Driving west on Mill Street, in the small village of Elora, Ontario, shops cluster together along the Grand River, all the way to a dead end where a vacant sawmill stands. On an early Friday morning in March, the stores have yet to open, local wildflower gardens have yet to bud and the streets are hushed. But the gush from a waterfall thrashing down into a gorge mixes with the chug of construction trucks crisscrossing near the entrance to the mill—a landmark dating back to the 1830s, now a designated heritage site.
Over the past several years, mills across southern Ontario have experienced a resurgence. Although the Elora Mill has lived previous lives as a grist mill, distillery, stable, post office and hotel, the building is now the heart of Pearle Hospitality’s ambitious mixed-use waterfront development project that will transform the village’s commerce dynamic and ignite its creative industries. And like most projects that include heritage restoration, the planning process has endured stacks of paperwork and numerous public engagement initiatives.
Brian Blackmere, project manager for the Elora Mill development, says the restoration and re-purposing process is “not a task for the faint of heart,” but the relevance of an old mill; the larger scope of what it can inspire, shouldn’t be undervalued.
”In virtually every town that has a mill there is always a rich history associated with the building and its past use,” he says. “It would have been the centre of economic and social activity in the town and, at least for us, the capacity exists to make it so today. The general public is seeking out places with this type of ‘story’ and history and that makes the mill and any supporting uses (chapel, retail, etc.) very viable from a developer’s perspective.”
Encompassing nine historic sites on both sides of the Grand River, this ‘story’ will begin with the completion of the north bank site where all buildings are being treated as designated heritage spots, whether listed or not. On the designated side, the mill will be restored into a new 20-room hotel and high-end restaurant, while the Mill Stable and James Ross House will transform into a world-class spa and office space. The two other existing structures, still listed on the municipal heritage register, are the Granary, which will become a banquet facility, retail and restaurant space, and the Mill House, that will offer six additional hotel rooms.
Both sides will be connected by two pedestrian bridges, one private, one public, but will also merge with a grander goal in mind. Since the north site had fundamental flaws for a high-end hotel operation—lack of parking spots, insufficient banquet space, for instance—it failed over the years. The new builds across the river help address these issues with underground parking and ample event space.
“This is when the approvals process really kicked in,” notes Blackmere. “We had to go through an official plan amendment and rezoning on the other side, but always retied the existing site with the potential new builds.”
Blackmere now stands at the foot of the old mill as workers upgrade a gas line to make way for commercial kitchens.
“Finally, we’re to the point where activity is starting to happen,” he says, pointing to the front entrance. “For so long those gates were shut.”
After purchasing the bankrupt mill in 2010, the project had lay dormant while it dealt with meeting requirements of the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) and the Ministry of Natural Resources, and also working with the local heritage committee.
When the company acquired the mill, the roof was dilapidated and water was dampening the wall board. Ceilings and insulation were falling all over the floor. The roof has now been replaced and the mill has now been gutted to “get a sense of the bones.” Back in the 1980s, previous owners had dropped the ceilings eight feet, hiding the original beams, which will now remain exposed. Some beams, no longer structural, have been stockpiled for ornamental use, while barn trusses, inadequate for today’s building code, are being replaced.
A big obstacle was the four buildings on the north site that are below the flood line of the river, which caused Blackmere to “jump some hoops” and work with the GRCA regarding building additions.
While the GRCA was cooperative, the company still had to comply with their regulations. Buildings were allowed to expand by up to 50 per cent of the building envelope to a maximum of 100 square metres.
“In order to get their formal blessing, we had to have our engineers provide hydraulic proof that the additions do not affect the floodplain,” adds Blackmere. “This was done. We had originally hoped to add about the same amount of built form that existed on site in the 1940s and 50s but that was just too much to comply with today’s regulations.”
Downstairs, where the penstock is located, large chunks of bedrock rim around the edges of the wall. Building consultants advised the team on how to protect the restored interior from humidity emanating from the rock that contains elements of groundwater. The envelope will be secured to make way for wine and cheese storage in the area occupied by the original mill works.
For the exterior, the whole mill will have to be repointed, as weathering and lack of maintenance have compromised the mortar on the walls.
In other cases, walls of the Mill Stable, too ruined to remain standing, will be dismantled and the stones reused as much as possible during the rebuilding process. A three-storey, steel-framed spa will be constructed with a line of cut stone to mark the approximate height of the existing Mill Stable walls.
Un-coursed rubble limestone walls in other buildings like the Granary will remain standing as they are not as compromised.
“The heritage architect said if you take one of these walls down, it’s down,” says Blackmere. “You can reuse the stone and rebuild it, but you’re never going to duplicate what you got here today.”
From restoration to public realm
Unlike Pearle Hospitality’s Cambridge Mill, the Elora Mill has undergone quite a different process.
“Cambridge was relatively simple from an approvals viewpoint,” says Blackmere. “It was a simple site plan. The zoning was compliant. We didn’t have to change. While the zoning here is compliant, because of the heritage designation, a lot of people are watching you.”
These eyes on the project include a community loyal to their memories of the mill, a place that is still the subconscious centre of town.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe you’re allowed by existing approvals to go ahead and do stuff. People are watching; they’re interested,” says Blackmere, who traversed the area speaking with rotary clubs and the Chamber of Commerce, and appearing on radio shows. “Everyone has an opinion. You shouldn’t discount that.”
The engagement process started with an ad in the local newspaper. Residents were invited to the first informal meeting to meet the developers, hear about their intent for existing sites and see the potential concept for the new development.
“When it came time for the actual approvals and statutory meeting required by the Planning Act, people already knew what we were thinking; we weren’t blindsiding anybody.”
Earlier this month, on March 2, almost 62 years to the date since the decline of Elora’s manufacturing sector, the last public house saw about 300 people.
“It ceased to become a question of should this project happen,” he points out. “It started to be more about when is it going to happen.”
Blackmere and his team are now working with the province to advertise Elora and neighbouring village Fergus as a tourist destination. As it stands, Elora is more of an afternoon go-to place in the summer.
Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management @rebeccachirp