President issues statement on Toronto Star story on York land development

York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden last night issued the following statement, addressed to the York community:

Many of you will have seen the recent campaign being run by the Toronto Star with regard to land developments on the York campus. The agreement for this development was concluded back in March of 2002. We have answered the reporter’s questions in full and in writing. In the spirit of openness, however, the Board of Governors has issued the following statement: 

“The board has reaffirmed its belief in the appropriateness, transparency and fairness of the process that resulted in the sale of University lands to Tribute Homes. However, because of publicly expressed concerns, it has been agreed that we will forthwith ask an independent person to review all aspects of of the transaction. The board and the University will co-operate fully with the independent person, whose report to the board will be made public.”

With regard to Mr. Joseph Sorbara, he declared his interest in 1996 to the York University Development Corporation (YUDC) board that he had previously worked with Tribute Communities but the board’s opinion was that this did not constitute a conflict of interest as there was no business relationship with respect to this particular deal. Mr. Sorbara derived no benefit whatsoever from the Tribute deal and gave freely of his time and advice on a voluntary basis.

Those of you with long memories will recall that as part of our longer-term strategic thinking, the planning for development of the South Lands had been under consideration by the board and the University community for many years. In fact a parcel was sold to Bramalea in the late 1980s. In the late 1990s, the Advisory Council to the YUDC (composed of university senators, board members, all employee groups and student governments) was consulted and they made it quite clear that they favoured development of a community that would enhance the neighbourhood aesthetically, was environmentally sensitive to Black Creek (i.e. storm water drainage was an issue) and realized funding for academic endowments. 

The YUDC commissioned at least two concept studies of how such a community might develop on the South Lands. Under the current leadership of the University, a decision was taken to see if those objectives could be realized. The YUDC has been approached many times with proposals for commercial and industrial developments, all of which would require acres of hard-surface parking and none of which was compatible with the development principles established. They were turned down by the YUDC.

The YUDC board members – who are all volunteers and are very knowledgeable – worked very long and hard to create clear criteria. YUDC authorized an approach to three builders with a track record for developing communities fitting our criteria. In 1999, YUDC decided to embed these principles in precise criteria for development of the lands. Stringent criteria were drawn up for the development of an aesthetically pleasing, low-rise, environmentally sensitive housing development. These criteria eliminated the possibility of a forest of high-rise towers, focused on housing developments on either side of Sentinel Boulevard and reserved the Keele frontage for later development.

The YUDC brought to the Board of Governors the proposal that we go forward to seek interest in development under the stringent criteria proposed and that was accepted.  All YUDC board members and governors, and indeed the entire community, were aware that the land was to be sold to the highest bidder consistent with the principles decided by the University. Our principles and criteria were not of interest to most developers. It was to be a unique deal because of the strict criteria which went well beyond pure monetary value and so is not comparable to any of the deals mentioned in the Star.

The firm that survived that process (i.e. was willing to work with us to create plans that met our criteria) was Tribute Homes. Their plans met our criteria and they have worked with us in a most positive and businesslike manner. We complied with all requirements with respect to parkland, schools etc. In working with the City of Toronto a number of adjustments had to be made to the siting of parkland and storm water drainage capacity. The consequence is that seven acres of the parcel being sold were required to be transferred to the City of Toronto for roads, parkland and to create a substantial storm water retention pond. A portion of the seven acres lies below the Black Creek “top of bank” as determined by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The land below the top of bank is not commercially developable, yet was included by the Star in their price per acre calculation. Thus the true price per acre for the first tranche of land was $455,000, not $374,648 as the Star alleges. These required environment infrastructure projects have real value to the University in keeping with our sensitivities to the Black Creek area.

So what have we achieved?

We have planned over many years to enhance the Keele campus by creating a community with a neighbourly relationship to the academic campus. The residents of the Village at York University will add vitality to the neighbourhood throughout the year. There will be excellent housing for people at the University and the larger community. Residents will be able to take the short walk up the road to our many public lectures, performances of music, theatre, dance, to see the exhibitions in our art galleries and to see superb athletic events. These latter are much enhanced by the new Tennis Canada centre and the new stadium will draw many to the University and community games as well as the professional soccer and football events. There is no question of gym or any other kind of memberships being offered to Tribute at no cost. In short this community meets our principles set so many years ago. It is unique. It will be wonderful for York University and our endowments for academic priorities will be greatly enhanced. Furthermore, substantial lands remain for later development. 

In summary, the Toronto Star has devoted two days worth of reporting to a story full of innuendo but asserts the following points:

1)  A person involved in the process had a business relationship with Tribute Homes.

The fact that this was fully disclosed and considered by the YUDC board and was unconnected to this deal seems to be of no interest to the newspaper.

2) There was not a wide open auction process.

This is true. The YUDC board for all the reasons discussed above chose to have a more limited auction and invited only those developers who met our standards of design and quality to bid. Also, we were anxious to ensure that the project would go forward in the spirit as well the letter of the contract and so we sought only parties with successful track records in building communities. We think this was the right decision. This decision was taken after a careful consideration of the alternatives by a board consisting of experienced people.

Had we been indifferent to what was built on these lands, we might have been able to get a better price. We were not indifferent and we stand by that judgment.