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City council to seek legal advice on Avon Crest property

Delegates passionately petitioned for heritage designation on the city's first hospital, which is in disrepair and could face the wrecking ball
At the most attended Stratford City Council meeting since returning to in-person meetings, the public watched delegations on Avon Crest.

Mere hours after the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance shocked many with an announcement that a new long-term care facility will be built on the Avon Crest property, delegates passionately petitioned for heritage designation for the city's first hospital, which is facing the wrecking ball.

The gallery at Stratford City Council was packed on Monday night after the earlier news that HPHA and Revera Canada have plans for a 128-bed facility across the street from Stratford General Hospital, to be built after the circa. 1891 hospital is torn down. 

Delegates and members of the Save Avon Crest group want the building saved, and a heritage designation and subsequent retrofit of the aging structure so it can be used again were presented as the favoured option to city council. 

Some brought up examples from surrounding communities – from London to Caledon – where historic buildings were a part of the solution to the many problems those communities faced. 

From affordable housing to other healthcare services, Avon Crest was emphatically petitioned as a building that can give more to the community, if properly restored and maintained. Some of the reasons discussed for saving Avon Crest include environmental impacts, saving more than 100,000 kg of embodied carbon from entering the atmosphere if it is demolished.

Delegate Howard Shubert, of Save Avon Crest group, pointed out that in the City's strategic priorities, the environment is a big one. In the City’s official plan, they specifically encourage the rehabilitation of older buildings. 

Cambria Ravenhill, chair of Heritage Stratford, explained that to be designated as heritage, buildings must meet two of nine criteria. Avon Crest meets seven of those criteria points, a unique distinction, she said. 

Ravenhill understands that the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance (HPHA), owners of the property, wish to demolish the building to build a long-term care home.

“That’s needed as well,” Ravenhill said about the proposed LTC home. “But I can’t for the life of me understand why you need to tear down a building to do it. It’s ridiculous. That’s like so 1980. It’s not what we do in 2023.”

A number of delegates, including Ravenhill, called attention to the large grounds of the Avon Crest site, which includes a number of buildings. Many called for the hospital to be saved and utilized in a rezone and redesign which may include an LTC home.

Ravenhill and a few others pointed out that a heritage designation would not mean demolition is not possible. It would mean that council would be the entity to decide that. 

Andrew Williams, CEO of the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance, speaks on behalf of demolishing Avon Crest. Connor Luczka/StratfordToday

Andrew Williams, president and CEO of the HPHA, said that after almost two hours of delegates speaking about the HPHA, the role of the alliance was perhaps being mischaracterized. 

“We’ve been characterized as not doing any homework,” Williams said. “I can assure you that an awful lot of thought has gone into where we are today.”

To refurbish the building, a professional estimator has quoted the project at over $24 million. 

The HPHA has been open to many plans, he said, but in his 30 years with the alliance, not once have they been approached about a refit plan. That includes the last 18 months when the site has been “headline news,” as he characterized it. 

Williams clarified that even still, no other serious plan has been provided to him or the HPHA about saving the building. 

“I have so much confidence in the local development community … if they thought it makes sense to redevelop a building they would come forward. They haven’t done that but we did do it. We went through it. We have follow-up discussions with architects and developers … the collective feedback we’ve had is if you want the site developed then it needs to be rebuilt.”

He also clarified that due to the position of the building on the site, Avon Crest in the middle, there isn't proper room to keep the building and fit more structures. 

The HPHA remain in conversation with Revera and there are still more steps to take, he said. 

Given that the matter was being brought to council, the alliance felt it necessary to announce the plan.

After the delegations, Coun. Brad Beatty put forward a motion to wait for legal counsel on ramifications should they move forward with a heritage designation. 

Coun. Beatty cited Bill 23, The More Homes Built Faster Act, when he put forward the motion. He later told StratfordToday that the reason for calling attention to that particular bill is because of how it amends the Ontario Heritage Act and because of how new it is. His intent was to put a pause on the process and see whether or not designating the hospital heritage is even possible under Bill 23. 

Prior to council, an in-camera meeting was held which included an item pertaining to a legal opinion on heritage designation. As it was a private meeting, subject to solicitor-client privilege, Coun. Beatty could not comment further on the substance of that meeting. 

Coun. Cody Sebben put forward a motion to send a letter to the HPHA to indicate council would oppose demolition of the site, though that motion failed.

Williams said once government approvals are secured, the agreement with Revera will create increased local capacity while improving hospital care by freeing up beds for patients waiting for surgeries or admission in the emergency department. 

Tenders for demolition close this week and assuming there are no issues that come up, and final approvals are secured, demolition of the property could start in late spring or early summer, Williams said. 

"The actual development in terms of long-term care is a whole other process unto its own. It will take some time before we have shovels in the ground for a new build."

In between the announcement being made and the city council meeting on Monday, Williams said the timing was right to let the community know about the plans.

"We felt with the visibility that this is having in the community now, the fact we are going back to council (tonight) to discuss the heritage situation, we really wanted all of our cards on the table so people are aware what is going on and what conversations are taking place. We have said all along…we want to leverage that land into something that brings value to this community from a health and wellness perspective. This certainly does that in our view." 

A photo of the historic Avon Crest hospital on Monday. The HPHA announced a new long-term care home will be built on site. Connor Luczka/StratfordToday

 - with files from Paul Cluff/StratfordToday