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The rise of downtown campuses

It may not let you forget all your troubles and cares, as Petula Clark once sang, but going downtown is proving popular for many universities.


André Capaldi was in a sea of young people in downtown Windsor, Ontario, on an early September evening last year as he looked out at the transit buses arriving with yet another flood of students making their way to the riverfront Festival Plaza. Some 10,000 people came to the Coming Home Music Fest, the largest gathering ever at the plaza and one of the biggest frosh-week parties in the country.

Mr. Capaldi, president of the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance, had come up with the idea for an electronic music festival featuring stars like Benny Benassi and Richie Hawtin. The crowd included not just U of Windsor students but also a large contingent from St. Clair College and other young people from the community. Mr. Capaldi partnered with St. Clair because he recognized students in downtown Windsor had reached critical mass, with the college already established there and the university planning an ambitious expansion of its own into the city centre.

“We had a sense it would be a great festival but we had no idea the scale,” says Mr. Capaldi, whose student association is now continuing the dialogue with other groups, like Windsor Transit, to prepare the way for the new downtown campus.

U of Windsor’s plans for the downtown – relocating its school of social work to the existing Windsor Star building, moving its visual arts and music departments to the historic Armouries building, and eyeing a former bus depot for film production – reflect a recent trend in mid-sized Canadian cities. Across the country, universities are making the downtown-gown connection by starting new city centre campuses or, like the University of Winnipeg over the last several years, expanding their urban footprint.

Brock University will be one of the latest institutions to get into the act when it begins construction of an academic and cultural arts centre in downtown St. Catharines, Ontario, this year. In British Columbia, the University of the Fraser Valley announced plans to open a campus in downtown Abbotsford while in Alberta, Grant MacEwan University aims to become “Edmonton’s downtown university.” (For a list of recent and planned moves, see “Bright lights, big plans,” at the bottom of the page.)

Many see these campuses as solutions to the problem of decaying downtowns in smaller Canadian cities. Universities, in turn, are reaping community goodwill – as well as badly needed expansion space.

Leo Groarke, U of Windsor’s provost and vice-president, academic, says the downtown campus will be “a tiny island [of renewal] in the middle of urban decay.” But it’s not just the city that benefits. “From a teaching, learning and research point of view, universities need to be where the issues are,” he says, calling downtown the heart of the arts and culture scene as well as an important connection point for those who rely on social services.

Dr. Groarke has been through this exercise before. As a former dean and principal of Wilfrid Laurier University’s campus in downtown Brantford, Ontario (infamously described by a former mayor as “the worst” downtown in Canada), he presided over the creation of that city’s new campus. He also wrote the book – literally – on what many see as the model of how to transform a downtown with a university campus.

In Reinventing Brantford: A University Comes Downtown, Dr. Groarke wrote how administrators were nervous at first as the university’s experimental liberal contemporary studies program attracted only 39 full-time students when it opened in September 1999. Just over a decade later, in September 2011, the campus boasted 2,700 students and 24 buildings that it owns or leases. Laurier Brantford’s acting principal and vice-president, Lesley Cooper, says there were 725 new incoming students this year alone, more courses and two new buildings coming in 2012.

Dr. Groarke has written about the difficulty of operating a campus in a different city and dislikes references to Brantford as a “satellite” campus because it suggests a diminished role to the main campus. Dr. Cooper stresses that the mission, values and vision at Brantford are the same as Laurier’s main campus.

“We are part of a bigger institution and there’s a lot of value to be gained in having the Laurier name,” she says. Dr. Cooper is also proud of Laurier Brantford’s innovative track record as a university “built on partnerships,” such as those with Nipissing University, Mohawk College and various community groups.

In the beginning, recalls Dr. Groarke, students asked, “What are we doing in this flea-bitten, beat-up campus?” But others felt Laurier was “changing the world by restoring beautiful, historic buildings in Brantford.” That heritage model is one that others, including U of Windsor and University of Winnipeg, also try to include in their developments.

But repurposing and renovating existing heritage buildings can be tricky. “The challenge with adaptive reuse can be cost, especially if there are serious environmental remediation or structure issues,” says Michel Trocmé, a partner at Toronto-based Urban Strategies Inc., a planning and urban design firm.

Cohesiveness between campuses can also be a challenge, as Laurier discovered when it established its Brantford campus 50 km away from the main campus. Mr. Trocmé says the question of multiple campuses is moot because “all institutions need to be strategic in order to grow and compete. The DNA of an institution is not in its bricks and mortar but in the strength of its programs, faculty and leadership, as well as in the success of its graduates.”

