City of Stratford clears legal hurdle to redevelop Cooper site

After sitting vacant for more than 30 years, the City of Stratford is one step closer to redeveloping the massive Cooper site in its downtown core.

The 11-acre plot of land has been tied up in a legal battle for more than a decade, but in a ruling late last week the city cleared the last major roadblock.

Now, city officials say they're eager to start the next phase.

"There has been a lot of work being done by consulting engineers taking a look at the superstructure … (to see) if any part of the east end of the building could be saved and used adaptively in any redevelopment," said Mayor Dan Mathieson.

The Cooper building was built in 1909 as a site to repair locomotives along the grand trunk railroad.

The building was converted into a factory in the 1950s but has sat empty since 1989.

"This building has not really had any economic output since the late 80s, early 90s, so over 30 years," Mathieson said.

Over the years, many have tried to redevelop the property with plans for a water park, indoor market, housing and a hotel.

"None of them were successful purely because of the size of the site and some of the limiting factors with it," Mathieson said.

The city expropriated the land in 2010, sparking a legal battle that ended just last week.

After nearly a century of industrial use and decades of neglect, city officials remain hopeful the building can be saved.

Local residents have presented many different ideas for how to use the land, including a rec centre, a market or a transit terminal.

Many of those ideas are in a master plan for the site that was completed in 2018, including creating room for a new YMCA building, a chance for the University of Waterloo to expand its Stratford campus, a seniors' centre, a daycare or affordable housing.

Mayor Mathieson said bringing more green space to downtown Stratford is also a priority.

"If we're going to intensify this site, going to of course have some great natural aspects for people to congregate around," he said.

The estimated budget for the project is $67 million and will need to be approved by council, but Mathieson said it's still too early to talk about when shovels could hit the ground.

"It's still too early to do that. I think staff are now going to sit around and look at how they can move this forward," he said.

The next step is for the city to approve a feasibility study to determine if raising the $67 million is possible. That vote is expected in January 2022.