A Redevelopment Proposal for Stratford’s Cooper Site

FORGET MEGA-PROJECT MOVIE STUDIOS AND WATER PARKS, A MIXED-USE RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBOURHOOD IS THE WAY TO GO

Since the early 1970s, citizens have debated about what should become of the Cooper-Bessemer site. Formerly a railroad repair shop, the Cooper site’s various owners over the years have proposed many mega-projects, ranging from movie studios to hotel/amusement complexes. But, as is the nature of mega-projects, if one component fails, the whole project follows suit, and all of these grand schemes have proved futile, leaving the Cooper Site a scar on the city’s urban landscape.

A DESIGN PROPOSAL

The answer to solving this Stratford urban woe is embracing a mixed-use approach to developing the Cooper site. Such a route would split the project up into smaller development pieces that wouldn’t rely on the entire site to be completed at the same time. This route would entail levelling the structure and environmental remediation of the site to allow for both commercial and residential development.

As Figure 1 details, the current south-end streets would be extended west beyond St. David through the site to meet up with St. Patrick. The idea here would be to allow for a gradual transition and a sense of continuity between the residential south and the central business district (CBD). This proposal would mix residential and commercial development to create population density and life to the CBD, as well as adding value to the depressed properties of the south end.

Figure 1 — A Proposed Redevelopment Plan for Stratford’s Cooper Site.

Development of the Cooper site as a primarily residential neighbourhood would maintain the scale of the CBD and surrounding areas. The height of the commercial buildings, row housing and houses would be identical to the heights of structures to the east, north and west of the CBD.

What is nice about this proposal is that no part of the Cooper site is more than 450 metres from the CBD; thus, this could be a neighbourhood of high walk-ability, as amenities can quickly be garnered from the core. All of the proposed street extensions will feature on-street parking, and four-way stops to slow traffic. Lanes inside the blocks will draw residents’ cars and garbage off of the street into rear alley facing garages.

The extension of the south-end residential streets would feature both row housing and single-family dwellings. The row housing will vary in internal structure and external features. Some floor plans call for three styles of townhomes with continuous façade — end units, internal units and central units (one side facing the laneway). There should never be too many internal units together — maximum being four in a row, six units in total. The maximum height would be two ½ storeys with an attic for storage or possible future room. Roof pitch can vary between low and steep, but no flat mansard roofs will be permitted, and facades should feature red or yellow brick, with cornices and other Beaux-Arts decorative features.

Built-in a neo-traditional fashion, the single-family dwellings along these street extensions could have the most variety. Up to two ½ storeys would be allowed, with normal rooflines. Houses should be no more than 15 feet setback from the street. Front porches are mandatory, sized no less than half the width of the house and with a depth of no less than six feet. Located at the back of the property, garages can have small apartments of “Granny Flats” above. As with the row houses, facades must be red or yellow brick. Cornices and other Beaux-Arts decorative features are preferred.

Along St. Patrick, mixed-use commercial structures will create continuity with existing CBD structures. Heights of commercial buildings will be three storeys, featuring retail space at street-level, with residential or office space occupying upper-levels. All levels should emphasize light with large windows, featuring rear-patio space and access from both the rear and street. Parking for residents would be available in alley access routes and angled parking along St. Patrick would provide space for customers. Once again, facades should be red or yellow brick, with cornices and other Beau Art decorative features.

Parkland would be created along the Downie Street corridor on the east side of the site. The Stratford-Perth YMCA is located in the northeastern corner of Cooper, along with a skateboard park and between Cooper and Via terminal, there are three city-owned tennis courts and another playground. Thus this neighbourhood would be more than adequately served with recreational activities. Beyond all of the amenities that downtown provides, there are two schools and three churches within walking distance.

The aim of this project is adding to the vitality of the downtown area. Living in this neighbourhood would be about an urban experience and all of the benefits that come along with it. The key to creating life in downtown is getting people to live there. Within the Cooper site, there is the possibility of building 290 single-family lots, six rowhouse complexes with 40 units and three commercial building lots with up to 40 multi-use units (retail on ground floors, apartments/lofts/offices on two upper levels). The potential for increasing downtown’s population is immense in this concept.

GETTING IT OFF THE GROUND

After being burned on previous deals, the city has been extremely reluctant to encourage development on the Cooper site. This is odd since most municipalities would be anxious for anything to take place on such a derelict site in the centre of their city. Of course, funding for any development is a significant challenge. However, the municipality could quickly get the ball rolling by offering to wave development fees and offering Tax Increment Financing, which freezes property taxes at pre-developed levels for several years after the new development is completed.

Constructing this area into a mixed-use neighbourhood will address many of the problems faced by previous proposals for the site. Firstly, it will link the neighbourhoods on the south side of the site with many streets and walking routes into the CBD. Secondly, it allows for the creation of a large number of on-street parking, helping to alleviate the midsummer problems finding parking in a city swollen with theatre patrons. Thirdly, the new neighbourhood will create much-needed housing units and commercial space. Fourthly, the new housing will help ease the development pressure on farmland surrounding Stratford. Finally, the new retail spaces will provide new economic development opportunities for small and medium businesses in Stratford.

Construction of the Cooper neighbourhood requires a flexible set of guidelines, outlining the overall objectives, feel and dynamics of the new area. This would include:

  1. The creation of a viable neighbourhood that affects the surrounding residential, retail, commercial sectors favourably.
  2. Promotion of architecturally contiguous streetscapes that complement the adjacent CBD and turn of the 20th-century neighbourhoods.
  3. Creation of enhanced walk-ability and traffic flow.
  4. The creation of supplementary parking areas for local business and tourism purposes.
  5. Creation of a safe area for families, seniors and pedestrians.
  6. Providing a foundation for community spirit and life.

These concepts will help city council create the initial planning of the site. Based on these guidelines, Stratford can begin to form ideas of how to proceed with the project.

IN CLOSING

Throughout the last hundred years, the Cooper site has been a symbol of progress and wealth. Now it is a derelict and dead brownfield, stripped of its former glory. It served the economic interest of the city for a long time, but now it’s time to build something that serves today’s citizens of Stratford.

Developable land is not only a commercial venture but also an opportunity to enhance the character and liveability of a city. The Cooper site could be an excellent example of what a city can do with brownfields.

There is always a temptation to build landmarks in a city. There is a fallacy that links landmarks and success. That does not always work — it is thought they will catapult a city into a different class. There are some success stories in larger cities; for example, the CN tower boasted the image of Toronto as a world-class city. However, when we are talking about a small city with limited resources and population density, it becomes ridiculous to discuss mega-entertainment complexes and metropolis sized hotels.

These schemes are proposed because they are business models that are money-makers, not because they will enhance the living space of the residents. What cities and developers need is a new business model for residential development that still makes money but also creates an economically and environmentally sustainable future for us all.

While contributing to the vitality of central Stratford, the development of a Cooper neighbourhood could be an excellent example of how municipalities can take responsibility for their brownfields. It would also show how small cities like Stratford could plan responsibly.

Postscript — This story was originally published in 2003 in The Local Option, a now-defunct local politics magazine in Stratford, Ontario. The redevelopment of Stratford’s Cooper Site started moving forward with a new University of Waterloo Campus in 2006 and a Master Plan for the area that calls for a mix of uses has been approved by Stratford City Council.

Hazel & Oscar’s Dad — Civic Innovator — Baseball Fan — Community Builder — Closet Magician — Proud Public Servant