A New Future for Schneiders’ Land

  • 04/29/16
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The Schneiders plant may have produced its last slice of luncheon meat, but city officials and developers believe the property has a bright future — as redeveloped land at the heart of a community in transformation.

Counting two nearby parking lots, the now-closed Courtland Avenue site is a rare find in the middle of the city: almost 25 acres of land near downtown, ideal for mixed-use commercial and residential infill development, with two planned rapid transit stations within walking distance.

“A site of this size is extremely rare,” said Karl Innanen, managing director of Colliers’ Waterloo Region commercial real estate office.

“It’ll bring in national investors, and certainly large regional and Toronto-based investors to come out and take a look at it.”

When company founder J.M. Schneider built the plant for $200,000 in 1924 on what was then the outskirts of the city, he worried he’d never produce enough business to fill it.

Today, the city has grown up and around the old plant and the property is worth millions. For developers, it’s an opportunity to pack a lot of condos and apartments near a coming rapid transit line that will need people to live close by, all with the support of a municipality that wants to increase density in its core.

The Schneiders site is also big enough to be a catalyst that changes the whole neighbourhood, Innanen said — a makeover that could take some of the sting out of the 1,200 jobs lost when the plant closed.

“It’s like getting in on a subway stop back when the Toronto subway system was being developed,” he said. “For developers, it’s seen as something they want to get in on the ground floor on.”

The mayor is confident about the future of the property, too, but cautions the transformation could take years.

“I’m very optimistic, very bullish on what the future holds for that site. But don’t expect it to happen overnight,” said Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic.

“It has the potential to become the model live-work space in our community. It could become a very dynamic piece of real estate.”

Maple Leafs Foods will spend the next six weeks decommissioning the site. This week, the first shipment of liquid ammonia, used in the plant’s giant refrigerators, was trucked away from the site.

Crews will dig up and remove two diesel tanks buried in the backyard and pack up equipment for other Maple Leaf plants. A public, online auction at the end of April will clear out the rest of the unwanted furniture and supplies left behind.

It’s expected the property could be on the market by the fall.

“The plan is to sell it for real estate value. It’s unlikely it’ll be sold as a manufacturing facility,” said Dave Bauer, spokesperson for Maple Leaf. “We’ll be listening to offers when the time is right. But at this point, it’s too early to tell.”

While it’s been a processing plant for 90 years, it’s believed the site has little to no contamination, another attractive feature for developers.

Jeff Willmer, Kitchener’s chief administrative officer, said the neighbourhood around the Courtland Avenue plant has changed so much since the 1920s that it’s no longer an ideal site for manufacturing or other industrial work.

Instead, the city believes the future of the site is in mixed residential and commercial uses — which could include townhomes, condos, grocery store, shops, offices and more. With two light rail transit station planned within a few blocks of the property, planners think it could become the centrepiece of an evolving “urban village” in the former industrial area.

“It’s a wonderful redevelopment opportunity. In the long term, it’s got a lot of potential. It’s a very large property, it’s close to rapid transit, and it’s within the city’s central neighbourhood,” Willmer said. “I can’t think of very many other properties like it.”

The value is in the land, he said. The site’s processing plant is so old and outdated it’s widely thought to be obsolete.

“I’d be surprised if a buyer could use that building for something, just given the state of the disrepair,” said Dennis Lesperance, president of the Schneiders Employees Association.

“It’s an old, tired building. It’s like a 20-year-old car. You can invest a lot of money into it, but it won’t be worth any more.”

Other parts of the Schneiders site, including the office tower and cold storage facility, might still have some short-term value to another company, Willmer said. But the land’s industrial value has passed.

“Inner city industrial areas probably aren’t the most effective industrial areas. They don’t have good highway access and they aren’t all that compatible with residential neighbours,” Willmer said.

Innanen sees little interest in preserving the old factory for reuse as condos or tech startup space, like the Kaufman Lofts, Seagrams Lofts or Tannery projects. Instead, he suspects developers will want to demolish the building and have a clean slate.

“My gut is someone will want to start from scratch,” Innanen said. “The Slaughterhouse Lofts doesn’t have the same cache. Those buildings have a lot of challenges with them, and I don’t see any of them having that same character.”

To help speed up redevelopment, the city already started work that would eventually rezone the site, as part of a larger planning study to map growth in key neighbourhoods that will be changed by rapid transit.

“That will lay the groundwork for Maple Leaf or, much more likely, a future owner of the property,” the chief administrator said.

Plant manager Rick Larose is overseeing the decommissioning process inside the plant with the help of about two dozen employees. It’s strange emptying out a place he’s worked at for 41 years, he said.

“It’s eerie quiet. You walk around and you don’t hear that hum anymore,” he said. “But we’re on track to get everything out of the factory in time.”

Vrbanovic said he wants the transition to happen as quickly as possible. Lesperance said he just hopes the property doesn’t sit idle for too long, waiting for that change to come.

“When you drive by in June and you see the fence up and the unkempt grass and maybe a few broken windows, it’ll be so sad because you knew what it once was.”

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