Time has not been kind to the plan for the St. George campus Student Commons. The project to build a student-controlled downtown campus hub, perennially in the discussion phases, has been kicked around for nearly six decades. After being held back by competing visions and funding shortfalls for well over half a century, the centre is fast approaching what may be its final obstacle: your wallet.
The University of Toronto Students’ Union announced on Sunday that it will ask students to pay about $20 million to fund the $30 million Student Commons. Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, the union will conduct a referendum asking students if they agree to shoulder two-thirds of a 23-year mortgage to fund the Student Commons. The union is seeking a $5 levy per semester from each full-time undergrad on St. George campus, until the Commons opens. Once the centre opens its doors to students, the levy will rise to $14.25 for the remainder of the 23-year term.
The university has agreed to contribute 50 cents to the Commons for every levy dollar students pay. The cost of operating the centre, however, will fall to students.
Campaigns for a student hub on campus have existed since the late 1940s, when a campus community recovering from the hardships of World War II pushed for a leisure facility all students could share (with rare exceptions, Hart House did not allow women inside until 1973).
In 1965, UTSU, then called the Students’ Administrative Council, secured bank loans, contracted an architect, and set into motion a plan to build a student centre at the corner of St. George and Russell streets. That scheme cost $211,000, took five years, and ultimately failed due to disagreements over how the centre should be funded and what facilities it should contain.
This time around, Andréa Armborst, president of UTSU, is talking big. According to her, the Student Commons will sport a 600-person auditorium. Students lounging in its spacious lobby, or using free space in any of its small and medium meeting and A/V rooms, will have their choice of three restaurants, possibly including a long-awaited halal/kosher/vegan outlet. Its front desk will sell metropasses all month long.
“We have high hopes,” said Armborst. “But we’ve seen a great commitment [from university administrators] to the project.”
If built, the Commons will occupy the north side of “Site 12,” a plot on Devonshire Road just south of Bloor, across from the new Varsity Centre field. This does not sit well, however, with some of the current occupants of the site.
The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, housed in the Margaret Fletcher building on Site 12, are facing eviction to make room for construction of the Student Commons and a proposed Centre for High Performance Sport. The part-time students union has been relocated against their will twice in the past two years and has said they will fight any attempt to remove them from their current home.
Ilona Molnar, APUS’s executive secretary, vehemently opposed the Student Commons proposal, saying it represents a culture of corporatization in public education.
“Student levies are forms of privatization and downloading of the cost of higher education on students… And, every time we approve a levy we take away from the possibility of putting pressure on the government and the university,” said Molnar.
She added that she thought government agencies and the university administration should finance the Commons’ construction and operation.