He adds that there are ups and downs to all this growth. Land values rise but so do taxes, which helps municipalities. Retail businesses and restaurants prosper, but community services can be squeezed out due to higher land values. Growing daytime population increases the viability of public transit but also creates congestion. The key, says Mr. Trocmé, and others agree, is consulting the community and creating connections.

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel says tens of thousands of postsecondary students now frequent the downtown, a dramatic growth in the last five years that has helped area businesses. “It’s just mushroomed,” he says. “Anytime I walk down there the businesses are full. You can’t get into them.”

Mario Polèse, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Urban and Regional Studies at Université du Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique, knows first-hand the important role a campus plays in an urban core. In 1965, Université Laval moved out of downtown Quebec City and into the suburbs.

“The impact on the downtown was incredible. The whole place collapsed,” says Dr. Polèse, who studied at the suburban campus. Since then, the university has started moving back downtown and “it’s working fairly well, but the damage has been done.”

Unlike Université Laval, U of Winnipeg has remained a fixture in the downtown core since its founding as Manitoba College in 1871. It could have decided to expand in various locations throughout the city but instead embarked on an ambitious growth plan downtown, guided by Lloyd Axworthy after he became president in 2004.

Three years after his arrival, U of Winnipeg spent about $150 million on new buildings and redeveloping existing structures. Last year, the Buhler Centre opened at a former United Army Surplus Store, offering a home to the faculty of business and economics, the division of continuing education and the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. Last spring, the $70-million Richardson College for the Environment and Science opened its doors. The university also built townhouses for its students and opened daycare centres, with about a third of the places earmarked for the community. Recognizing the need to connect with the large aboriginal and immigrant populations of Winnipeg, the university launched innovative initiatives like an Opportunity Fund that allows youngsters to acquire tuition credits, starting as early as Grade 4, that they can use toward their university education.

With growth of retail and hospitality industries in downtown Winnipeg, fueled in part by the return of the National Hockey League’s Jets and construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, there is a “real buzz” in the downtown, says Dr. Axworthy. “I’ve always said we probably have the best university location in the country.”

He stresses that a university needs to create community connections and to shed ivory tower pretensions. Accordingly, U of Winnipeg’s growth was guided by a few fundamental principles: a clear commitment to social, environmental and financial sustainability, and community-based learning to “break out the wall” of a university.

Jino Distasio, an associate professor of geography at U of Winnipeg and director of its Institute of Urban Studies, needs no convincing about the benefits of working in what he calls “the middle of an urban laboratory.” As he puts it: “Outside these doors, a student can look 360 degrees and see 50 years of good and bad [urban] planning.”

For the past decade at the institute, he has been involved in studies on homelessness, mental health and housing – the kind of “active” research that engages the community and students. He says a downtown changes the way you educate. “I think it’s a wonderful, stimulating environment.”

Still, observers and educators caution that despite all their success, universities should not be seen solely as saviours of dying downtowns. “The university is not the department of public planning. Their responsibility is to give the best education possible,” notes Dr. Polèse of INRS.

Dr. Groarke would agree that campuses are no panacea for all the problems that have attended the decline of many urban centres. “But,” he writes in his book, “one cannot look at the results in Brantford and ignore the possibility that similar initiatives elsewhere could make a major contribution to the revitalization of the North American downtown.”

Could all this growth in downtown campuses reach a saturation point? “This is a very tough question. Who really knows how saturated any market is?” remarks Mr. Trocmé of Urban Strategies Inc. “Like all institutions or businesses, schools have market-related ebbs and flows. Greenfield campuses share the same challenges as factory towns: if their ‘market’ stagnates then so does the campus. The advantage urban campuses have is that they can grow in step with the market and in concert with other businesses, residential communities and other institutions that make downtowns so vibrant.”

Bright lights, big plans

Across Canada, universities have opened or are announcing plans for new downtown campuses. Here’s a survey of some developments past, present and future.

