STAND AND DELIVER

In Business & Technology, Communities /

By Carys Mills

After agonizing over securing Maple Leaf Gardens as a home for the Rams, Sheldon Levy decided it was time to bring in the heavy hitters. He called in favours while enduring silence from the federal government on his request for $20 million in funding. Among his supporters were frontrunner for mayor and former MPP, George Smitherman, and Bob Rae, MP Toronto Centre. Rae talked to the federal government, focusing on John Baird, the Minister of Infrastructure and the one in charge of whether Ryerson got the funding.

Rae wrote letters to other politicians trying to get their support.

“[Levy] briefed me on it and asked me for whatever help I could give,” said Rae.

Levy had brought in his political allies because of the urgency of the project. But under the spotlight, Levy found himself shouldering a greater weight.

“You have the whole of Toronto watching over your shoulders,” he said. “Your personal reputation is on the line… So you were either going to be a public failure or a public success.”

So far, Levy has been riding on the sweet crest of success: acquiring Sam the Record Man, reimagining the Image Arts building, getting close to closing down Gould Street and now acquiring Maple Leaf Gardens.

But he only has 13 months left of government support and only a few months after that the Gardens should be ready for Ryerson.

There’s new pressure on Levy now: to be done on time, stay on budget and keep his promises.

If he makes it, he will be the most renowned president since Howard Kerr. But if he doesn’t, he will be known as the man who almost had it all. Either way, Maple Leaf Gardens will define Levy’s presidency.

If we don’t deliver something fantastic like Maple Leaf Gardens…It will be a failure,” said Levy.

Maple Leaf Gardens cost $1.5 million and was built in five and a half months — all of this in 1931, during the Great Depression.

Ryerson is now partnering with Loblaw to share the space. Both the university’s athletics facilities and a branch of the grocery giant will find a home within the Gardens. Ryerson’s part of the project has been estimated to cost $60 million, a number Levy points out was checked by two separate firms. The government has already put forward $20 million. Another third will be covered by increased athletic fees, which won’t start until the facility is complete. The final $20 million will be made up by fundraising between Loblaw and Ryerson, $15 million of which is left to be raised after Loblaw donated the first $5 million.

The problem is that the goverment’s investment comes with a March 2011 deadline, and with the referendum fees — bringing in about an extra $3.15 million each year — not being collected until students can use the facility, Levy may need to borrow money or open up the school’s wallet.

“We’re going to do everything possible to make that date, even spend more money, our own money,” said Levy, who boasts that the school’s $93-million debt is much less than other universities. “We’re going to do it because we have promised that date.”

Vice-president administration and finance Linda Grayson wouldn’t comment on where the extra money will come from if the project goes over budget. “If the president feels it’s worth the investment, the investment will be made,” said Grayson.

Opening day will add an increased burden in the form of operating costs — an amount the university doesn’t have estimates for yet.

“It would be in a class of its own because of the ice rink and because of the volume above the ice rink,” said Grayson.

“It’s a huge, huge air mass.”

The formula to estimate the costs of heat, light, water and security for the rest of campus is $13 per square foot. Ryerson’s planned sports facility, at 150,000 square feet, would cost $1.95 million if the same formula applied.

The costs will depend on how energy efficient the almost 80-year-old building can become. Using melted ice from the rink and other used water within the building could save money. What goes in the Gardens will determine the operating costs, but decisions about exactly what will end up in the Gardens are yet to be made.

Taddle Creek once ran throughout the Town of York, which is now known as Toronto. It gave fresh water to residents, breweries and farmers and at the University of Toronto, McCaul’s Pond formed from the Taddle. Students gathered at it, skating and fishing in the 1800s. At Queen and Church streets, where the Metropolitan United Church now stands, was McGill Cottage. Orchards, pine trees and the Taddle could be seen from the estate. The grounds extended to where Ryerson campus is now, and a branch of the Taddle called Sixth Creek or Normal School Creek, ran through the land. During the development of Toronto, much of the Taddle was buried. But the waters of Sixth Creek still extend north, running below Maple Leaf Gardens.

Levy have had little reason to worry about the Taddle, but it could get in the way this time. Loblaw is putting a parking garage underneath the Gardens, which means downward excavation.

Eduardo Sousa spent five years researching Taddle Creek and its branches, including Sixth Creek. “Maple Leaf Gardens sits on a conference between two creeks,” said Sousa. The building is on the meeting point of Sixth Creek and a minor branch of the Taddle.

