Wednesday, May 2, 2007

AMS meeting May 2, or, concerning U Blvd.

We've been a little negligent of late, admittedly. Exams, Tim out of town, me just starting work, and other excuses abound. But don't give up on us! There is some neat stuff coming up.

Yep, yesterday was summer's first AMS council meeting. The free food was scarce, and the atmosphere tense. The order of business was mostly to do with U-boulevard, and developments thereof. As most of you probably know, the area of University Boulevard, the square between the SUB and east Mall, and the grassy knoll are to be developed into a transportation hub and "centre" for the campus. The plan has been partially approved by the BoG, meaning that construction on the "infrastructure" (transit tunnel and wiring) of the project will start this summer, while the underground bus loop and "university square" that will be built on top of it themselves will await subsequent approval at the BoG. Some students have begun a petition against the current plan, which is basically a commercial centre with a large square, an alumni centre and some green space. The long and convoluted history of the project can be reviewed on the petition's website, which is linked on the sidebar.

Yesterday, the engine behind the petition (which has collected over 2500 signatures), Margaret Orlowski presented to council and brought forward a motion encapsulating the main points of the petition. Norman Sippert, from the campus community and planning office also presented about the most recent U-Boulevard plan. This presentation, which has been solicited by the AMS since November, though late, was quite interesting.

Unsurprisingly, Norman had a bit of a tough audience, which he handled with grace and patience. Respect for that. Some of the council's main concerns were as follows:

  • the fundamental assumption that having a retail-based campus centre may be undesirable
  • the lack of student social space/ study space in the plan. Have to buy coffee for seating in the square
  • Main entrance to the SUB is butting right up against the end of the west building - the design does not synergize with the existing campus centre, SUB
  • removal of the popular and beautiful grassy knoll
  • market priced "university housing" - not run by housing and conferences
  • businesses not necessarily ethical or local - may not fit with university's vision
  • no commitment to sustainable (LEED certified) construction; no green roofs
  • "meaningful consultation" has not occurred - the process has been flawed.

The basic thrust of all these concerns is essentially that the design does not seem to put what students most want for a campus centre as a priority. Instead, it is an embattled and slimmed-down 'least worst' option that has emerged, or pehaps merely survived, as reaction to a long series of failures. Consultation failures, budget failures, relationships failures (note: the original architects have quit, as has the VP external that spearheaded the project). The plan seems to have both changed, and lost sight of, its main goal. As a 'neighborhood plan' of the OCP governed University Town, its first goal was to contribute to the endowment. Now the university is desperate not to lose money off the endeavor. It was also supposed to be a centre for the new non-university affiliated residents of University town. The south campus neighborhood is now to have its own commercial centre, rendering that goal redundant. Then, it was supposed to be a campus centre for the university's academic core and students. It seems to fail at that, according to 2500 signatures.

If it is indeed for the academic community, and largely students, the plan's main thrust aught to be re-evaluated. What students have consistently said is that they want green space, and informal study/social space with ample seating. This plan fails in this respect. It prioritizes retail over the type of space students actually want for their hub. Particularly since two of the features that accord with these priorities, the rain-protected covering of the square, and the eco-stream, have been removed due to excessive cost, perhaps this plan no longer reflects the vision of the team that originally won the architectural competition.

Cost is another interesting point. The BoG has resolved that the project must fund itself. That is, none of the money must come out of the university's General Purpose Operating Fund. This is the fund that runs all the university buildings, pays our professors and administrators, and so forth. Thus, over 25 years, revenue from the businesses and housing will pay for the above-ground portion of the project. The underground bus loop though, which is going to cost 40 million, will not pay for itself. The way to get around that is to take 31 million of the funding from a different bank account than the GPOF - a fund supplied by "Infrastructure Impact Charges". These "charges" are sort of like taxes that each building, when it is built, pays to the university for purposes of maintaining and building infrastructure. The bus loop is considered infrastructure. So for example, donors or government grants that enable the university to build would have to contribute to the IIC fund, per square foot of building they are funding. The fact that there is enough money in that fund to dole out 31 million dollars, in addition to whatever infrastructure and maintenance it is normally meant for, seems to indicate that IICs are hugely inflated to fund these types of projects. Why does the university for some reason prefer the aesthetics of funding through this tax than from some other account? To elucidate this question, lets look at another spending need: the much touted childcare deficit. It is a matter of some debate whether other spending priorities, like childcare, can be funded out of this same IIC fund, or not. Some say yes, some say only the infrastructure (plumbing, wiring, etc) of such future daycare buildings would come out of that fund. Now the convenience of this scheme comes to light. By 1) funding development projects through IIC funds, and 2) selectively defining projects as "infrastructure" related, the univesity can squirm out of the situation of being in debt and neglecting essential services while investing in a costly and dubiously desireable underground loop. Moreover, they don't have to take comparisons of large-scale spending priorites seriously, since technically, they wouldn't be from the same funding source. Oh, and Translink is to fund 5 million of the bus loop. The remaining 4 million got lost in a mumble, when I asked Norman to give details.

In any event, this brings us to the next point: that of cost, and cost-recovery models. Some students have said that the campus centre should not be developed on a cost-recovery model at all, and should be regarded as an investment. Others have said that developing it by taking money out of the university's budget would spell disaster (and a convenient excuse for administrators) by cutting into student services and academics. That is, taking money out of the GPOF for development instead of spending it on academics is not necessarily good for students either. Personally, I think cost-recovery makes sense, if it is longer-term, and meets the basic objectives of a campus centre for the academic and student community. Currently, the model is for a 25 year cost recovery trajectory. Making that longer would mean less retail is necessary, and that the preferred goals of a campus centre (social space, green space, ample seating) can be prioritized. Yes, the endowment won't start profiting off the development for a longer time, but let's face it, the university is already losing buckets of money off the underground bus loop, and the rent from a few apartments and coffee shops is peanuts compared to what they're getting from paving the forest on south campus.

As Jeff Freidrich often says, "we need to start with what works about the space - and what works is the grassy knoll." This isn't to say that removing the knoll, or replacing it in some other place (like in front of Wesbrook) is unfathomable, but simply that the project, which professes to want to be a hub for students, must be in tune with the goals of students, and what works for us.

Some of the funner quotes of the evening:

"When you can convince a capitalist pig like me that this design isn't good for students..." - Matt Naylor, VP external.

"[in defeated tone of voice] to provide informal study space that doesn't generate any income? ... [deprecating sigh]. " - Norman Sippert, campus community & planning

"students seem to be symptoms of the project" - Nathan Crompton, Arts rep

"the university boulevard plan is gaining momentum - down-the-toilet momentum" - Darren Peets, BoG rep (facebook'd!)

In any event, the motion echoing the petition passed, and it will be presented at the May BoG meeting as an official AMS policy. The one point in the petition that was taken out of the policy was the line about regretting competition to student run and funded business by new businesses, since it was deemed "whiny", and possibly hypocritical, in case AMS businesses end up expanding into the space. I look forward to the reaction to that presentation.

Since this post is titled AMS Meeting May 2, I feel obliged to mention briefly some other business: the VPs are all hiring like crazy. Committee appointments that were left empty at the last meeting were filled (attempted). Orientation for staff, and the council retreat are occurring this week. A whole bunch of boring CASA procedure changes were passed. Some cool communication thing called SA link is happening. More on that when I land VP admin Sarah Naiman for a long-awaited interview.