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The Explainer: U of T’s new real estate strategy

Four Corners aims to increase housing, generate $50 million annually by 2033

The Explainer: U of T’s new real estate strategy

U of T recently approved the Four Corners Strategy framework to guide the university in new real estate investments. Four Corners replaces the previous real estate strategy, which was implemented in 2007.

Four Corners Strategy goals

According to the Four Corners Strategy Report, one of the two main goals of Four Corners is to “facilitate amenity uses that support the [university’s] academic mission.” The key tenet of this goal is to expand available housing for faculty, staff, and students.

In an interview with The Varsity, Vice-President Operations and Real Estate Partnerships Scott Mabury said that a detailed housing survey of employees and graduate students had been conducted. With over 1,000 graduate students on waiting lists for housing each year, Mabury believes that there is a need to expand the available residences owned and operated by U of T.

“The solid outcome of that survey is that there is significant demand from faculty and senior staff for wanting to live near or at the University of Toronto,” said Mabury. “[We] have the confidence of building residential units that our faculty and staff will want to live in.”

Other objectives of the amenity use goal include providing space that “supports the university’s research and commercialization efforts,” creating “gathering and meetings spaces” for the campuses and broader community, and facilitating “retail uses serving the campus community’s needs.”

Another main goal of Four Corners is to “grow ‘other’ revenue while maintaining long-term real estate interests.” Given that U of T is heavily dependent on student fees and government and donor funding, the report suggests that diversifying U of T’s revenue streams with new sources will create “increased financial visibility, flexibility, and security.”

“Almost the entire university budget — 87 per cent — comes from students paying tuition fees or government operating grants,” said Mabury. “That’s not financially sustainable. We need to grow the remaining 13 per cent, to increase the resilience and sustainability of the institutional budget.”

The Four Corners Strategy aims to generate $50 million in operational funding per year by 2033 through its two cornerstone developments: a 23-storey residence at Spadina and Sussex Avenues and a 14-storey innovation centre at College Street and University Avenue.

Cornerstone developments

Revenue from the buildings will “be focused on a University of Toronto strategic fund to be invested into institutional priorities to advance the research and teaching mission of the university,” explained Mabury.

The residence at Spadina and Sussex will be the first new residence built at U of T in nearly two decades. First proposed in 2013, the building design has undergone many years of public consultations and workshops. It is expected to house 511 students and is scheduled to be built by 2021.

The innovation centre plans to house student, office, and retail spaces. According to Mabury, one quarter of the centre will be assigned for offices and academic support, while a second quarter will accommodate U of T Entrepreneurship, the Innovations & Partnerships Office, and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The third quarter has been set aside specifically for student startups. The final quarter is slated for scaling and successfully expanding companies.

Explaining the decision to devote half of its 250,000 square feet of floor space to startup companies and established corporate partners, Mabury said that the innovation centre is “designed to be a landing pad and a starting place for our students start-ups.”

“As they grow, [students] could move out of the startup part of the building into the scaling company… portion of the building,” Mabury said. “At some point they will grow large enough that [students] need to vacate both to make room for other companies coming along, but also because they’ve grown large enough that they need to be out and fully fledged and on their own.”

Mabury said that the building will also meet and exceed current provincial energy efficiency standards.

The Four Corners strategy will prioritize “building non-academic spaces we need today in a way that supports the University of Toronto’s academic and strategic priorities tomorrow.”

Regarding its longevity, Mabury says that if successful, “Four Corners will continue indefinitely into the future,” but that “from a planning perspective… we felt that a 15-year horizon was appropriate.”

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.

U of T to enter provincial mediation over building plans at Spadina and Sussex

Mediation to consider community concerns about proposed student residence

U of T to enter provincial mediation over building plans at Spadina and Sussex

U of T succeeded in getting provincial mediation in an attempt to settle an agreement over the buildings on the corner of Spadina Avenue and Sussex Avenue. A Pre-hearing Conference (PHC) on February 16 followed the January decision to go into mediation.

The February PHC set dates for a follow-up conference, which is to occur in September 2018. In the meantime, mediation with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is set for March 1 and 2, with the actual hearing expected to be scheduled for some time in 2019.

