residents. Work continues on the redevelopment of the old Galt post office, which is being restored and adapted for use by the Idea Exchange — the new moniker of the town’s public library.

“It was the post office in 1885, when 6,000 people were living in Galt,” says Idea Exchange CEO Helen Kelly. “It was designed by the architect who designed the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.....It’s a nationally- significant building and we’re doing a mashup of 19th century architecture with 21st century programming. We’re creating a technology hub for the community…with a beautiful view of the river.”

In late November, a pedestrian bridge linking the east and west sides of the Grand River in Galt will open. “That connection itself is one of the major reasons, along with other investments like the library, that HIP Developments and the Gaslight District has come into Cambridge,” says Craig.

HIP Developments, Grand Innovations, Conestoga College and the City of Cambridge have partnered on the Gaslight District, named in honour of the area’s historic streetscapes that were once dotted with gas crafted by the former Galt Gas Light Company.

HIP will transform the historic Southworks foundry buildings into a restaurant, entertainment and artisan destination surrounding a European style cobblestone courtyard that promises to have a feel similar to Toronto’s Distillery District or Liberty Village.

About 400 residential units set within two new 20-storey towers will rise on either side, overlooking the Grand River. Once the Gaslight District project is completed in phases from 2018 to 2020, the area will light up with authentic gas lanterns.

Work has already begun on the former Tiger Brand building. The former foundry was built in 1898 and once manufactured boiler bodies for Second World War ships.

The centre promises to propel Cambridge — a community of 135,000 and growing — to become a significant player in the Toronto to Waterloo innovation corridor. The University of Waterloo School of Architecture is located in Galt and may expand into the Gaslight District.

The mayor says much of what’s happening complements the innovation that’s taking place in Kitchener-Waterloo’s technology industry. “We have one of the better economies in Canada and we work very earnestly with our partners, Kitchener-Waterloo, in promoting this region and the Innovation Corridor from here to Toronto,” he says.

The project is transformational, not just for Galt but Cambridge as a whole. “It demonstrates that we’re innovative but we also have very great respect for our past,” Craig says.

“We have a reputation in this region and in southwestern Ontario as a community that cares about its heritage and also has an understanding of the importance of the future and moving ahead with the modernization of our downtown.”