The dead campus

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Despite being in the heart of downtown, many Ryerson University buildings lack life. Between construction and abandoned campus sites, the school has a long way to go before becoming a thriving campus. News editor Emma Prestwich reports

Visitors entering Ryerson campus at Yonge and Gould Sts. are greeted by a pit that is the future home of the Student Learning Centre and a fenced-off patch of gravel where the old Empress Hotel once stood.

Further down Gould is the partially finished Image Arts building, and just beside it are a cluster of buildings on Bond St., most of which are either not open to the public or invisible to passerby.

2011 marks the fifth year since the implementation of the Master Plan, a 133-page document outlining a plan to enliven Ryerson’s campus and increase academic and research space. “Urban intensification” is the first of the three Master Plan goals, and in order to reach this goal, Ryerson has to make the most efficient use of its land and the properties around campus.

But Ryerson’s three most recent projects have faced a number of delays, and the university currently owns several incomplete or invisible buildings. This combination of stagnant construction projects and underused or inaccessible facilities isn’t helping foster President Sheldon Levy’s vision of Ryerson as a New York University (NYU)-type campus; instead it’s making the university a ghost town. George Baird, former dean of the faculty of architecture, landscape and design at the University of Toronto, said he thinks the nature of the area around campus means Ryerson can only expand through re-development, and the university’s current situation is odd and presents challenges for building community.

“I don’t disagree that the interim period has problems,” he said.

He said the effective use of buildings on street level is a big factor in creating animated street life. “The fact that people don’t go there means [the areas] are out of the public mind.”

In 2007, Ryerson acquired the old Sam the Record Man property. Four years later, the university is set to bebegin construction of the Student Learning Centre (SLC) will start in the next six months, if Ryerson gets approval from the city to begin construction.

The learning centre is set to be finished by the winter of 2013-14, and Levy said its success as an active hub for students will be a definitive step to achieving the Master Plan.

“If we can achieve that, then there’s no stopping us,” he said.

The most illustrious project, Maple Leaf Gardens, was slated for completion this March, but the date was pushed back to November after renovation setbacks.

When the rink was excavated for parking, workers encountered underground water and that added time, Levy said.

The university received $20 million in government stimulus funding for the project. One requirement of the funding was that the Gardens be completed this March.

Levy admitted the March completion date was ambitious, but luckily, the provincial government extended the deadlines for all funded projects.

“If not, we would have moved heaven and earth to complete it [by March],” he said.

Director of athletics Ivan Joseph didn’t see the construction delays as an issue, and shrugged off the suggestion that it might be hard to keep both the Gardens and the recreation and athletics centre popular if both facilities are open.

“We want to be as ambitious as possible,” he said.

Another stagnant project is the $112 million Image Arts building renovation. The building was slated to open last October, but now has been pushed to this September.

“I understand this is a particularly trying year,” said Alexandra Anderson, interim Image Arts chair, in an email to students, staff and faculty in the department.

She said the staff are currently working on making sure all teaching and production spaces are set up by September.

Levy said there were a lot of challenges in converting the building, which had previously been a brewery, into a gallery.

Along with these half-finished projects, there are a string of facilities around campus with bright blue Ryerson signs but no campus activity. While many of these seemingly dead buildings aren’t necessarily empty, they’re still not accessible to most Ryerson students. Even staff question how the various facilities are used.

Ryerson security services supervisor Imre Juurlink said security often is not informed about the status of a building and how heavily it’s being used.

Another property in transition is the Gerrard Copy Centre. It was listed as a place for printing and copying for essential campus services and departments until July 2010, but is no longer operational.

Director of ancillary services John Corallo said the copy centre closed down because of a lack of customer traffic, and the university is considering using it as a food services kiosk or a satellite OneCard centre.

Levy said the site has been designated for redevelopment under the Master Plan as an academic building or a potential residence.

The university held a contest last year to search for potential new residence designs for the copy centre through the RFP (request for proposals) process, but has only received two responses.

“It’s been designated to be used in a better way — as a larger, better building,” Levy said.

The other half of the copy centre is the locked Research and Graduate Studies. Half the musty facility, which contains offices on the second and third floors, requires OneCard access and an appointment to get in. The other half houses study cubicles and offices for graduate students.

Across campus, the enigmatic Monetary Times building houses offices, boardrooms and labs for the civil engineering department. But the threestorey heritage building shows no signs of use from the outside.

Administrative assistant Kim Kritzer, who works in the building, said part of the building’s invisibility might have to do with the fact that civil engineering students take their classes in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre.

She said while the space isn’t ideal, the department is stuck there until the university decides to purchase more real estate to house the new faculty of science, after a provost’s committee recommended that science split from the faculty of engineering, architecture and science in October.

Baird who works with an architecture and urban design firm, compared Ryerson’s stagnant campus to the Cloud Gardens park at Bay and Adelaide Streets that he helped design. He said the park sat unbuilt for a decade and a half, and that it was killed the community life around the site.

“It meant that it was even more out of the way [for people],” he said.

He suggested that Ryerson make use of its empty buildings by finding temporary uses, such as gallery display spaces. Vice-president administration and finance Julia Hanigsberg said the university wants to be wise about buildings like Monetary Times and the Gerrard Copy Centre.

“We don’t want to leave them vacant, but we don’t want to put that many resources in them if they’re going to be re-developed,”she said.

According to Levy, the school has plans to replace a number of buildings, including the copy centre.

“What we’re doing is in line with urban intensification,” he said. “It’s a very long-term, ambitious goal of the university.”

Kritzer said she thinks the university is making good use of its limited real estate.

“I mean, the campus is like a family, and any family has kids of different ages.”

Photo: Marta Iwanek

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