New student residence approved by city after years-long negotiations

Compromises include incorporating existing building, opening Roberts Street Playing Field

New student residence approved by city after years-long negotiations

After years of negotiations, the University of Toronto has reached an agreement with the City of Toronto and local neighbourhood groups to allow the construction of a new student residence at Spadina Avenue and Sussex Avenue. The building will provide much-needed housing for 511 students and is expected to be completed in 2021.

The student residence will include ground-floor retail spaces, as well as a dining hall, fitness room, and green roofs.

The approval of this building at 698–706 Spadina Avenue and 54 Sussex Avenue  — first proposed in 2013 — comes after a long negotiation process between U of T and the city, as well local neighbourhood associations, including the Harbord Village Residents’ Association (HVRA). The latter two disagreed with the university over certain aspects of the residence, including its height, mix of students, and heritage considerations. The building that currently hosts Ten Editions bookstore, at 698 Spadina Avenue, was designated a heritage site in February 2017.

After the city rejected the building proposal in October 2017, the university was able to appeal and enter into provincial mediation at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in an effort to keep the project alive.

In an open letter signed by the HVRA and Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents the ward that U of T and the proposed residence are in, they wrote that U of T being able to enter into provincial mediation was “a fundamental flaw in our planning process… which prevented local communities and the City from guiding decisions on development.”

HVRA Board Member Carolee Orme told The Varsity that “although U of T is generally a good neighbour… our residents made clear that they do not want to become part of the campus and want to be able to determine our own future development.”

“U of T appeared to have difficulty understanding the neighbours’ point of view and showed little interest in substantial compromise prior to mediation.”

U of T Vice-President University Operations Scott Mabury said in an interview with The Varsity that “it was the lack of progress and actually getting agreements in place either from the city or the community that caused [U of T] to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, which was ultimately the resolution of this [conflict].”

Mabury said that “the most substantive part of the conversation over the five years” was whether U of T needed a student residence, which is necessary, according to Mabury. This is in accordance with a housing report done by the university in 2017 that found that U of T will need 2,300 new beds by 2020 to keep up with housing demand.

He added that students and student leaders who spoke at public meetings in favour of the student residence were “very powerful and frankly influential in moving the conversation to more productive places.”

The final terms of settlement, released on August 8, came five years after the initial proposal for the building. Mabury’s biggest criticism of the process was its length, saying that “it’s not just my view that it took too long… I think everybody agreed and said to me, ‘This took too long.’”

Compromises on the building

As per the terms of settlement, the height of the building has been reduced from 82.7 metres to 75.05 metres and the number of beds has been reduced from 549 to 511. The student residence will also incorporate the existing building at 698 Spadina Avenue, which was at the centre of a heritage designation dispute that was one of the causes of the long negotiations process.

The settlement also states that the university will attempt to limit the number of first-year students allowed in the residence to 60 per cent. The remaining 40 per cent will be upper-year and graduate students.

U of T has also agreed to renovate the Robert Street Playing Field, located directly west of the proposed residence, and open it to the public. The field is listed as an outdoor complex by the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and includes an ice rink and tennis courts, which have fallen into disrepair in recent years. The Varsity reported in November 2017 that the ice rink was being used as storage for garbage cans.

In addition to the 23-storey student residence, U of T will also add several townhouses surrounding the tower, which the university says are intended for faculty.

The Varsity has reached out to Cressy for comment.

Ice rink at Robert Street Field used as storage for garbage cans

Faculty of Kinesiology facility in disrepair since 1998

Ice rink at Robert Street Field used as storage for garbage cans

The ice rink at the south end of Robert Street Field, located near Spadina Avenue and Sussex Avenue, is currently being used as storage for garbage cans, and its tennis court has a snow fence for a net.

According to a report by U of T plant cyberinfrastructure and systems biology professor Nicholas Provart, grounds staff have been throwing the trash cans, labeled ‘Ryerson,’ onto the rink since the summer. He also said that the rink, co-owned by the university and the city, has not been operational since the failure of its ice-making equipment in 1998. It has not reopened since, despite the city allocating $1.3 million for repairs in 2009.

The field, currently listed as an outdoor complex by the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, serves as the practice grounds for the Varsity Blues women’s lacrosse team and the playing space for intramural ultimate frisbee. It also hosts the Blues’ Buddy-up program.

“The tennis courts and rink at the south end of the field would certainly benefit from improvement,” said Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of Media Relations at U of T. “We look forward to working with the community, our local councillor and the City to improve the area through landscaping and new programming.”

Provart also said that results of a 2011 survey conducted by the Harbord Village Residents Association, which represents people living in the area, voiced the community’s desire to have a “useful green space” at the south end of the field, and that “if U of T feels that it can’t maintain that space then perhaps the city can do a better job of it.”

Blackburn-Evans said that the university expects to improve and expand the playing fields, although a timeline for these changes has not been specified.

Faculty of Kinesiology Public Relations Director Sarah Baker did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment as of press time.

666 Spadina proposal to include affordable housing, improved streetscapes

Mixed-use, 11-storey building suggested

666 Spadina proposal to include affordable housing, improved streetscapes

The Toronto and East York Community Council amended the proposed development for 666 Spadina Avenue at a meeting on October 17 to recommend an investment into affordable housing and improving streetscapes in the area.

The proposal, submitted by Spadina Towers Inc. in July 2016, suggests adding an 11-storey, mixed-use infill building with 133 rental apartments and an on-site park. The lot, built in 1972 and listed as a heritage building, currently hosts a 25-storey apartment building with 334 rental units.

The report sent to the Toronto and East York Community Council states that the application underwent modifications to reflect the concerns of citizens and City Staff — the City of Toronto Official Plan requires residents of the area to be consulted before intensification of development. The modified proposal is meant to supply “a positive contribution to the neighbourhood through the addition of the new on-site park, POPs [Privately-Owned Publicly Accessible Spaces], and pedestrian circulation throughout the site.”

Sue Dexter, U of T Liaison for the Harbord Village Residents Association (HVRA), stated that the development proposal is “great for the community.”

The Harbord Village area — spanning from Bloor Street and Spadina to Bathurst Street and College Street — is a densely student-populated area, and the accessibility of more affordable housing close to campus is vital to them. Dexter said that the neighbourhood welcomes the large student population.

Dr. David Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development with the Faculty of Social Work, with the Department of Geography and Urban Planning, commented, “Infill, residential land use intensification, is good, more rental [opportunities are] good.”

It is recommended that the owner of the lot be required to act pursuant to Section 37 of the Planning Act, which refers to height and density of developments, and reflect community benefits. The agreement would secure a cash contribution of $800,000 from the owner. Under the agreement of the Chief Planner and Executive Director, $400,000 would go toward creating affordable housing within Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, and the other $400,000 toward improving local greenscapes, public realm, and neighbourhood greening improvements in the vicinity.

According to Dexter, the planning process of the development has been much more productive and collaborative than the university’s conflict with the city over the lot across the street, 698 Spadina. The university’s plan is for the 698 infill to be 23 storeys and have zero green space — which stands in contrast to the modest 11 proposed storeys and the ample green space proposed for 666 Spadina, which would double the amount of park space in Harbord Village.

The HVRA believes that the development “creatively addresses the need for rental housing, for affordable housing and for community green space.”

The report cites the “Harbord Village Green Plan,” which is designed to preserve and maximize the green spaces in the Harbord Village area. The plan aims to target park improvements, street keeping, and other motives such as laneway greening.

When first proposed in July 2016, attendees in a community consultation were concerned about the site’s local green space and impact on the heritage site.

The amended proposal will be presented to the Toronto City Council on November 7, 2017.