Folio News Story
February 20, 2004

Planning for East Campus underway

University consults with neighbours on changes

by Richard Cairney
Folio Staff

As it nears its 100th anniversary, the University of Alberta is experiencing growing pains. Research funding has topped $300 million per year. Ongoing construction of new buildings on campus is nearing $500 million. Student enrolment reached about 34,000 last year on a campus built for 22,000.

None of this growth has escaped the neighbours. At a meeting February 4 to review preliminary growth plans for Sectors Three, Four and Eight on the main campus, neighbours in Garneau were clear they thought growth belongs elsewhere, anywhere else - existing green space, South Campus, downtown.

The area of greatest concern to Garneau residents is Sector Eight, an area slated to become East Campus Village. The land was expropriated some 30 years ago in anticipation of growth that, for the most part, didn't happen - until now. The homes there now house a variety of university offices such as the Parkland Institute and a student residence currently under construction across from the Law Building on 111 Street.

Neighbours don't like the idea of a six-storey high-rise residence there, says Don Hickey, vice president facilities and operations. But the residence is buffered from the community by a city block of low-rise residences and its scale is consistent with the academic buildings nearby. If we were to build lower, it would take up a larger footprint and impede our ability to reduce the height of buildings on the edge that abuts the neighbourhood, says Hickey.

The heritage value of buildings is also a concern, which Hickey says will be addressed by reviewing the data collected in a Heritage Assessment perpared by David Murray Architect in consultation with heritage preservation groups such as the Edmonton Historical Board and the Edmonton and District Historical Society. We're dealing with a finite pot of dollars, says Hickey, and heritage value needs to be assessed relative to campus and the city as a whole. Every house we save means fewer dollars for existing historical resources such as Convocation and Athabasca Hall, says Hickey. But having said that, he says there is potential for incorporating existing structures into new designs, as was done with the Hudson's Bay Building downtown, or using houses for other uses like the restaurants on High Street.

"We are in the early stages of planning and unfortunately, when you are in the early stages people expect answers while you are still collecting data," said Hickey. "There will be additional community consultation dealing with Sector Eight and I think you'll see a level of comfort develop as we take planning to the next level."

It is inaccurate to conclude that there is a definite plan for a parkade and that a "strip mall" is proposed for 87 Ave., and that the university's intention to house 1,500 students in the area (500 students already live there) means several high-density housing units are on the drawing board, said Hickey.

But he adds that something will need to be done about parking as development proceeds in the area, noting that the university needs to at least replace parking stalls that it loses as new buildings are developed, which still reduces the ratio of parking spaces per student.

"I didn't want to see a sector plan that didn't address the fact that at some point, parking will be needed."

As for housing, the university is in desperate need of more student residences. Including the 416 spaces at the new Mary Schäffer Hall which opened last year, the university provides 3,990 spaces for students. But demand consistently outstrips supply. In May of last year, the university had already received 4,000 applications. The university has been turning away student resident applicants every year since 1998.

"We are getting 2.5 applications for every vacancy," said David Bruch, executive director of ancillary services. "Every year we've been getting about 4,000 or 4,500 for something less than 2,000 vacancies."

University-owned houses in the area have been assessed for their historical significance by the City of Edmonton and by U of A historians. Nine have been designated "heritage homes" and one of them, Emily Murphy House, is on the 'A' list. That building cannot be demolished. The remaining eight can, provided their history is adequately documented. The university is prepared to protect some of the homes, Hickey said, suggesting some of the 'B' list homes might be moved.

As far as plans for 87 Ave., Hickey says a strip mall is not in the cards.

"We don't see another Squires or Billiard Club down there," he said, alluding to busy Whyte Ave. night spots.

"What we are saying is that we foresee a use that is different than it is now," he said. "It is not a strip mall. I could see some retail or commercial uses to support the student and staff body, like a remote Bookstore or a Second Cup, and residences in behind, but the street-front would mirror the (commercial) use across the street.

Ultimately, the university needs to strike a delicate balance when making decisions on growth - there are many stakeholders involved in the process, from government partners to neighbours.

"We have a mandate from the province to provide accessible university education," said Hickey. "We are a successful university, our research is growing, it is a big benefit to the city and a big benefit to the future economic wealth of the province, and demand for seats is increasing.

"The issue is finding a proper balance."