Chet Greason email@example.com
A visiting speaker from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, while delivering a presentation at an event organized by the Stratford/Perth branch of Architectural Conservancy Ontario, agreed that the question of whether to designate the Cooper site as an historical site was a "difficult situation."
Instead, he recommended a meeting in the middle between those who wish to designate and those who don't.
Andrew Jeanes, culture services advisor for the Ministry, was asked to speak at an event held by the ACO at the Queen's Inn on Tuesday, Feb. 17. The evening included brief presentations from various local heritage groups, including the Stratford Perth Heritage Foundation, the Grand Trunk Railway Heritage Site Committee, the Market Square Committee, the Stratford-Perth Archives, and the Perth Branch of the Ontario Genealogy Society.
Jeanes' initial presentation focussed heavily on Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs) and the positive effect they can have on downtown restoration and revitalization.
However, following updates from the aforementioned committees and a short break, Jeanes was asked to conduct a Q&A with the audience. It was at this point that he was asked to comment on the current Cooper site situation.
"I'm not an advocate of combining the GTR shops with the downtown HCD," he stated, explaining that they're "too different," and design guidelines needed for the shops would not at all resemble the guidelines for the downtown.
As to the question of designation, he cautioned those in attendance against acting too quickly at the risk of spooking potential developers.
"If the developer is good, you might not want to do that," he said. "You need a good developer."
On the other hand, he noted that a designation could assist in the future of the site. In other words, if a developer was only planning on occupying the site for 10 years, having design safeguards in place might ensure that it's still properly maintained 20 years down the road.
"It doesn't seem like the municipality is keen to designate now anyway," he noted, adding that doing so now might not bring about the best outcome.
That said, he observed that, in terms of the historical aspects of what's there, the site does warrant designation.
Stratford's HCD in need of updating
After being asked for suggestions regarding Stratford's own HCD, Jeanes noted it could be due for an update.
Stratford's HCD consists of 190 commercial and institutional properties and was designated in 1997. It is bordered by Lake Victoria to the north, Waterloo Street to the east, and St. Patrick Street to the south. Its western border zigzags to include the Masonic Hall, the library, and the Stratford jail. An additional row of buildings to the south between Douro and Falstaff streets is also included.
The HCD incorporates policies used for guiding changes to buildings found within it. However, Jeanes said it may be warranted to go beyond that.
"HCDs look at the physical, but they can also look at things like business analyses and downtown revitalization," he said in an interview following his Q&A.
Jeanes added that while it's important for HCDs to have plans in place for things like uniform window design, they should also do more to ensure a downtown is sustainable and in use.
"What about upper floor occupancy? If it's vacant, it's wasted space. Opening it up to residences or offices would generate more tax revenue."
He said the width of sidewalks and the comfort with which pedestrians can walk or bicycle are other aspects HCDs can address.
"It doesn't matter it they're beautiful heritage buildings if no one is in them."
What's the point of HCDs?
The whole reason behind HCDs, said Jeanes, is to attract people and businesses back to your downtown core.
"We've had decades of decisions that were made because land and gas was cheap and everybody was driving cars," he said of urban planning's recent past. "They were regrettable, but understandable, decisions. Once everyone had a car, it didn't matter how far away it was. So long as parking was free, you'd drive."
That mentality is changing, he said. But what's also changing is the face of business.
"Manufacturing is never going to go away, but there will be fewer and fewer people employed," he said. He attributes this to the rise of automation.
"The days of 800 people in the workplace are gone. Now you'll have businesses of 10-20 people."
This means new businesses like software designers, recording studios, or computer programmers; businesses that, provided they can access high speed Internet, will not necessarily be tied to any one geographic location.
"These businesses want to be in these pre-WWII-style downtowns," said Jeanes. "Not out in an industrial park by the highway, but somewhere where there's a cafe or a flower shop down the street."
"It's about managing change, not preventing it," he added. "The thing is, if you're going to jump on that bandwagon, do you want to be first? Or last?"