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By Adrian Morrow

It’s March 31, and Ryerson administration is finally presenting the Master Plan to the Board of Governors, after spending two years and $1 million on the project.

In their comments, members of the Board praised the poposed soaring new buildings and the 20-year vision being laid out for the school. But there’s one question that no one is answering.

“How can you come up with a template when you don’t even have a monetary figure?” asks Harry Rosen, the clothing magnate and canny businessman.

Money is already an issue for the school: At the same meeting, the board’s finance committee announces that Ryerson’s surplus is expected to fall by $21 million from the previous year, a drop attributed to the school’s recent acquisition of Sam the Record Man and three other properties that marked the start of the Plan.

The school has spent nearly two years talking about the Master Plan and brainstorming ideas. Now, it’s finally ready to put the Plan in place. The land needed for a new library building has been acquired, the school has approved tens of millions of dollars to remake the image arts building and negotiations with the province have yielded a $45-million windfall the school can put towards making this happen.

But Rosen’s question remains unanswered: how much will the Plan cost, and can Ryerson really achieve what it has set out to do? There’s a pit on one side of de Maisonneuve Boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s student quarter, filled with reinforced concrete and metal rebar. This is the remnant of a massive failed development for l’Université du Quebec à Montreal. Like Ryerson, UQAM wanted to build up the campus and expand the school in the centre of the city.

The $600-million plan involved two new buildings — a science complex and a new law school. The science pavilion successfully opened in 2006 and the school signed a deal with a private developer to build an even larger development of buildings on de Maisonneuve. The complex would contain a bus terminal, an office tower and UQAM’s law school. President Roch Denis assured the university’s board that the school had the money to pay for it.

But by May 2007, it was clear the building would cost too much. From an initial price tag of $360 million, the project’s costs climbed to $406 million. That fall, auditors discovered the science building had cost $40 million more than its original budget and the university was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Denis resigned and the provincial government had to step in to bail UQAM out.

UQAM and Ryerson share some uncanny similarities. Both are modern schools that rank second to their respective cities’ older, more austere institutions. Both decided to launch big expansion plans. And both have ambitious presidents whose dreams have loomed over their financial reality.

If President Sheldon Levy’s Master Plan is implemented in full, Ryerson’s campus will look completely different in 20 years. Sam the Record Man will be demolished and replaced with a 10-storey glass library. Gould Street will be a pedestrian walkway that takes students past a new photo gallery and image arts building. Kerr Hall’s brick walls will be replaced by a sidewalk café extending from the side of the building. Down Victoria Street, the old business building and the city-owned building next door will be gone, replaced by two tall towers that bring the campus right up to Dundas Street.

But Ryerson wasn’t always this ambitious. During the school’s last round of expansion, from 1999 to 2006, the university emphasized practicality. When internationally-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava asked for more money to build a lavish engineering building, Ryerson handed him his walking papers instead. “We had a tight schedule and a limited budget,” says Director of Campus Planning and Facilities Ian Hamilton, who helped oversee the projects. When Ryerson wanted a new business building, the school cut a deal with real estate company Cadillac Fairview in 2004, which would allow both parties to share costs and split the space. Architects criticize the building for putting Best Buy and Canadian Tire front and centre while consigning Ryerson to the top three floors. But the building’s designers argue it was the most pragmatic thing to do.

“People have been critical about why that building couldn’t have been a more spectacular building and the answer is because they couldn’t afford it to make it that edifice,” says Ron Soskolne, a planning consultant who helped Ryerson plan the new business building. “However in my view it’s a perfectly OK building and it contributes to city building. You have all these uses and layers at street level. It’s an excellent piece of development, while it’s not the most magnificent piece of architecture.”

For him, Levy’s ambitions with the enormous structure on the Sam the Record Man site are much crazier.

“It’s… what they call ‘Champagne taste and beer pocket’,” Soskolne says. “It’s terrific to employ really great architects and have them do their thing on a budget that’s sufficient to produce an unusual building, but very often the budget constraints just don’t permit that.”

Even if Ryerson has the money to fund the Master Plan, and even if it budgets correctly, and even if Levy succeeds in building the new library and the image arts building, there’s nothing that holds future administrations to the Plan. If a future president or Board of Governors decides to disregard the plan, there’s nothing to stop them. That’s exactly what happened to Master Plan architects Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where the firm created a Master Plan for the school. After a year and a half of work on the Plan, the university simply set it aside and went their own way.

KPMB has indicated that it wants to take a consulting role at Ryerson to make sure the university doesn’t do the same, but Levy says it won’t happen. Despite this, he’s not particularly concerned about the Master Plan falling apart, putting his faith in the Ryerson community to hold administration to the Plan.

He also brushes off the possible financial pitfalls of the Plan. Ryerson’s debt is only $94 million, one of the lowest of the province’s universities (the University of Toronto’s is more than $500 million).

And more importantly for Levy, the school won’t build simply to get buildings up. If he has his way, the school will take as much time as it needs to get it right.

“You should not compromise to the point that you build ugly design and architecture simply to create more space, because that decision will last 100 years,” Levy says. “It cannot happen again.”

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