By Jessica Lovell
A representative from the University of Guelph admits that the school is in competition with a developer that hopes to build a private student residence across the street from campus, but insists the school has many other valid reasons for opposing the development.
University vice-president of finance and administration Don O’Leary spoke Tuesday at an ongoing Ontario Municipal Board hearing that will eventually determine whether Abode Varsity Living will be allowed to build highrise student housing on the site of the current Best Western hotel.
The university is not opposed to student housing on the site, but Abode’s proposal “represents a major overdevelopment of the site,” O’Leary said.
Mississauga-based Abode’s original proposal for the site included demolishing the hotel to erect two purpose-built student residence buildings at heights of 14 and 16 storeys. A scaled-down proposal has the buildings at 10 and 12 storeys.
That’s still too big, in the university’s opinion. “Something this size at our entrance is a concern to us,” said O’Leary.
The proposed development is not in keeping with the work the university has been doing to create a welcoming and attractive environment for both students and the community, he said, citing recent construction projects such as the Science Complex and the engineering building currently undergoing renovations.
The Best Western site, at the corner of Gordon Street and Stone Road, is situated directly across from what it is hoped will become “a significant signature entrance for the university,” he said.
“The proposed development will have a significant impact on the sense of arrival to campus,” O’Leary said. “It will detract and take away from what we are trying to do on our campus.”
He suggested that if the university were to buy the hotel property, it could make improvements to the landscaping that would match up with its park-like plans for the green space on the northeast corner of the intersection.
But the university’s other plans for the hotel would involve far less change than what Abode has planned.
When the university learned that Abode had offered to buy the property, the school began its own investigation into the possibility of buying it.
The university would not demolish and rebuild on the site, but rather would use the existing facility as a student residence through the school year, with the possibility of operating the hotel as an executive management school in the summer months, O’Leary said.
The facility could be a replacement for the 149 beds lost with the closure of the Macdonald Hall residence, and would also provide additional conference space, parking and potential additional lecture halls.
The hotel owner obviously had some doubt in his mind about whether the conditional Abode deal would close, because “there were more than a few conversations” between the owner and the university, said O’Leary. “He didn’t discourage us.”
Those conversations ended in April with news that the Abode deal had closed, O’Leary said.
But he also spoke of another way the university is in competition with Abode, noting “we do have our own system of residence rooms and it has been, at times, a struggle to fill those.”
While filling the on-campus residences – which currently number almost 5,400 beds – hasn’t been a problem over the past 10 years, enrollment numbers are expected to start declining, O’Leary said.
Last year, to accommodate an overflow of students needing residence rooms, the university housed 64 students at the Best Western hotel. This year, that wasn’t necessary.
In fact, the Guelph campus’s enrollment numbers were fairly static this year at an increase of only 77 students, O’Leary said.
While the Best Western site is a good one for housing students, he reiterated a concern that Abode’s proposal is too large. “This makes an ideal site for student housing; it (Abode’s plan) is just too large for the site,” he said.
His testimony also suggested that the university is concerned about its lack of control over the student-occupied site should the Abode proposal be approved.
“We house a lot of students and we provide a lot of support for students,” said O’Leary.
He noted the time and effort the university puts in to keep its South residences – three adjoined buildings housing about 1,800 students along Stone Road – tidy and respectful to the nearby neighbourhoods. He expressed concern that Abode might not be able to maintain these standards.