On September 6, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) hosted an official opening ceremony for the Student Commons. The event marks the culmination of a 15-year effort by the UTSU in creating a student centre on the St. George campus.

In 2007, UTSU members approved a levy to fund the creation of a student centre at UTSG, the only U of T campus without a student centre. The levy went into effect in 2008 and helped supply the $24.5 million necessary to convert the former John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design building into the Student Commons. The union and the university chose Superkül, an architecture firm, to design the renovation and construction, which began in 2016. 

Initially anticipated to open in 2017, the project suffered numerous delays and financial setbacks. In 2017, the UTSU announced a projected deficit of $800,000 for the construction of the Student Commons. 

The union encountered various other challenges throughout the construction process, including the presence of asbestos — a carcinogen once commonly used in building insulation — in the building. The use of asbestos in major renovations and construction has been banned in Canada since April 2016, and handling it requires special procedures.

In October 2021, with renovations ongoing, the UTSU opened the Student Commons at quarter capacity to provide more study and leisure spaces for students. 

The opening ceremony

Although the Commons has been open for much of the previous school year, the UTSU hosted a grand opening of the Commons as part of its 2022 orientation. 

The event began with U of T President Meric Gertler taking part in a ribbon cutting ceremony. 

Additionally, there was a photobooth and a number of tables from event sponsors. Students collected stamps that would allow them to win prizes. 

The event also sought to honour the work of past UTSU presidents — some of whom were present at the ribbon cutting ceremony — who had helped plan the Student Commons during their terms.

Students who attended the grand opening expressed excitement about the event, as well as the space itself. “[The event] is a pleasant surprise,” said Hannah Catherine, a second-year student. 

When asked whether she would use the Commons in the future, another student answered positively: “It’s on campus and it’s something different from a library, so maybe I can come and study or hang out with friends and chill. I think it’s a pretty nice place with enough sunshine.”

UTSU president Omar Gharbiyeh also expressed joy at seeing the project come to fruition. “I see a huge amount of potential for this space,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.

Gharbiyeh also said that he has inherited all of the previous UTSU presidents’ hard work: “The fact that I get to actually begin my term with it open is really an immense privilege.”

Additional plans

The Commons houses the UTSU Food Bank, the Bikechain bike repair shop, study spaces, lockers for rental, and places for students to eat. Although the building contains all the amenities that the UTSU had committed to, Gharbiyeh stressed that the Commons remains a work in progress. 

“I hope to have, by the beginning of winter semester, what I called in my platform a mutual aid textbook library,” said Gharbiyeh. “So basically, give a textbook, take a textbook, because textbooks are a huge expense for students.” 

Other plans include a cafe, with kitchen renovations scheduled to finish in November; student submitted art exhibitions; and a recreation room on the fifth floor.

“What makes this building unique is that it’s the cumulative effort of a lot of students over close to a decade, and they’ll continue to grow just based on what students identify as their priorities,” said Gharbiyeh. 

“The [UTSU’s] motto is ‘For students, by students’ and that is really what [the Commons] is,” concluded Gharbiyeh.