“A lot of students said ‘no,’” Levy said in a 2006 speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto. “Some said it was ‘behind Sam the Record Man.’”
For decades, Ryerson has been little more than the school behind Sam’s. Toronto Life once called it “dumpy.”
So Levy made a promise.
“That will change,” he said. “Within five years, everyone will know where Ryerson University is.”
He ended the speech by announcing the university’s Master Plan, which would outline core concepts to guide the campus’s future development.
Today, with one building on its way up and two more in the works, Ryerson has made good on Levy’s pledge.
The most obvious example is the Student Learning Centre (SLC) at the corner of Yonge and Gould. Although the doors won’t open until 2015, it’s already drawing interest from the press and winning accolades like Canadian Architect Magazine’s 2011 award of excellence in design. The SLC has also transformed Ryerson from the school “behind Sam’s,” to the school that’s building on top of it.
In December, the school announced a new building on Church Street, south of the school of interior design. The mixed-use project will include residence beds, classrooms, and retail space.
And just last month, Ryerson outlined a partnership with the private MPI Group to build a new student residence on Jarvis Street south of Dundas Street. MPI Group, which owns the land, will be responsible for overseeing the residence’s construction and shouldering the costs. With 500 beds, the building will boost Ryerson’s on-campus residence space by 30 per cent when it opens in 2016.
“This is just the first wave of 2,000 new residence spaces that we plan to add by 2020,” Levy said in a February 2012 press release.
Each of these projects was inspired by the principles outlined in the Master Plan.
After Levy announced it in 2006, it took two years of discussions before the school released its 139-page plan in 2008.
“One of the things that I need to do whenever I propose that we move forward on any project is identify how it helps us fulfil our Master Plan goal,” says Julia Hanigsberg, vice-president of administration and finance. “It really is a top priority for us to be looking at the Master Plan with everything we do.”
The plan sets down three key guideposts for the school’s physical development.
“Number one, to use the land that you have very well,” Levy says, citing the need for increased density and effective use of existing real estate. “Number two is to always put people first and public transportation first, and make the campus more people-friendly. And the third is, every time you build, you build wonderful spaces that enhance not only the university, but the city.”
And he adds another requirement not listed in the published version of the plan.
“Number four, that when you occupy ground level … (it) should be for the city of Toronto, to keep the streets vibrant and alive and not institutionalized.”
The document shies away from nailing down specifics, instead focusing on concepts. The wider focus is meant to keep the plan relevant, whether the year is 2008 or 2038.
“It’s not the kind of plan that was intended to be time-limited,” Hanigsberg says. “It was really intended to be a plan for a generation. It was looking out into the future, about what does this university need to be? What do we think of ourselves? I don’t think it does need an update, because the principles were of the kind of breadth that allows us to achieve inspirations, even if things shift.”
And things did shift when the former Maple Leaf Gardens entered the equation. Hanigsberg says the Mattamy Athletic Centre was not on anyone’s radar, but the university was able to adapt and capture a property that altered Ryerson’s borders.
“We have this changed northern boundary to campus,” Hanigsberg says. “For example, when we’re looking for the next student housing opportunity, we are quite interested in moving further north, up towards Mattamy.”
But other planned ambitions have been forced to the wayside. Initially, the plan advocated creating a “vertical campus.” A combination of below-grade and above-ground expansion to existing buildings would maximize the campus’s limited real estate footprint.
A sample diagram in the document lays out the potential future of Kerr Hall: a brighter, more open Podium-style base, with a glass tower rising from its top.
However, it’s something that will likely never happen.
“(It’s) very difficult to build on top of existing buildings,” Hanigsberg says. “Is it realistic? Probably not … I’d say we learned a lot from our Image Arts project. Renovations are tough, and you’ve really got to go in with your eyes open.”
Building on top of structures with large amounts of what Hanigsberg calls deferred maintenance — a backlog of renovations and repairs that haven’t yet been completed — “sounds efficient, but it may not be that efficient,” she says.
Instead, the administration is focusing on moving into new properties like the SLC, the Church Street development, and the future residence. But most current students won’t be around to see the finished products. Elisabeth Stroback, executive lead of Campus Projects and Real Estate, says the construction process can take up to four years from the first phases of planning to walking in the front door.
“We could spend a year on the first stage,” Stroback says, laying out the process of securing the funding, finding the location, planning the building, and hiring the people needed for the project.
The municipal planning phase can take another year. “The city says you can get a site rezoned in nine months,” Stroback says. “(I’ve) not seen that happen.”
Once the university has all the necessary approvals, it moves into the construction phase, which can last for another two years.
But some of Ryerson’s plans are longer-term than that. In February, the school purchased the parking lots at 202 Jarvis St. (at the corner of Dundas and Jarvis) and 136 Dundas St. E. (at Dundas and Mutual).
“For now, we are land banking them,” Hanigsberg says, referencing the process of holding the properties until uses arise. “We don’t build unless we have a government capital grant. The government never funds land purchases; they only help to fund buildings. They never fund that fully, either.
“If you’re on a campus, let’s say at Trent (University), where you’ve got a lot of green space, and someone gives you money for building, you just put it on your existing campus. We don’t really have that, so it’s important that we be able to prepare for those opportunities.”
Hanigsberg says the school is also eyeing the former site of the Empress Hotel, which burned down in 2011. The Ted Rogers school of management was built with the capability to add another two floors, which may become an option in the future. She says that if Toronto Public Health moved its operations out of 277 Victoria St., Ryerson would pursue that opportunity, “but it’s not something that we’re going out after.”
Both Hanigsberg and Stroback laud Levy as a prime mover in Ryerson’s expansion.
“Eight years ago, when he got here, would you ever have imaged Mattamy Athletic Centre, shovels in the ground at the corner of Yonge and Gould to build this extraordinary Student Learning Centre, a new gallery?” Hanigsberg says. “These are things I don’t think was on anybody’s horizon, and they’re really a result of his vision.
“There’s a lot of excitement to be able to deliver on that kind of vision.”