How do you establish a new college or university? How can you expand on what’s already there? And why, exactly, should developers care?
Just ask three leading post-secondary schools in Toronto’s 905 outskirts – Sheridan College Mississauga, University of Toronto Scarborough and York University Markham – and you will get fascinating insights on the topic of universities as city-builders. All three have witnessed the ongoing population explosion in and around Canada’s largest city, which in turn has fuelled strong public interest in both academic and recreational space. They have seen an incredible rise in foreign students since the millennium’s turn, as well as an enormous increase in adult education driven by new-economy needs. And all signs point to continued upward growth.
Meeting these demands in hitherto underserviced areas will mean a wealth of opportunities for public- and private-sector partnerships. Through their sheer energy, colleges and universities can solidify an urban core, pulling together a diversity of elements to create synergy and excitement. The idea of a self-contained, ivy-covered institution is long gone. Today’s post-secondary life is intimately interwoven with its environs and engages fully with the community around it.
Dr. Jeff Zabudsky, president and CEO of Sheridan College (which ultimately aims to be known as Sheridan University), has just shepherded his institute through Phase I of a two-part expansion. The new Sheridan College Mississauga joins already established campuses in nearby Oakville and Brampton, with a combined student population of just over 20,000. Phase II plans call for a build just north of the new location, with a capacity of close to 6,000 students. “We have seen our overall numbers double in the last 10 years, and they’re still growing. An area of particular growth has been the international student population. Five years ago, we had about 500 international students. This year, we will cross 4,000. It’s come as a result of high-profile programs that we offer that are renowned throughout the world, and also [through] changes to the federal government’s visa requirements, which have opened the door for international study,” said Zabudsky about Sheridan’s recent unprecedented growth.
The main building of the newly christened Hazel McCallion Campus offers a model of sustainability that students in Sheridan’s architecture and environmental sciences programs can use as a living design laboratory. The space has also been created with collaboration in mind. Future employability skills require people to work in teams and in fast-paced, multi-ethnic environments. To accommodate these things, classrooms are furnished with “puddle tables” where students can work on projects in concert. They also feature short-throw projectors that allow any wall to become a screen and any student’s laptop files to be used as a teaching aid. Zabudsky is particularly proud of Sheridan’s partnership with the City of Mississauga, which led to the establishment of a high-density wireless bandwidth throughout the school and all public facilities in the city.
“We’re integrated right in the heart of the city,” he continues, “right by the iconic City Hall, the Living Arts Centre and the Square One Shopping Centre. I think what’s exciting about Sheridan Mississauga is that it meets two key public policy priorities. One is to provide more learning opportunities. The other is to bring people and life into an emerging city core where none really existed. I like the idea that our post-secondary environment is playing a role in that mixed-use enlivening of the downtown core.”
The huge shopping centre across the road plays multiple roles in Sheridan student life. Its food court, parking and shopping are all big draws; so too are opportunities for part-time employment. Then there are other new businesses – pubs, burger joints, banks – that have opened up in the past year to cater mostly to students, bringing more street-level energy to the area. Partnering with some of these, even in a small way, can add value for everyone. Larger partnerships, such as Sheridan’s relationship with the nearby YMCA, where students receive a discount rate, help in larger ways. The Y builds its membership base, students can keep fit, and the college avoids the strain of constructing its own gymnasium.
All these tentacles of reciprocity, Zabudsky says, “get students out of the campus, moving around the neighbourhood, and then moving back in for their classes. We wanted a place and a destination that would draw them in and hold them there in the neighbourhood over the course of the day and into the evening. I’ve seen how this can enliven a city core.”
As Chief Administrative Officer of the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Andrew Arifuzzaman has not been obliged to build his school from the ground up. Even so, he has spent the last eight years working on UTSC’s master plan for expansion. “We currently have over 12,000 students – an awkward size for a university,” Arifuzzaman notes. “So we have pretty aggressive plans for growing the campus. We anticipate being up to 15,000 students within the next five years, and our longer term goal is to surpass 20,000 students.”
In the past several years, UTSC has invested over $600 million developing its campus, putting in the work necessary for its growth objectives. A prime factor in these plans involves a jointly funded venture with federal, provincial and municipal governments to erect the Toronto Pan Am and Parapan American Sports Centre, adjacent to the university’s campus, in time for the 2015 games. And these were not the only partners: UTSC students voted 2 to 1 in favour of a $500 per student levy to help defray the enormous costs. A legacy to future generations, the Centre will provide both student and public populations with a 400,000-sq.-ft. facility boasting two Olympic-sized pools, a 10-metre high dive tank, four gymnasiums, and one of the finest fitness facilities anywhere in North America. “We wanted,” says Arifuzzaman, “to create another way to differentiate the University of Toronto Scarborough from other universities in the system, and the Centre provides exactly that opportunity.”
