When a Canadian university announces a new residence that promises to house hundreds of students, particularly those subject to Toronto’s sky-high rents and 1.7 percent vacancy rate, there’s often a positive response. But plans for a new residence for University of Toronto students on College Street near Spadina Avenue has turned into a controversy that has seen local residents consult a lawyer, involve a local councillor and tell the media the school is allowing a “759-bed rooming house” that could be filled with non-students.
U of T has been building residences for decades. But this is the first time it has worked with a private developer. U of T managed to calm the situation down, but not before gaining new insights about how to handle this approach to student housing construction.
Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president, university operations, noted that universities are turning increasingly to outside partners for help with this kind of development.
“Universities have less resources to spend anywhere but in the classroom,” he said. “I believe public-private partnerships help make university dollars go further.”
A growing trend
With many schools guaranteeing residence to first-year students, and with more international students arriving in Canada needing a place to live, demand for residence spaces is on the rise. U of T estimates it will need 2,000 new rooms by 2020.
Across the country and particularly in Ontario, universities are looking to private companies either to build residences on 99-year leases, as U of T has done, or via more formal partnerships. Residence projects partnering with private companies are under way at Ryerson University, Brock University and Trent University, among others.
Some are moving along with ease. Others are meeting the kind of community resistance that U of T has been struggling with since the project first was hatched in 2009.
What U of T did
The negative response to the College Street residence was peaking when the school finally stepped in, in the spring of 2012. Up to that point, U of T had stayed out of the conversation because it had leased the land to Knightstone Capital Management Inc. and would have only a limited say in how the building would be run; U of T had a seat on the residence council and was allowing the developer to deal with the public on its own terms.
That hadn’t gone well, partially because initial plans for the building proposed a 42-storey building; it’s now around 24 storeys. Confusion over zoning of the site lingered.
“The folks at the table didn’t have a history of experience working with these kinds of university projects that abut a neighbourhood,” said Mr. Mabury, the U of T vice-president.
So U of T published a public letter online to explain the history behind the residence and why the university wasn’t preventing the developer from taking its plan to the Ontario Municipal Board, a government body that could decide on the site’s zoning. It is scheduled to go before the OMB this July.
The letter provided a link to U of T’s agreement with Knightstone. (Residents had claimed this agreement was being kept private, although the school says it had been public for two years.)
Then Mr. Mabury called a public meeting with community members. “If this had been a normal university build we would have been at the table earlier,” he explained. “We meet with our community groups routinely. It’s our chance to change things back to a more productive conversation.”
At that meeting he was able, for instance, to tout the value of well cared for residences over rooming houses, of which there are many in the neighbourhood.
Now, he said, the conversation in the community has returned to normal. The developer is finalizing its plans and dealing with zoning changes and the residence is expected to be built by 2015 or 2016.
As other schools struggle to work with neighbours over new buildings where private companies are at least partly in control, best practices are becoming clear: no matter who is paying for the land or the bricks, local residents want to know what’s going on. They’re concerned about noise, traffic and late-night parties. They worry that new developments that are not controlled 100 percent by the institution could become run-down, or get rented to non-students.
Postsecondary institutions are learning to take the lead and make introductions with the community. Residences cost a lot to build, but they are good for university life, so it’s worth the effort to make it work.
“We like kids living on campus,” says Mr. Mabury. “We like as many as possible.”