INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT HIGGINS BY CHRIS TIESSEN; PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
THERE ARE FEW REGIONAL INITIATIVES THAT HAVE RECEIVED AS MUCH HYPE OVER THE PAST HANDFUL OF YEARS AS WATERLOO-BASED HIP DEVELOPMENTS’ AMBITIOUS PROJECT, THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT. AND FOR GOOD REASON. THIS PART-RESIDENTIAL, PART-COMMERCIAL, PART-COMMUNAL (WE’LL GET TO THIS PART) ADAPTIVE REUSE UNDERTAKING IS BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO GALT’S FORMER SOUTHWORKS FOUNDRY AND, MORE IMPORTANTLY, INTO GALT (AND, BY EXTENSION, DOWNTOWN CAMBRIDGE) ITSELF. IT’S ALSO SERVING AS A UNIQUE MODEL FOR HOW DEVELOPMENTS (AND THEIR DEVELOPERS) MIGHT INTERACT WITH THE COMMUNITIES IN WHICH THEY’RE BUILT.
AS THE CONSTRUCTION PHASE OF THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT WINDS DOWN AND ITS GRAND OPENING WEEKEND – SLATED FOR JULY 28-30TH – DRAWS CLOSER, I WAS ONCE MORE ABLE TO SPEND SOME TIME WITH SCOTT HIGGINS – THE INSPIRED AND INSPIRING MIND BEHIND HIP’S PROJECTS – TO INTERVIEW HIM. HERE’S SOME OF WHAT HE HAD TO SAY:
THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT HAS BEEN A MONUMENTAL UNDERTAKING. HOW LONG HAS IT TAKEN TO GET TO THIS STAGE?
The project itself has been seven years in the making – and has cost upwards of two hundred and fifty million dollars. It’s been driven by a vision to create something unique for Cambridge and for the entire region.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT’S SO UNIQUE ABOUT THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT?
The Gaslight District is most unique because it’s been developed with community top of mind. Specifically, at the heart of the District – surrounded by the project’s impressive Gaslight condominium towers, awe-inspiring Tapestry Hall event space, and a handful of commercial units housing restaurants, bars, and other public-facing amenities which have been integrated into the former foundry’s wonderful century-old limestone walls – lies a one-acre public square filled with unique interactive installations and attractions whose primary function is to encourage play and drive interactivity. As such, HIP has developed a sort of ‘infrastructure for the human spirit’ that’s all about motivating interpersonal connectivity and fellowship on a physical level.
TELL ME A BIT MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLIC SQUARE – AND SPECIFICALLY ABOUT ITS INSTALLATIONS AND ATTRACTIONS. WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO BE LIKE?
We’ve invested heavily in a range of technologies that will enliven the place for everyone who visits it. There will be a number of playfully-interactive permanent installations, for example, that will (re)acquaint folks with the Grand River [located just steps from the Gaslight District] and help tell the stories that define the city’s past, present, and future. A permanent outdoor stage in the square will host concerts and arts & culture performances [which will, in turn. complement Tapestry Hall, Gaslight’s indoor event space, that’s already operating just next to the square]. Already installed in the square is Canada’s largest outdoor video screen – perfect for movie nights, extraordinary telecasts [think Olympics, Stanley Cup Finals, World Cup], and even local band video launches. And when the video screen isn’t playing ‘scheduled programming,’ it will animate the space in unique ways, functioning in tandem with the interactive installations, for instance.
THIS SOUNDS INCREDIBLE – AND EXPENSIVE TO USE. WHAT WILL THESE INTERACTIVE INSTALLATIONS COST TO USE – OR ‘PLAY’?
Everything in the public square will be free. I firmly believe that any great development should include public art, civic squares, and vibrant spaces where folks can connect with each other and the environment around them – at no cost.
TALK TO ME A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR INTEREST IN CONNECTIVITY – WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Over the past few years our society has slipped into a sort of ‘social recession’ in which loneliness, depression, and anxiety have reached all-time highs. I believe that this is because we, as individuals, don’t connect with other people like we used to. Even before the pandemic introduced restrictions and lockdowns into our lives, folks were connecting less – choosing instead to doom scroll their lives away on their screens.
At the same time, city planning has increasingly stripped away many of the spaces and places
where we used to casually bump into people, make conversation, meet a new friend. I believe that it’s time we rebuild these communal spaces – and I know that we can no longer rely on city hall to assume responsibility for city building of this sort. Instead, achieving a goal of inclusive communities is going to take experimentation and collaboration from – and with – all sectors.
AND SO THAT’S WHAT HIP IS DOING HERE AT THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT, THEN?
Yes. At HIP we believe that creating meaningful connections between people is a city’s most important job because quality of life, better mental health, and the innovations that our economy runs on all come from a sense of united and collaborative communities. As a result, The Gaslight District defines its purpose as creating a new kind of public place designed to connect people with strangers and neighbours through play – for free.
WHAT’S LEFT TO DO BEFORE THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT’S GRAND OPENING CELEBRATIONS ON JULY 28-30TH?
There’s always work to be done, that’s for sure. But, really, the only missing ingredient at the site are the citizens of Cambridge and Waterloo Region whom I can’t wait to see activating the space – playing in it, and with it, and with each other.
AND ONE LAST QUESTION – WHAT ARE SOME THINGS TO DO AT THE GASLIGHT DISTRICT FOR FOLKS WITH CASH BURNING A HOLE IN THEIR POCKET?
There are definitely options for these visitors, too. The Foundry Tavern, for instance, is open already and abuts the public square. It serves products made at Foundry Brewing Co – which is also located at Gaslight – and is fast becoming a favourite food destination for locals. There are also plans for a cocktail bar and pizza spot. And of course there will also be a well-curated selection of markets, shops, and even art studios for those who want to expand their Gaslight District experience.
But The Gaslight District will never be just another outdoor shopping mall to hang out with your close friends. The main thrust of this urban park is to be a place where you hang out with your city and feel like you belong.