Cooper site 'could be beautiful again'
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Apr 08, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Cooper site 'could be beautiful again'

Stratford Gazette

Jeff Heuchert

Architect Michael Wilson has many big ideas for what could become of the old CNR shops on the Cooper site. But that's all they and other proposals will ever be should the city decide to move forward with demolition.

In a public presentation April 3 at the library, Wilson made his case for selective demolition of the historically significant building. He showed drawings of what the site would look like if columns were removed to create more easily manageable sections for redevelopment. The annex could be taken down, opening up a street-like space in between the mezzanine and former erecting shop. One sketch showed a new library and YMCA located within the existing structure, with space still left over for a heritage component similar to what the Grand Truck Railway Site Heritage committee is suggesting, as well as parking in the old erecting shop. Other drawings visualized what a new pool and gymnasium might look like. One showed a multi-storied library overlooking an expansive auditorium.

"The marriage of the new and the old can be quite exciting," he told the roughly 75 people in attendance, adding the building, despite its rough-around-the-edges appearance, "could be beautiful again, and more beautiful that it ever was."

City staff are expected to report back to council about the next steps with the Cooper site sometime this month. The last motion before councillors was to proceed with demolition of the building, save and except for any portion to be retained for commemoration. That was to be followed with a master plan for future use of the site. Wilson said he found it "odd" and "very upsetting" that the city would choose to start swinging the wrecking ball before better understanding through a master plan process how the site could be used to accommodate future needs.

"I'm asking for help to prevent that from happening," he added, noting all decisions, including how to commemorate the site, should be decided before any demolition.

Having lived in Stratford for most of his adult life, Wilson said he has an "altruistic passion" for the old locomotive shops. He worked the closing shift at what was then Cooper Energy, and years later he worked closely with Tom Patterson to try to encourage a new corporate use for the building before the land was sold by the city.

Wilson said the biggest obstacle in terms of saving the structure is public perception - that it is too dirty, ugly, and too big and expensive to restore. There are contaminants on the site, including coal, tar, metals, and oils. But Wilson suggested remediation would not be all that complicated, noting if the existing building was adaptively re-used for a commercial or industrial purpose, very little clean up of the site is required. It's only if the building is torn down or a residential, park, or institutional component is added that extensive remediation would be necessary, he noted.

As for the structure itself, he said a fresh coat of paint and new concrete floor would do the trick.

"The building is, relatively speaking, cleaner than the ground beside it, and it's pretty easy to deal with," he added.

Wilson said it's going to be expensive to redevelop the site, whatever scenario is ultimately chosen.

City CAO Ron Shaw has previously stated that demolition of the site and commemoration is the only option that the city can realistically afford. The cost to tear down the building was an estimated $1.2 million in 2012. Council has also suggested a budget of up to $1 million for commemoration.

But Wilson said the cost to remove the building and build any number of previously suggested uses, such as a new library, YMCA, transit hub, heritage component, or parking lot, is unknown. The same goes for the remediation that would be required.

Likewise, using the existing structure to house several different community needs, as Wilson would prefer, comes at its own undetermined price.

The one figure to consider, however, is $9.72 million – what CAO Shaw indicated it would have cost back in 2012 to bring the existing building up to a minimum occupancy standard. The costs associated with a particular use going into the building would be in addition to that amount.

Given the enormous costs involved, Wilson joined others in the community by suggesting solar panels could be installed on the roof of the existing building as a source of revenue. His sketches show 24,000 feet of panels, enough to generate 100 kilowatts, or about $75,000 a year. The other obvious revenue generator would be a parking garage, which Wilson noted is not his first choice for the building but could work well in many different configurations. Putting in three levels for vehicles would still leave about 120,000 square feet of "delightful" space to redevelop, he said. He also showed a sketch were six levels of parking space are accommodated within the structure.

Wilson also presented some plans for how the property, outside of the old railway shops, could accommodate the many new developments that have been talked about as possibilities for the site, including the up to eight acres already committed to the University of Waterloo.

The drawings - and his entire presentation, for that matter - are meant to start the conversation, he said, about "how to build a richer place out of a bunch of buildings together and in the spaces in between, rather than just plunking a building down and surrounding it by its required parking."

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