“Typically when you have two creeks there’s going to be a lot of water,” said Sousa.

He said Sixth Creek was once about 10 feet across and five feet deep. Now that it’s been covered for years, it’s hard to tell what’s below the foundation of the Gardens. Sousa said while the creeks could have been piped up by the city, there may still be groundwater.

“It’s very likely they will hit fresh water,” said Sousa. He said the Taddle appeared during the construction of the Park Hyatt hotel at Avenue Road and Bloor Street and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

“When we dig we’re going to go into water,” said Levy. “We know that already.”

There were rumours the creek would be hit during the construction of the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, but it didn’t happen. If the digging below the Gardens does hit water, Grayson said the severity of the setback would be determined by exactly where and how deep the water is.

While Grayson doubts that the Taddle is much more than an urban legend, she knows Ryerson will encounter asbestos in the building — the question is how much.

“If you find ten times as much as you thought, that’s a surprise,” said Grayson.

Russell Fleischer of Turner Fleischer Architects Inc., the firm in charge of Loblaw’s architecture, said the project is going at superspeed. Meetings are being held more frequently than a regular project and the firm has 30 people working on the Gardens. There are deadlines every week that need to be met and city permits that need to be issued. If there are any big surprises, the suped-up schedule could take a hit. The architects working on Ryerson’s athletic facilities have been hired but haven’t been announced yet. Much planning needs to be done with both architects on board to decide how Ryerson’s facilities will look.

“An old building is charming and wonderful to work with but it does have the capacity to surprise you,” said Grayson. “We’ve just started, the big surprises come not when you’re doing soft demolition because you’re really just going for surface things. The real surprises in a project like this come when you start to do hard demolition.”

The building is constantly being watched for cracks or movement in case the vibrations of demolition or outside movement disrupt the structure. As hard demolition starts, shocks that go beyond Taddle Creek and asbestos will be the real surprises.

“Believe me, I can promise you we’re going to have them,” said Levy.

There are few signs of what’s going on inside Maple Leaf Gardens. Walking past Church and Carlton streets, all that’s visible are small signs advertising the federal government’s investment of $20 million. Behind closed doors, heavy equipment will dig where ice once was to create a parking lot. A mobile crane will remove steel from the arena’s original boxes while supportive beams are put in place for floors and Ryerson’s new home ice, 40 feet above where the original rink. Chairs and lights have been packed up and shipped out to a Scarborough warehouse and old filing cabinets and other junk have been thrown out.

If all goes as planned, work on the iconic Gardens will be hard to miss by late spring. The building’s façade will be in the process of being restored and the replacement of all the windows in the building will have started. The sidewalks will be home to hoarding and construction trailers will line Wood Street, just north of the building.

Levy said he’ll spend more money to stay on schedule if needed, but spending more money would mean going over the budget he promised the government he would stick to. Reputation is crucial for any university, and Ryerson, a university looking to expand and fulfill its Master Plan, needs to keep a cleaner record than most.

“I don’t want to be known as the university that took the money and didn’t come up with the goods,” said Levy.

Ryerson’s project management will be examined during the work at Maple Leaf Gardens, said Ryerson politics professor, Duncan MacLellan. If Ryerson mishandles the Gardens project the university’s reputation will be at risk. Getting the project done on time and on budget are only the beginning. The university needs to deliver something that lives up to the standards of everyone that has the Gardens on a pedestal.

This will be especially important as Ryerson looks to fulfill dreams like permanently closing Gould Street. Levy will need government on his side to continue receiving federal and provincial funding for projects like the Student Learning Centre and the Image Arts redesign. His success with Maple Leaf Gardens will help pave the way to future opportunities or close the door.

“I think we have put a lot at stake,” said MacLellan. If the project does fall off the rails, he said Ryerson’s ability to manage future projects could be criticized.

Ryerson has been grasping at the Gardens since the Toronto Maple Leafs moved out in 1999. Moving into the building alone was never possible, as even the athletic referendum funds wouldn’t have put a dent in the building’s price tag. So when Loblaw approached Ryerson with the idea of a partnership last year, one that would need the government to be a third partner, it was the university’s only chance at getting into the Gardens.

The partnership is risky but it’s the only way to find a home for Ryerson in Maple Leaf Gardens, as well as have an almost complete athletic facility near campus. While Ryerson chances its budget, reputation and future development, Levy seems to think it could be worth it to see the Rams face off at the Maple Leaf Gardens centre ice.

“You do things in order to put yourself in a position of risk,” said Levy. “I do it deliberately.”

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