  • Simon Fraser University moved its school for the contemporary arts from the main Burnaby campus to the former Woodward’s department store in Vancouver’s Downtown East-side in 2010. It’s part of a $200-million redevelopment scheme for the downtown area.
  • UBC Robson Square in downtown Vancouver boasts that 45,000 people attend its educational programs, meetings, receptions and performances each year. The University of British Columbia downtown campus is housed in the lower level of the landmark civic centre, designed by Arthur Erickson.
  • Last May, the University of the Fraser Valley announced plans to open a campus in downtown Abbotsford, within walking distance of city hall.
  • University of Alberta’s Enterprise Square opened in 2008 in the historic former Hudson’s Bay building in downtown Edmonton. It has light rail transit links to the other U of A campuses.
  • The president of Grant MacEwan University, David Atkinson, confirmed in October that the university is moving ahead with plans to sell two satellite campuses and expand its downtown campus to become “Edmonton’s downtown university.”
  • University of Windsor said it will purchase the Windsor Star property in the downtown core, to house the school of social work and the Centre for Executive and Professional Development. The university would also like to relocate its music and visual arts programs to the downtown Armouries building and move film production to a former bus depot.
  • University of Waterloo’s health sciences campus, anchored by the school of pharmacy, opened in 2008, helping to create “a knowledge power-house” in downtown Kitchener, according to the Downtown Kitchener Business Improvement Area. Four years earlier, the school of architecture moved to the former Riverside Silk Mill in Cambridge, Ontario, seen as a way to trigger more economic activity in downtown Cambridge.
  • Brock University expects to start building its academic and cultural arts centre in downtown St. Catharines early this year. The “historic collaboration” between the city and university will “transform the city’s downtown into a vibrant entertainment hub as well as a national centre of excellence for education in arts and culture,” said the university.

Claudio D’Andrea is a journalist specializing in education, research and arts reporting. He is based in Windsor, Ontario.

Claudio d’Andrea
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  1. Richard Schmid / February 6, 2012 at 19:31

    Sir George Williams University, now Concordia, was, since 1926, and remains a downtown university, serving Montréal’s population working within minutes of their classrooms. While young, inquisitive minds are our future, a classroom peppered with mature, experienced professionals extends learning in ways no professor can simulate. What makes this hybrid learning environment doubly potent is that young and old, novice and expert, are now connected to a linked world, melding local culture with universal values. Long live the university of the masses (downtown), a community shared by all!

  2. University Staff / February 6, 2012 at 20:46

    I can’t understand why the author didn’t do more research on the subject and include a comprehensive list of universities like UOIT who has revitalized downtown Oshawa and the University of Waterloo with locations in downtown Waterloo and downtown Cambridge.

    The author should have included all universities that are revitalizing downtowns or noted that the article was only referencing a select few.

  3. Dr Laurie Anderson / February 7, 2012 at 11:45

    Thanks for the informative, timely article on the literal rise of university campuses located downtown. Your readers may also wish to know that Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) impressive School for Contemporary Arts (SCA) is neither the first or even most recent SFU program located in Vancouver’s downtown core. The university’s storefront of continuing education and mid-career offerings opened its doors in the city over 30 years ago. The programs proved so popular that they expanded into Harbour Centre in the landmark Spencer building on Hastings Street in 1989. Since then, and with the support of generous donors, SFU has enriched the city’s heritage legacy by restoring two former bank buildings to their former glory, one as a unique international conference centre (the Morris J Wosk facility) and the other, as the the thriving Beedie School of Business (Segal building). As you mentioned, the SCA program is in its second successful year in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts building and even more recently, the spectacular Bill Reid Gallery, home to the stunning collection of the late artist’s aboriginal works, has joined SFU Vancouver’s family. The university’s expanded footprint downtown reflects the mission at all three SFU campuses to be community-engaged, student-focused and research-driven. SFU Vancouver-described by the Vancouver Sun as “the intellectual heart of the city” – has been contributing to the vibrancy, economy, culture, heritage restoration and social and knowledge capital of downtown Vancouver for three decades.

    Laurie Anderson, PhD

    Executive Director,

    Simon Fraser University Vancouver

  4. Dr Brook WR Pearson / February 13, 2012 at 23:02

    ‘Downtown’ Abbotsford? That’s pretty funny. There are roughly 134K people in the entire area, and it’s ‘downtown’ consists of a mall and a couple of streets of older buildings. It seems that unequal data is being compared here.

  5. Post Doc / February 14, 2012 at 13:07

    It seems that ultimately, this article sees students (and campuses) primarily as vehicles for economic improvement. What is sadly missing, in my opinion, is more concern for the intellectual environment and cultural environment that downtown campuses afford. I studied in a old Western European city, with several hundred university buildings all over town. When I see my students commute from suburban homes to the front steps of an suburban campus today, I realize they will never have the kind of stimulating and challenging ‘extra-curricular’ experience that shaped my scholarly perspective on the world.