Sue Dexter, U of T Liaison for the Harbord Village Residents’ Association, said that a settlement reached during mediation would make the follow-up PHC in September redundant. However, Dexter added that this would “require agreement on serious issues among multiple parties.”

In addition, one of the buildings on the site is subject to its own review by the Conservation Review Board, as the city has made the building a heritage site.

The corner lot has been considered by the university for years as a site where they hope to construct a new residential building for students. Since the university’s proposed plans for the building became public, there has been resistance from City Council, some community members, and neighbourhood associations in the surrounding area.

Provincial mediation was agreed upon by all groups, as concerns held by the surrounding community could be addressed on a more individual basis. Noise and safety issues, the density, height and scale of the building, and the effect of the construction on the area’s “green space” are among the concerns that both sides of the mediation hope to address with the help of the OMB.

Ceta Ramkhalawansingh of the Grange Community Association, another party recognized by the OMB on this issue, hopes that the mediation will result in the university responding “positively to the issues that have been identified and [making] changes to their proposal.”

City Council opposes U of T bid for Spadina-Sussex residence

University’s appeal to Ontario Municipal Board rejected based on heritage, height concerns

City Council opposes U of T bid for Spadina-Sussex residence

On October 2, Toronto City Council adopted recommendations by city staff to oppose the university’s application at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to amend zoning bylaws in order to build a residence on the northwest corner of Spadina Avenue and Sussex Avenue. The motion passed during the review of the Order Paper; it was passed with consent and no debate from council.

The accompanying report by city staff criticized the proposed residence, saying that it is not consistent with provincial plans and that the 23-storey building “is not appropriate for its context as it is too tall, too bulky, and does not provide appropriate tower setbacks.”

The university recently published a report as part of its application to amend the St. George Secondary Plan, which projects a need for 2,300 new beds by 2020 to meet the increased demand for student housing.

Christine Burke, Director of Campus and Facilities Planning, said that this urgent need for residence spaces motivated the appeal to the OMB. “We heard [the community’s] concerns and we made adjustments to the project,” Burke explained, “but we did put in an application in October of last year and with more than three years of consultation, we felt that we needed to move the project along towards a resolution so we could move the project forward.”

The report further elaborates that the proposed demolition of 698 Spadina conflicted with the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. 698 Spadina was designated a heritage resource by the city in March 2017, approximately seven months after the university had submitted its application to the city.

The university objected to the designation and has brought the issue to the province’s Conservation Review Board, a tribunal that is able to make recommendations to the municipal council or the tourism minister to repeal heritage designations. Burke said that the university does not believe the site has heritage value based on the findings of heritage consultants retained by the university.

A prehearing conference was held in July, and party status was granted to the Harbord Village Residents’ Association. The report claims that the prehearing was adjourned for four months  “to allow for public consultation and settlement discussions,” though according to Burke, there have been no settlement discussions. “Essentially, the university is seeking to resolve this appeal together with the OMB appeal, so in more of a comprehensive settlement,” Burke said.

The report also raises concerns over the possible intrusion of the building into the silhouette of 1 Spadina Crescent as seen from the southwest and southeast corners of College Street and Spadina.

The report marks bicycle parking as inadequate; current bylaws require a minimum of 238 long-term bicycle parking spaces for the proposed development. The current plan allows for only 116 long-term spaces.

Burke contends that the bylaws do not have bicycle parking standards specific to student residences. “So what we did with our transportation consultants in planning the residence is… we took a comprehensive study of the demand generated at other student residences that we own and operate to try and understand and figure out what the… appropriate parking rate would be and that’s what we applied to the project.” Burke also added that the St. George Secondary Plan had “substantially” more bicycle parking spaces than required.

The university has requested that the OMB conduct a mediation to settle this conflict. The first prehearing is scheduled for January 2018, where an assessment will be done to identify all parties for the mediation.

In the meantime, the university has other plans to add more residence spaces. Burke said the university is looking to extend Graduate House along Harbord Street and to provide more student family housing in the Huron-Sussex neighbourhood.

Even with the rising opposition against the Spadina-Sussex project, Burke remains “optimistic” that a settlement will be reached, hoping that “it’s just a matter of time.” Burke also maintained that the university remains committed to its guarantee of providing residence spaces to first-year undergraduates.