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Proponents of the preservation of the old CNR building at the Cooper site were celebrating what they saw as a win Tuesday evening after the Heritage Stratford advisory committee, which has clashed over the issue in the past, agreed to recommend the site for heritage designation.
After a surprise endorsement from committee chair and council candidate Dave Gaffney, who has previously seemed reluctant to proceed with a recommendation, the motion passed relatively easily, but not without warnings about its ramifications.
Committee member Tom Hamza said the recommendation, as worded, went too far by seeking designation for everything from the floors, ceiling, windows, and walls. This, he said, would hurt the chances of the recommendation actually getting passed should it ever reach council (it first needs to be supported at the subcommittee level).
"This isn't commemorating, it's preserving," he said. "The cost implications would be enormous."
Hamza maintained he wanted to see historical designation made in some way, but that by requesting the building be designated in it's entirety, the committee was making it unlikely that the request would be accepted.
"We're putting this forward in a way that is far more likely to fail," he said. "I'd really like to see something put forward with a high likelihood of being accepted. If it's put down, our ability to influence the city will be diminished."
This sentiment was echoed by Allen O'Neill.
"If we're going to save part of the building, we'd have a better chance with something pragmatic," he said. "Council will say, 'These people have reality in their grasp.'"
He advised waiting to see whether Riversedge, a developer currently compiling a report about a possible overhaul of the site, was committed or not. He also said, should Heritage Stratford's recommendation be shot down, the committee would no longer have any say in the future of the building.
Designation advocate Cynthia Venebles accused Hamza and O'Neill of sounding too much like politicians, and advised them that, if they wanted to be power players, they should run for council. She also noted that the old locomotive shops conform to every category in the Ministry of Tourism, Sports, and Culture's stipulations regarding heritage designation.
"We advise. We're not elected officials," she said. "Council may never designate, but it's our responsibility as a board to follow the Ministry's mandate … we must recommend this site."
She also said the recommendation was not as ironclad as Hamza and O'Neill were making it out to be; that it doesn't say the entire building should be designated and that, ultimately, council will be in the driver's seat when it comes to what aspects get designated or not.
"This building qualifies, and we must recommend it. To not is to almost make this committee redundant."
Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick pointed out that the City of St. Thomas had just designated its railway shops, which are dwarfed in comparison with Stratford's. She said she wants to see the building under the protection of Heritage Stratford so that developers can't just do whatever they want with it.
Even committee member Tricia Smith, who up until this point had remained completely silent on the matter, spoke up when prompted by Gaffney.
"I feel comfortable with where we're going," she offered. "We need to make that first step to designate; to work with developers in the future and be a partner in the game."
But it was Gaffney who had the most abrupt about-face. The chair had made his wishes to see the structure torn down quite clear at past meetings.
"It shouldn't be our position to speculate what city council may or may not do," he said. "There's a good a chance as any that a whole new council will make this decision, and we don't know what they'll do."
He later added that the building is outside the downtown heritage district, and would therefore require designation should Heritage Stratford wish any input on its future.
"If it has the designation, Heritage Stratford would be a part of it," he said.
"If it's not designated, it's a moot point," answered O'Neill.