While the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design prepares to set up camp at historic 1 Spadina Crescent, the fate of its old home at 230 College Street remains a pertinent question on students’ minds.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has renewed its efforts to promote the construction of the Student Commons, slated to be built at 230 College Street since 2010.

The Student Commons is intended as a multi-use space, with facilities available for students to work on projects, study, and relax, among other activities. However, the Student Commons Agreement has gone through a series of delays, and precedes most current students’ arrival at the University of Toronto.

The Commons Project is funded by a student levy, and has been since the fall of 2008 following a 2007 referendum. For the 2014 — 2015 year, full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus pay $8.20 in both the Fall and Winter sessions for a line item called “UTSU — Student Commons”.

According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations at U of T, the levy funds are being “held in a distinct restricted account by the University.”

The six-year levy funds have yet to be put to use.

Inaction on the Student Commons is partly due to ongoing turbulence involving the UTSU and divisional societies. Many of these student groups agree that there is a need for increased community space on St. George campus. Yet, controversy continues over how the student space will be run, given the current unstable state of student politics on the campus.

Campaigns for the Commons

The UTSU has recently launched a number of awareness initiatives detailing the features of the proposed Student Commons space. The new website studentcommons.ca features a floorplan of the building and highlights unique features such as rehearsal and workshop space and a rooftop garden. The website also boasts of ample space for clubs, meeting rooms, a food court, a Bikechain location, and space for service groups.

The UTSU has been advertising the new website through posters and other materials on the St. George campus, found primarily in Sidney Smith. Yolen Bollo-Kamara, president of the UTSU, says that the awareness efforts will help students understand the history and significance of the Student Commons.

She says that the Commons should have been operational in 2009, two years after the referendum that approved the project.

“At that time, the University promised to build the building within two years. Since then, the University has refused to forward over the funds [to the UTSU] and has been collecting interest — contrary to government policy,” Bollo-Kamara says.

Once Governing Council approves the agreement, the UTSU estimates that construction will take approximately one year. This means that, by the time the Commons is operational, many students who paid the levy will never be able to take advantage of the space that they funded.

Politics and pushback

The ongoing conflict over how the space will be run is the primary barrier to progress on the Student Commons. According to the Student Commons Agreement, the UTSU will have management and operational responsibility over the commons, which presents a problem for many student societies.

Others have expressed concerns over student representation on management and operations committees. Since the UTSU currently represents students at both UTM and St. George, it is possible that the management of the Commons could be partially handed down to students who have not paid the levy.

This is a chief concern for Connor Anear and Tina Saban, co-heads of Trinity College. “[W]e believe that the operating committee of the Student Commons should be entirely made up of St. George students, as only St. George students have been paying fees towards the Commons,” they write in a joint statement. “[W]e [also] believe that the Commons should be run by a majority of at-large committee members and a minority of UTSU executive members,” they continue.

Bollo-Kamara says that the Commons will be run by the UTSU, its subsidiary clubs and service groups and St. George students.

According to Blackburn-Evans, the volatile relationship between certain divisional societies and the UTSU contributed to the administration’s decision to hold off on approving the Student Commons Agreement.

Blackburn-Evans says that the plebiscites conducted by VUSAC, Trinity College, and the Engineering Society (EngSoc) to divert fees away from the UTSU were particularly concerning.

“Because the Student Commons Agreement is a long-term agreement — lasting for up to 50 years — concerns had been voiced by some governors and others about entering into it when internal disputes were occurring among the student societies, in particular with respect to UTSU’s relations with divisional student societies,” she says.

For Bollo-Kamara, disagreements between the student union and divisional societies are a normal part of the democratic process and not a good reason to delay the Student Commons’ construction.

“I want to say very clearly: this building, pushed largely by and for clubs, should not be used as leverage to force the students’ union to make changes to its internal structure that will benefit the political goals of the university undemocratically,” Bollo-Kamara says.

The executive committee recently passed a resolution that the Student Commons Agreement would not be placed on the agenda of the December 11 Governing Council meeting, and would instead be deferred to a future meeting, in order for U of T counsel to consult UTSU’s counsel.

Blackburn-Evans expressed optimism about the resolution. “The University is hopeful that these discussions will lead to a positive outcome,” she said.

A long time coming

According to Bob Parry, president of the New College Student Council, the Student Commons project is very important to New College students, while the politics of how it happens is less so.

“[As] long as New College students can enjoy the space and are getting their money’s worth, I will be happy,” he says.

Even Teresa Nguyen who, as president of the EngSoc, has been a vocal opponent of the UTSU, is eager for the Commons plan to come to fruition. “Although the Engineering Society is looking forward to the space that the Centre of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship provides, I think it could be very interesting and quite beneficial to have a space where students from all disciplines and programs collaborate,” she says.

Nguyen says that it is important that the management committee structure issue be resolved prior to opening the building. “Once it’s built, there’d be too [much] pressure to make a swift decision which could result in a decision that lacks foresight,” she says.

For Victoria College students, however, the same eagerness for a unified student space may not be present. According to DeBues, the recent opening of the Goldring Student Centre at Victoria College renders the Student Commons initiative redundant for most students at the college. “If anything, students are not happy seeing their funds go into a project they aren’t getting anything out of,” he says.

Victoria College students who graduated before the opening of the Goldring Centre were reimbursed their student levies. No equivalent plan has been released regarding the Student Commons.