Dear U of T, what are you trying to say? Sincerely, a cynical student.

As a commuter, I’ve never paid attention to student residences at U of T. Although I admit I feel like I’m missing out on an invaluable experience, I’m grateful that the hassle of the residence life at U of T was one less problem I had to deal with as a first year student. On the other hand, as an architecture student, I find the current construction of a new student residence greatly intriguing, especially since this new residence is different from the previous student housing projects in that it will not be built by the university itself, but, by a private, for-profit architecture firm known as the Diamond Schmitt Architecture Firm.

Thinking of the people who will be reading this article, I wonder, why would you care? This residence, to students, would seem like any other residence…except it’s not! Here’s the catch: this residence in particular has raised a lot of controversy: local city staff and residents are not too happy about it while others gladly embrace it.

First of all, the design for the students’ residence is unique. This residence, like the Royal Ontario Museum on Bloor Street, will stand out in contrast to the more medieval-like buildings that will surround it. I personally admire the complexity and technology involved in the construction of this building. In a fast-growing metropolis like downtown Toronto, I feel like the College Street residence is just the start of many more complex, abstract designs to come. A lot of people, though, would disagree with me, as I am speaking from the perspective of a commuter who goes to school for only a few hours a day and then returns home, and so I’m more concerned with the aesthetic quality of U of T, in terms of flexibility as a result of technological advancement, rather than the preservation of open, natural space.

Local city staff and residents, however, are worried that the College residence will change the appearance of downtown Toronto (making it gloomy) by obstructing views for citizens and casting shadows.
The original proposal for the residence called for a 45-storey block but through the course of negotiations, the height was reduced to 25 storeys— about 80 metres. The current density restriction for this area is 2.5 times the square footage of the lot however the residence is 12.1 times the square footage, significantly more than the recommended limit. The city council considers this an over-development of the site; however, despite the city council expressing disapproval, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has approved the proposed design—residents and students (myself included) find it frustrating that the OMB can override the city council’s decision considering that the OMB is not democratically elected by people who live in the city.

The university defended vertical development by claiming that “there will be many mid- and high-rise residences around our St. George campus in the years ahead – notwithstanding the rhetoric of some, the only issue here is whether one site on College Street should move forward sooner rather than later for vertical development to accommodate a few hundred fine young people seeking higher education”, and to be honest, I agree with the first half of the statement. Vertical development can be avoided for only so long; through the simultaneous explosion of modern technologies and human population on limited territories, urban developers are forced to find solutions to support this unprecedented growth—vertical development.
The University has rising international and out-of-province enrolment, and a shortfall of students’ residence. International students bring significant academic benefits to U of T, and so the university is delighted to welcome them. Though I agree with the university’s justification of vertical development, it seems to me as though the second half of the statement is guilt tripping local residents and students by questioning their gesture of choosing aesthetics over the accommodation of young people seeking higher education in downtown Toronto (basically they’re asking, would you rather have a pretty place or would you rather educate young, eager students?!).

Another relevant perspective was offered by the U of T Students’ Union where they claimed that the main concern was not the location of the residence, but the fact that it is led by a private, for-profit company, that has little to no institutional oversight. This, they said, would result in students not having access to the same amenities and institutional support as they would at any other U of T residence. “As we have seen with some services at U of T, such as the food services, this may come at the expense of quality”. Students are also concerned that this might be the beginning of a harmful trend where the university (a public institution) cedes its responsibility to private companies (and rightfully so). Such conflicts, however, are anticipated in a site like Toronto, considering ‘a contemporary city is simultaneously a site of joyful encounters and a site of exploitation and conflict’; a simultaneous utopia and dystopia. The reason why the university has chosen to yield the responsibility of student housing to a private company rather than to build it themselves like the other residences is beyond my knowledge. Perhaps the university, as a public institution, is attempting to make a political statement by doing so. Perhaps it is in the pursuit of self-interest to increase the university’s output. Yet even so, they create a more privileged space of languages, knowledge, affects, codes, habits and practices with innumerable perspectives- “a space of the common” that we, as students, are privileged to experience. ‘We are nothing without diversity and multiculturalism, whether it is linguistic, cultural, artistic, or architectural; if we don’t understand, treasure and share our own roots and identities, we will never be able to respect others’’.

To conclude, I think the university really does need more students’ housing to support the increased enrolment of both local and international students. Vertical development is reasonable, if not necessary in our contemporary world; however, I would like to consider the purported necessity for yielding the responsibility to a private company… Personally, I’m sure that U of T has enough money to fund a student housing project, so why isn’t it doing so? What is U of T trying to say/do?!

I would be delighted to hear the opinions and comments of my fellow students!

Notes:
 Martin, Reinhold. “Public and Common(s).” Places Journal. 2013.

(Thank You, Professor Zeynep Celik and Professor Paolo Frascà)

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