By Izabela Szydlo
President Sheldon Levy is developing a plan to radically change the landscape of Ryerson University and to reach out to its surrounding community.
Levy, who says Ryerson must look beyond its own walls, will outline today before the Canadian Club, an organization committed to the future of Canada, what he believes should be the role of the university in the 21st century.
With the support of community groups, Levy says he believes Ryerson can make positive change to the downtown core, an area that has seen its share of crime. “We are not new to come to the conclusion that we have a responsibility for our community and have to work with our community to make improvements,” Levy says. “I don’t see Ryerson as having borders. We are too much a part of the city fabric.”
Levy’s dreams for Ryerson are starting to take shape through a master planning committee made up of top administrators and faculty. Part of his vision includes an increased presence on Yonge Street and a revamped O’Keefe Lane. Levy is taking input from the neighbouring stores, businesses and organizations around campus as he develops his plans, as well as looking into success stories in the U.S. While Levy isn’t committing to anything at these early stages, he points to the universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, where enrollment has increased and crime rates dropped thanks to their plans that took the neighbourhood into consideration.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the crime rate was reduced by 49 per cent after the university invested $7 million to build a public school, bring in a movie theatre, restore shabby housing, offer the community resources such as hundreds of used computers, and planted 400 trees, The Washington Post reported. The committee is also getting tips from American and Canadian experts as it draws up its plans, to be ready in about 18 months.
One of those experts is Hank Webber, VP for Community Affairs at the University of Chicago. In a recent visit with the master planning committee, Webber laid out 12 questions the university needs to ask as it plans for change, questions such as: What are the problems that you’re trying to address and what kind of community do you want to be? Adam Kahan, Ryerson’s VP advancement, says Webber’s advice reinforced the master planning committee’s commitment to a university that is engaging at every level.
“It’s all about how students engage each other and the faculty on campus. It’s all about the way the campus looks (and) it’s about the relationships we have with our neighbours,” he says.
One of those neighbours is Covenant House on Gerrard Street east of Yonge Street, an organization which helps street youth. Rose Cino, director of communications, says Covenant House has been talking with Levy and is prepared to make further suggestions. “It’s important for Ryerson to get everyone involved,” Cino says. “It takes a number of us working together; these things are a community effort.”
When the master plan is completed, it will guide everything the administration does, from green space to new office space, for years to come, Levy says. George Kapelos, chair of the architecture department, says the school will need to expand in the next five to 10 years.
One of the places the committee is turning to is Yonge Street. Although no plans have been finalized or even proposed, Levy says it’s obvious he wants Ryerson to be seen from one of Canada’s most famous streets. “It’s not a big secret that I’m talking with Sam Sniderman about Sam (The Record Man),” he says. “And would I love to see a library expansion with student study space overlooking Yonge Street at floors four to 15? I would like to see us face outward to our community and not inward.”
“Great universities attract great human capital in the cities,” Kahan says. “We look at ourselves not as merely some sort of island of higher learning but very much as a part of the city that has to have the responsibility for the welfare of (Toronto).”
Part of that responsibility means reducing criminal activity that takes place around the campus. Fifty-one division, which includes Ryerson, saw 437 robberies, 3326 thefts under $5,000, five first-degree murders and 400 weapons offences. The division cleared more than 50 per cent of all reported criminal-code offences. Levy says the current condition of O’Keefe Lane, located behind Jorgenson Hall, doesn’t help.
“Look at O’Keefe Lane and ask yourself, ‘What crap?’ Why would you sit around with that and you think it doesn’t add to the problems?” Levy says. “Everyone in the whole neighbourhood will tell you police are there often,” Cino says. Kyle Rae, city councillor for Ryerson’s ward, says he will champion Ryerson’s cause at city hall.
“It’s not a question of whether Ryerson deserves a presence on Yonge Street,” he says. “Expansion (onto Yonge) would give an opportunity for Ryerson to be proud. Proud, as in looking outward and not being closeted.”
Pride in the university is one of the top priorities of the master planning committee, Kahan says. “Ultimately, I want people not wanting to go home because we just have a great atmosphere inside and outside,” he says. “I want the school to become a major positive ingredient for the city.”
Levy says students and staff can be assured that’s exactly what he plans to do. “I think we have a responsibility to face our community and help them, not to turn our back.”