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NEWS (FALL 2017): Students argue for new residence

October 12th, 2017 · No Comments

Finding a place to live an urgent need

By Marielle Torrefranca

When Maureen Gustafson was searching for a place to live near the University of Toronto, she quickly hit a wall.

“I did think about graduate school housing for U of T,” said Gustafson, who just started a masters program in health promotion this year. “But unfortunately, by the time I looked into it a few months ahead, the wait list was a couple of hundred people long.”

What’s long been at the heart of the university’s argument is a need for as many as 2,300 new residence spaces by 2020 to meet demand.

From there, she described her search for a home as “a tough go”. Gustafson, who was living in Hamilton throughout the summer, decided to search Toronto rental listings online, and was visiting the city sometimes two or three times a week in her search. She was left in limbo for nearly three months before she found a suitable home.

With that ordeal in mind, Gustafson had a positive take on the university’s proposal for a new residential building.

The proposed development includes a 23-storey mixed-used building containing a student residence, office, and retail space on Spadina Avenue. The residence would house 550 beds and 246 units in total, ranging from one- to four-bedroom units. A fitness centre, meeting rooms, and study rooms would be available to residents. An additional 3-storey townhouse development on Sussex Avenue is also included in the proposal. The proposal has outlined that the units are intended for a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.

The proposed residence building is a development that has been in the works for several years now: a planning process that, since December 2013, has reached a stalemate. Issues regarding heritage designation, added noise, and density continue to be argued over. But what’s long been at the heart of the university’s argument is a need for as many as 2,300 new residence spaces by 2020 to meet demand. According to Scott Mabury, the University of Toronto’s vice-president of operations, the percentage of international students has increased from 3 to 30 per cent since 1996 and continues to rise.

For this reason, U of T’s student union has come out in support of the project.

“Given the current — and, it would appear permanent — shortage of on-campus housing for those 36,000 [St. George campus] students, the value of a new, 550-room residence cannot be overstated,” Mathias Memmel, the president of U of T’s student union, said in a statement. “However, our support for the proposal remains conditional — we require a guarantee that the new residence would be accessible to low-income students, as well as a substantive commitment to making on-campus housing more affordable.”

Arguably, it’s a crucial time for affordable housing, not only for students, but for all Toronto residents as the city deals with a rental crisis. Many tenants have reportedly been priced out of their homes due to skyrocketing rates. For example, a report by the Toronto Foundation says the average monthly rent near St. George station (one of the stations closest to the university) was among the highest in the city last year. A map in the report, which sorts rent prices by subway station proximity, shows one-bedroom apartments averaging from $1,900 to $2,000, and two-bedroom apartments averaging $2,700 to $2,800. According to Rentseeker, which tracks prices in real time, the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in the entirety of Toronto is $1,304.

However, a need for affordable housing is but one argument being challenged by a multitude of other concerns put forward by the community.

The Harbord Village Residents’ Association has raised concerns as the proposed development advances into a residential neighbourhood. Sue Dexter, the HVRA’s U of T liaison, consistently flagged the following in an interview, report, and letter to committee members: the residence building’s “excessive” height and density walling off the low-rise residential community nearby, the added vehicle and pedestrian density, concerns of “student behaviour” in the neighbourhood, “inadequate respect” for the adjacent Heritage Conservation District, provision for on-site green space in a community already lacking in this regard, and protection for the tenants currently living on the proposed development site.

Gustafson, who previously attended McMaster University in Hamilton, said concerns about “student behaviour” are familiar.

“The people in residential areas around McMaster had the exact same concerns,” she said. “In my opinion, some of those concerns are somewhat valid — it’s always a risk because you will get some students who are not respectful, especially in first year, but I don’t think those are the majority of students.”

The site is also home to the Ten Editions bookstore, which has been a fixture in the area since 1984. The store, which sits at 698 Spadina Ave., is part of a three-storey Victorian block built in 1885. The Toronto Heritage Preservation Board gave the building unanimous approval for heritage designation, characterizing it as a landmark in the late-nineteenth-century origins of the South Annex and Harbord Village.

That approval significantly protects the site, in effect causing conflict with U of T and the Daniels Corporation’s application to rezone the development area. The university is now appealing the heritage designation.

“The behaviour is just so unseemly and it’s not helpful to anything,” said Dexter. “There’s a pattern to it. They want what they want, [but] the university and the community should be partners.”

According to Dexter, negotiations have reached a frustrating deadlock due to U of T and Daniels’ lack of transparency, lack of communication, and unwillingness to compromise. While hearings mediated by the Ontario Municipal Board are supposedly on the horizon, it’s still a question of when.

“There’s been no movement on any of the other files they have,” said Dexter. “The OMB is so backed up it’s going to be a long time, and I would think the mediation on Sussex-Spadina would be a week in a room.”

There has been nothing to signal that U of T plans to strike some sort of settlement during mediations, said Dexter.

However, Gustafson remained positive. “It’s great they’re thinking of adding a new residence equitable to students who need it the most,” she said. “I really hope they can find a way to do it fairly.”

At press time, Mabury did not respond to an interview request.

 

READ MORE

NEWS: Regulating short-term rentals (August 2017)

CHATTER: The latest from the OMB (June 2017)

CHATTER (MAY 2017): University to appeal Ten Editions heritage designation (May 2017)

NEWS: New chapter for student residence? (February 2017)

NEWS: Preventing a wall of towers (October 2016)

CHATTER: Two new rezoning applications submitted to city (September 2016)

 

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