The school’s master plan calls for more foot-traffic-friendly design – among other things, turning Military Trail, the road that bisects the campus, into a pedestrian spine. Then, too, more housing will be developed on a section of the school’s huge, 300-acre property. A new residential zone that backs onto the existing Highland Creek community is presently in the works. The consultation process showed that surrounding neighbours liked the idea of intensification, hoping that it might lead to a true sense of cohesion in the area. Given the sprawling suburb’s lack of a real downtown core, positioning UTSC as a publicly accessible hub filled with intellectual and physical pursuits could be just the ticket for all concerned. It also creates investment opportunities near the campus, not the least of which are condo developments with almost guaranteed velocity of sales and rental income prospects.
Broadening an already world-class faculty and enticing thousands more students to its campus means UTSC must place even more emphasis on business partnerships and co-development going forward. “There’s opportunities to create spin-out companies,” Arifuzzaman says, “for companies that want to be closer to the university’s academic mission. So we’ve created an Academic-Industry Partnership Zone. What we see happening is higher density development that has mixed-use retail at grade, and that actual
ly creates incubator spaces and partnership spaces, to give the university some flexibility as we develop new programs.”
Future plans aside, UTSC has already accomplished much, according to Arifuzzaman. “We’ve created a very palpable sense of community pride in an area that typically hasn’t had that kind of pride. And we’ve opened up our doors. We have a number of people coming to the university that hadn’t been there before.”
North of Toronto, within the borders of the GTA’s York Region, something very interesting is taking place in the city of Markham. Spearheaded by the Remington Group, a new and vibrant downtown is being built where emphasis rests on creating a modern, multi-use living space rather than cramming in as many high-rises and townhomes as possible.
Bud Purves, formerly a private real-estate developer and currently president of the York University Development Corporation, alludes to the process of settling on Markham as the site for York’s proposed new campus: “York Region is the only North American municipality with a million-person population that does not have its own university. We’re going to fix that.” The need for an educational centre is an imperative, in face of the area’s growth in the 18-to-21 age group at a rate faster than any other municipality in the province.
“We ran an RFP that we put out to all the municipalities in York Region in order to figure out where would be the best place to put a campus, based on a series of 10 criteria, talking about things like city-building, learning, partnering opportunities and making use of infrastructure,” says Purves. Not wanting to “build things twice,” York looked at what was already in the ground and what was being proposed by the provincial government and local municipalities, to discover a place where knitting a university into the established framework would make the most sense.
Markham’s appeal was undeniable. In addition to its ambitious, still-under-construction downtown zone, the selected five-acre site sits right next to the Markham Town Centre and adjacent to the new Atos Markham PanAm Centre. The mall offers the same student benefits as Mississauga’s Square One does for Sheridan College – accessible parking, food courts and part-time retail jobs. The Atos Centre, which would link directly to the university campus via a pedestrian tunnel, boasts a score of multi-purpose spaces, three gyms, and an Olympic-sized pool that, like the UTSC campus’s PanAm Sports Centre, will form a legacy both for future students and the surrounding community. Markham is already well-tied into the region’s transportation grid, and new additions to the transit network are already underway.
Perhaps most important are the partners supporting York University’s proposed 750,000-square-foot build. Purves indicates a handful of major players, including Remington Development and York Region, which is kicking $25 million into the plan. As well, upwards of 60 other companies have come to the table, all eager to build a local post-secondary institution. With an estimated 6,120 full-time students accrued in the span of five years and programs tailored to be academically relevant to 21st century industry, the campus would provide a valuable staff spawning ground for the city’s over 900 technology and life-sciences companies. A dozen major multinationals are also headquartered in Markham; chief among them IBM, the city’s largest employer.
Such partnerships, Purves points out, “mean we won’t be building lecture halls. Cineplex is building a fabulous theatre in Markham Town Centre, and we’ll be using their screening rooms as lecture halls. Our exam centre will be at the Hilton Suites Hotel. As for student housing, we’ll be making use of the areas that are being built in and around Markham Town Centre. Essentially, what we’re looking to do is build classroom space, and all the other space will be provided by the private and public sectors. So the cost to the government of the York University campus in Markham is minimal and its city-building aspects are maximal.”
The gist of all this expert input demonstrates that post-secondary venues attract energetic, eager young adults and bright new ideas that provide invaluable sources of innovation and engagement to the surrounding community. Whether increasing the worth of what is already in existence or creating the right vibe to attract new development, institutions of higher learning have a way of shaping thriving social settings. In other words, if you build it – and stock it with smart people – they will come.