Chet Greason, email@example.com
There was a great deal of confusion and hard-to-define opposition at a Heritage Stratford meeting on Tuesday when delegates from the Grand Trunk Railway Heritage Committee asked the advisory committee to council to begin research into the heritage value of the Cooper site, a possible first step towards official heritage designation of the former locomotive shops.
In the end, the committee got its wish, but not before a lengthy and, at times, contentious debate.
The meeting began with a presentation from Grand Truck representative Dean Robinson, who pointed out that such requests have been made by both property owners and special interest groups in the past. Pending the research, Robinson requested two documents from Heritage Stratford: A statement of heritage distinction, explicitly declaring the former CNR shops are of heritage value, and a list of historical attributes or aspects of the building that have historical value.
"We're confident that your findings will leave no doubt as to the cultural value of the site," said Robinson.
Heritage Stratford committee member Cynthia Venables championed Robinson's request, saying the list of historical aspects could be helpful for when council is trying to decide which aspects to retain for the sake of commemoration.
This decision would be the most important this committee will ever have, she added.
"The last one was in the '60s with City Hall," she said, noting the decision to keep that historical building led to a mandate to protect buildings of historical significance.
She also compared the Cooper site to the Musée d'Orsay, a museum in Paris, France housed in a former railway station.
"It was also deemed ugly before the decision was made to renovate it," she added.
The meeting then took a sudden turn after Coun. Karen Smythe made a motion to receive Robinson's presentation as information and to send it along to city staff.
That seemed to frustrate Robinson, who barked at the councillor, "Who makes the decision? You or staff?"
"You know about the litigation," Smythe said to Robinson, alluding to the ongoing dispute between the city and the site's former owner over compensation. She also wondered aloud whether she, as a city councillor, should be declaring a conflict of interest.
When asked by Robinson whether staff conducts research on potential heritage property, Smythe clarified that the research is typically handled by archive staff.
"Then do that," said Robinson, who also asked why litigation surrounding the Cooper site should have anything to do with historical designation.
Grand Trunk member Allan Waddingham pointed out that one of the reasons his organization was making the current request was that it's already been referred to staff twice by other committees.
"And nothing happened," he said.
Robinson accused council of wanting to demolish the building.
"You can't say that," said Smythe. "That was never said."
Robinson pointed out that when public consultation regarding the Cooper site is removed from the city's Official Plan and replaced with demolition as a possible outcome, it's a fair indicator of what council's intentions are.
"Who owns the property?" he asked. "Why can't we designate it?"
Committee chair Dave Gaffney then interjected.
"I feel like you're having an argument that you want to have with council," he said to Robinson.
"No. You're the people we have to talk to," came the response. "You evaluate houses. All we're asking is that you do that with the site."
"I'm not sure, but individual taxpayers don't come in to ask for designation on public property," said Gaffney, who wondered aloud whether, should the committee grant the request, a new group of citizens would be showing up at the next meeting calling the decision a waste of money.
Committee member Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick then raised her hand.
"I'm a member of the committee. Why can't I ask why we can't designate it?"
Smythe maintained the issue was a question of ownership.
"(Former Cooper site owner) Lawrence Ryan says he wants the property back," she said. "The question before the courts right now is, who owns the property? I really can't speak anymore on that. Please respect that," she pleaded.
"The city says it owns the property," said Robinson.
"And Ryan says he owns it," answered Smythe.
Under a barrage of more questions regarding the city's litigation over the Cooper site, Smythe threw up her hands, declared she had a conflict of interest, and promptly left the meeting.
"Previous city councils made errors with the property, and now we're left to deal with this problem," said Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick afterwards. "We shouldn't lose the building because of it. I cannot allow another bad decision to be made with this building."
"I don't agree at all," said Gaffney.
After some confusion regarding Smythe's original motion, which was stricken due to her declaring a conflict of interest, Venables successfully offered a new motion that Heritage Stratford grant the Grand Trunk Railway Heritage Committee's request.
In interviews following the meeting, both Smythe and CAO Ron Shaw clarified that there was no issue of ownership in regards to the Cooper site; that the city owns it and, in Shaw's words, "is free to develop it."
Smythe said her decision to declare a conflict of interest late in the meeting was due to her being somewhat blindsided by Grand Trunk's request, noting she was expecting a delegation as stated in the agenda and was not prepared for any decision-making at that time.
She added that, in retrospect, she probably shouldn't have declared a conflict of interest, but that her decision to do so was done as a precaution.
"Without a senior member from the city there to advise us on what the proper procedure would be, I thought maybe I should declare a conflict of interest because, as a councillor, I will ultimately be making a decision on it," she said.