University expansion…Looking up, building out

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By Sarah Boesveld

Ryerson is looking to expand, but with a $96 million building debt and a booming real estate market, experts say the answer could lie in the skies.

There are many options for expansion, including simply buying new land — such as Ryerson’s recent buy, an $8.5 million shipping and receiving building on Bond Street. But pushing outwards may not be the university’s only option.

If Ryerson wants to add significant space in a booming downtown real estate market, they need to do the best with what they have. Layering new floors on top of existing ones is a viable option, said David Lieberman, a University of Toronto professor of urban planning.

“(Ryerson) needs to take stock of existing sites before stepping outside the campus,” he said, adding that older buildings at Ryerson can handle the additional floors.

Other downtown universities across Canada have opted to build higher — or not at all. The University of Winnipeg hasn’t expanded in over 20 years as budget constraints force the institution to lease its space.

The expansion efforts of Montreal’s Concordia University — a downtown, growing campus similar to Ryerson — have aimed for the heavens. Concordia opened the doors of a new 17-storey engineering and image arts complex last year, while planning for a 15-storey science complex is in the works. These buildings will help form a “vertical campus” at Concordia, said spokesperson Chris Mota. President Sheldon Levy agreed.

“There’s a lot to learn from Concordia. We can’t afford (to build only) two- or three-floor buildings in downtown Toronto,” Levy said.

Campus Facilities and Planning Director Ian Hamilton said that Ryerson’s Masterplan expansion study will try to identify what administrators can do with pre-existing buildings.

Linda Grayson, Ryerson’s vice president administration and student affairs, said buildings such as the two-year-old Student Campus Centre and the Image Arts building could support more floors, while Hamilton said the recently-opened business building at Bay and Dundas streets could support two more. Other buildings would require work on the foundation, making upward expansion more expensive, Grayson said.

“Some buildings were built with the idea of being able to expand upwards and others were not,” Grayson said.

Hamilton said Ryerson has yet to “explore both the capacity and zoning side of things.”

Marck Fachada, facilities director at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, said his school found that, depending on the cost of land, it was cheaper to build up.

Ryerson has used the layering technique in the past, but doesn’t build too high. The Sally Horsfall Eaton Centre was built over top of Eric Palin Hall in 2002, thanks to a $14.9 million grant from the provincial government’s SuperBuild fund.

“Academic facilities are primarily three to four storeys up with one basement level. This encourages more people to use stairs, it encourages collegial interactivity,” Hamilton said.

Ryerson is also looking at simply knocking buildings down and rebuilding. Levy named Kerr Hall as a “great candidate” to be rebuilt.

“Look at the lack of density on the land it occupies. It’s an old building and if you continue to retrofit it, you’re putting good money after bad,” he said.

Whether expanding up or out, new space costs money, limiting expansion at any institution.

Budget constraints have prevented the University of Winnipeg from buying or building any new space. Like Ryerson, it’s a smaller university in the shadow of bigger institutions within the city. The campus even houses a high school, but it’s all run in leased space nearby.

“We’ve had a limited budget over the years,” said Dan Hurley, executive director of government, external and alumni affairs.

“Right now, leasing is our only option,” he said, adding that government and financial gifts are heavily relied upon. The University of Winnipeg only recently received a $35 million gift from a benefactor to finance a new science center, it’s first new building since 1984 — when many of its current students were born.

Ryerson also has to tighten the purse strings while expansion talks runs wild.

“There aren’t going to be, on day one, all the resources to do everything,” Levy said.

Last week, Ryerson made an offer to lease the building on the corner of Gerrard and Yonge streets that was rejected. Remax realtor Edward Freeza said since Ryerson won’t be moving any time soon, leasing isn’t a viable option.

The $96 million debt is on “the low side” of the debts of other Ontario universities, Levy said.

“Most of our borrowing is in ancillary services, like residences,” he added.

Pitman Hall, one of Ryerson’s two main residences, is bearing the brunt of the liability, built at a cost of $26.5 million — every penny borrowed. Since Pitman opened its doors, Ryerson has only paid off the interest, not the loan itself — essentially leasing their own building from the bank holding the mortgage. The rest of the debt is a general Capital Expansion Plan loan. Loans taken out to finance the ILLC residence were only just paid off last year.

Carrying the debt is a liability for the university, but the university should buy anything they can if it’s for sale, said Dean DaSilva, sales representative for Royal LePage.

“(There will be some) suffering in the short term, but it’ll be better in the long run,” he said. Frezza predicts the climb in real-estate prices might soon come crashing down, but doesn’t expect a dip in the market to affect precious space downtown. In that case, Ryerson should “buy a piece of real estate that’s available now” because it won’t likely be moving any time soon.

“If (Ryerson) buys, the building will appreciate in value, it will have more in its coffers,” he said. “If it rents, it won’t have that asset.”

The asset seems to be just what Ryerson is looking for. As rising enrolment creates a greater demand for space, Ryerson seems to be willing to take anything it can get.

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