York University chooses community over cash

In response to a Toronto Star series examining the sale of York University land to developer Tribute Homes (now Tribute Communities), York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden explains the University’s vision of residential development and its importance to the York campus, in this opinion piece published March 3 in the Star:

In recent days, the Toronto Star has given incredible prominence to stories questioning a land deal completed between York University and Tribute Homes three years ago. The details of that deal were made public in March 2002, so I remain puzzled as to why this has suddenly become a burning issue – but that is for others to decipher.

In a spirit of continuing openness the Board of Governors of the University agreed Monday to ask an independent person to review the deal and report back to the board. The results of that report will be made public and I do not intend to go into those issues here.

What I do intend is to explain the vision behind this development and its importance to the York campus. Most people are unaware that York’s Keele campus is the largest postsecondary campus in Canada, covering more than 520 acres. York is the third-largest university in Canada and its on-campus community comprises some 60,000 individuals.

Our 183,000 alumni, most of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area, will remember that the campus is set back from the surrounding neighbourhood, with the academic core in the centre of the campus. In recent years York has seen a 40 per cent increase in built space around this core, including the new Schulich School of Business, the award-winning ‘green’ Computer Science & Engineering Building and the Accolade buildings, which will house York’s first-class faculty of fine arts.

This growth is tremendous for our students and faculty. However, for years the University master plan has called for greater integration of the surrounding neighbourhood into the campus. That is why in 1993 the University built the Harry S. Crowe development – a community housing neighbourhood of 164 units, located in the heart of the campus.

In keeping with this principle of greater integration, York also sought to build a viable and sustainable residential community on the south lands of the campus to literally bring the neighbourhood closer to the University.

From its conception, this project was about building a community that the University could be proud of in the long-term and not about selling to the highest bidder come hell or high water. The latter only leads to the types of development that has plagued the downtown waterfront.

The University community was widely consulted on this initiative and, following community advice, in 1999 the York University Development Corporation drew up stringent criteria for the development of an aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sensitive housing development.

These criteria eliminated the possibility of a forest of high-rise towers or big-box retail developments. Unbridled development in exchange for cash was never the goal of the York community.

Instead, we will have a neighbourhood that will enliven the campus at all times.

The houses being built by Tribute Homes meet the design criteria set down by the University and the York University Development Corporation. Proceeds from the sale will be used to support academic activity. The City of Toronto gains parkland. The banks of the Black Creek Conservation area are protected and so are its waters through a much improved storm-water drainage system.

The residents of the Village at York University (the name of the Tribute development) will be able to walk up the road to attend events such as theatre, dance, music and public lectures. They will be able to see great athletic events featuring the York Lions. They will be able to attend the Tennis Masters championships at the Rexall National Tennis Centre and join their year-round tennis club. Along with all of our neighbours, they will be able to attend soccer, football and other events in the new York stadium featuring high school, York Lions and professional team events. We hope they will quickly become part of the York University community, as the residents of the Harry S. Crowe development have done.

In return, York community members will have access to high quality, conveniently located housing and, eventually, more shops and amenities. There will be life around the neighbourhood in the evenings, weekends and holidays.

With the improvement of transit – especially the subway – all those living and working here will benefit tremendously.

We are proud that this community, which has been planned for more than 20 years, is finally being realized.