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U of T manages backlash against a privately run residence

Student residences owned by companies can provoke strong feelings in the community.

By DIANE PETERS | JUL 03 2013

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.

Looking ahead

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.”

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  1. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh / July 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    This is one of the most one-sided articles I have read about this. Why not speak to the community to see what this is about. Were you told that the developer has now bought additional land and proposes to increase the numbed o beds to 843. Were you told that the are now seeking another rezoning to increase the density on one of the pieces of property. Were you told that this is outside of the UT’s secondary plan area. Were you told that this development is in the middle of a neighbourhood and adjacent ot family homes that are 2 and 3 stories. Were you told that that the height limit on College Street is 4 stories? And No, discussions have not returne to normal. And of, by the way, city council has agreed to continue its opposition and the omb hearing has been adjourned to November 18. U of T has been very irresponsible in buying land, declaring it surplus and doing it all behind closed doors forcing the residents to get an FOI to get details on the arrangements.

    writing for the

    For the Grange Community Association

  2. Rory 'Gus' Sinclair / August 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    (Part 2 of 2)

    • Toronto City Council has twice explicitly voted to oppose this development

    • The university has not stepped in to manage the situation, as stated in the article. In fact, the university, citing, once again, that notorious agreement with the developer, has been notable in refusing to use its influence to achieve a building that meets both university and community requirements. It could help and so far has been adamant that it won’t.

    • Lack of action on the part of the university to support a building reasonable in scope and scale – and we continue to believe that this is do-able – has forced residents’ associations to raise significant funds and spend countless hours opposing the development, which, contrary to the statement by Prof. Mabury, is now headed for the Ontario Municipal Board in November, 2013. In this public dispute, the community is up against a developer with significant financial resources. This has further tarnished the university’s less-than-stellar reputation for stewardship related to the communities on the borders of its St. George campus.

    All four residents’ associations support the provision of high quality student housing. For its part, the University of Toronto has an obligation to “do no harm” while developing such housing, especially when it falls outside the campus precinct, which this building does. Nowhere do the author of the article or university staff discuss the reciprocity necessary for successful community/institutional relations.

    The representatives of all four residents’ associations were astonished at University Affair’s one-sided account of the issues that continue to surround the proposed College Street development. Any of our organizations would have been happy to contribute to the article. The piece would have been more factual and therefore stronger if we had.

    The university’s attempt to position its handling of a continuing contentious issue as successful has only managed to achieve a set-back in university/community relations in downtown Toronto.

    Sincerely,

    David Harrison

    President, Annex Residents’ Association

    David.Harrison@phdnetwork.com

    Ralph Daley

    President, Grange Community Association

    ralph@grangecommunity.ca

    Tim Grant,

    President, Harbord Village Residents’ Association

    tim@greenteacher.com

    Julie Mathien

    President, Huron-Sussex Residents’ Organization

    mathetj@ca.inter.net

  3. Rory 'Gus' Sinclair / August 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    (Part 1 of 2)

    As representatives of the four major downtown residents’ organizations and members of the City-mandated U of T Area Community Liaison Committee, we are writing to respond to the July 3, 2013 article titled U of T Manages Backlash Against a Privately Run Residence). We are not backlash, we are not being managed, we are not calm and if the University of Toronto believes, as stated in the article, that the current “community conversation” on this issue is “normal”, then relations between the university and its downtown neighbourhoods will continue to be troubled.

    The article seriously misrepresents the past and current situation related to the private student residence being proposed for the south side of College Street. For example:

    • The article does not make clear that the university is leasing a small parcel of land on the south side of College Street to a developer who has assembled a number of contiguous properties and has promised to build a residence for students (not necessarily students at U of T).

    • The development will in no way enhance the neighbourhood in which it is situated. At 25 storeys –5 times over the allowed height and 6 times the allowed density – it remains too tall and too dense . The proposed building will overwhelm the small, residential street lined with modest, two-storey houses that it directly abuts. The proposed residence bed count is now over 800.

    • The agreement between the university and the developer was made public only after representatives of the Grange Community Association submitted a freedom of information request. Members of the liaison committee had been told for months that the agreement itself included an undertaking that it not be made public. After the agreement was finally released, the developer admitted in the media that the “gag order” might have been a mistake.

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