Since 2006, Trinity-Spadina (Ward 20) city councillor Adam Vaughan has represented the University of Toronto at City Hall. In the last few years, Vaughan and local community groups found themselves at odds with the university’s various development plans. With the arrival of U of T president Meric Gertler, the relationship seems to once again be moving towards a partnership rather than a confrontation. The Varsity discussed university-council relations, affordable housing, and development with Vaughan.
The Varsity: In a 2012 The Globe and Mail article, you were quoted as saying: “I don’t know how to talk to them anymore,” referring to the University of Toronto. Could you explain what you were saying at the time, and if the statement still rings true?
Adam Vaughan: It’s been night and day since [U of T president] Meric took over. We were going through a period of a year and a half to two years where the university entered some private agreements with large corporations that had plans for lands offsite that were just moving in a strange way. The conversation just became more and more difficult. The lines of communication became tangled, and what we thought had been five or six years of really good partnership was suddenly thrown to the wind.
TV: Have you met with Meric yet?
AV: Yeah, we sat down almost immediately. He’s a constituent, so I was aware of him ahead of time. But we met at a couple informal events and said, “Look — this has got to change.” It’s not worth having this fight. It’s counterproductive for both the city and the university, and it’s not good for the neighbourhoods I represent. To his credit, he immediately followed up, called me into the office for a meeting, and sat down and mapped out a new way forward. It’s night and day from this time last year. It’s been a really positive and creative change, and hopefully it gets us back to where we used to be because that’s where we should be.
TV: How difficult is it for you to balance the needs of your constituent’s residence versus the needs of university residence and the students that go there?
AV: They’re one and the same. The quality of life for a student is the quality of life for the residents of Ward 20 and vice versa. It’s not about positioning the interests of non-students against students. When we create strong neighbourhoods, it’s better for everybody — student and non-student alike. It does no good to compartmentalize and separate it.
TV: You were talking a little bit about housing. U of T has a housing problem. I wouldn’t say it’s a crisis, but U of T needs more student housing in the area…
AV: If we had more affordable housing, you would have more student housing. If you create lots of student housing, you don’t necessarily create affordable housing. And so the challenge that faces both the university and the city is a range of housing types and a range of housing affordable options. It’s becoming polarized, and as it becomes polarized you have housing for people with extreme poverty and people with extreme wealth and you don’t have much in the middle. And students fall in the middle. What we get nervous about — and this is where we get nervous not just about student housing [but] with all forms of housing — is when you end up with these vertical suburbs.
TV: There’s a development being planned at Sussex and Spadina. Is that something you’ve heard of?
AV: We’ve taken a look at all the university property on the west side of Spadina and said, “Let’s do a comprehensive plan for this site that houses students. And let’s talk to those values that we spoke about, integrating it into the neighbourhood.” So we’re figuring that one out. We had a meeting just last week with the university and the proponents to bring them up to speed as to where the community has led us, and we have a set of meetings coming up to get that project realized as quickly as we can.
TV: Are you for or against the pedestrianization of St. George?
AV: The transportation patterns in the downtown core are changing, and there are more people walking and riding than they used to. So the heavy flow of people around the campus needs to be accommodated. You don’t do that with two and a half metre sidewalks and space reserved for cars when you know people in the neighbourhood are walking. I think looking at pedestrian patterns and redesigning the city infrastructure inside the university campus to accommodate the people in the university that use that space is something we need to do. It’s not just a place that you drive through. There’s a lot of activity that circulates in that neighbourhood and a lot of it is pedestrian so you need to make it safe and beautiful for people.
TV: So the pedestrianization of St. George is something that you would be supportive of?
AV: I think it’s something that should be constantly explored and constantly find ways to do it where it’s appropriate. It’s not necessarily the best for every street, but where it works it works.
TV: Do you think the university successfully takes into account residents’ concerns when they develop infrastructure projects?
AV: I think they can get carried away with the institutional debate inside the university and at times forget the larger neighbourhood has a stake. I think we drifted way too far into institutional uncertainty and I think bringing it back into a neighbourhood reality — it builds a better campus and it creates a better student life and experience. I also think at the end of the day, it creates a stronger university. The safer, the more beautiful, the more integrated the university is with the city, the better we all are. I think we have a partner now in the new president that understands it from exactly the same perspective, which is great.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.