UBC Development: Rising Up on Campus

This evening’s showdown of diverging visions for the campus will change the direction of UBC’s development and lead directly to B.C.’s first international architectural competition in 14 years (the last one, in 1991, resulted in Moshe Safdie’s Library Square).

This evening’s showdown of diverging visions for the campus will change the direction of UBC’s development and lead directly to B.C.’s first international architectural competition in 14 years (the last one, in 1991, resulted in Moshe Safdie’s Library Square).

On a splendid early evening in April of 2003 the avenues and plazas of the UBC campus are in voluptuous natural glory but almost entirely devoid of people. The sun saturates Point Grey’s academic zones after a brief shower, sharpening the lushness of tree-canopied Main Mall, accents of fading rhododendrons and budding roses trailing along its sides. The only space packed with people is the SUB Ballroom, the student union building’s largest space, usually a venue for alternative rock bands. In fact, finding a way to animate UBC’s often dormant campus streets with new residents is the reason for tonight’s public hearing. This evening’s showdown of diverging visions for the campus will change the direction of UBC’s development and lead directly to B.C.’s first international architectural competition in 14 years (the last one, in 1991, resulted in Moshe Safdie’s Library Square). As this UBC audience will discover, Vancouver’s housing boom is transforming even the most chary of public institutions into aggressive developers, changing the use of urban land in ways that were inconceivable just a decade ago. A city is a dialogue in bricks and mortar, and UBC might just make a transformation from a bucolic if paternalistic campus to something approaching urbanity before this meeting ends. It’s a diverse crowd. At the back of the room, consulting architects and campus planners fiddle with their presentation panels for what is called “An Illustrative Plan For University Boulevard.” Elsewhere, a dreadlocked clump of anti-globalization protestors talk animatedly; urban planning graduate students nervously rehearse their own counter-proposals; and well-dressed new residents of the extensive housing developments starting to ring the campus wait to find out what’s happening to their neighbourhood. Scattered among these groups are 100 students and faculty members, all of them intensely curious about UBC’s future. Up for discussion is a redevelopment plan for the core campus. A half-dozen architects’ plans and renderings illustrate proposed residential buildings (privately owned units) rising 16 to 26 storeys. Thin condo towers, escapees from Yaletown, are shoehorned beside academic buildings along East Mall, on the site of a beloved outdoor swimming pool and even next to the SUB building itself. Also on the plans are a host of new shops for what is described as the most ‘under-retailed’ community in B.C. All of this is a radical change for UBC’s very heart and this disparate crowd seems united in skepticism as the meeting gets underway, in large part because they feel they have not been adequately consulted. Dennis Pavlich, UBC’s VP of legal and external affairs, makes a pitch for the redevelopment plan. While campus planning staff, supplemented by urban design consultants from local firm Civitas and others, have pulled together this high-density revision of UBC’s heart, it is Pavlich who has stayed front and centre as its public spokesman. He speaks of a safer, more diverse campus, one which has more of the qualities of the soaring downtown a few kilometres away. Pavlich and the UBC staffers have made their pitch and the meeting opens up for public commentary. The urban planning students lead with a cautious but effective demolition of the university’s arguments that high-rise towers are the only strategy to enliven these UBC zones. They agree that these areas are forlorn, sometimes even dangerous places, on evenings and weekends. Using all the policy and technical skills they have learned to date, the planners-to-be argue that lower, denser buildings could accommodate the same number of new residents. And they conclude by questioning the shift to accommodate private condo owners over the pressing housing needs of students themselves. Fuzzy in knit hats and Cowichan sweaters, the anti-globalization gang follows with more blunt and impassioned arguments about the corporatization of the university and its most sacred teaching spaces. Almost the only voice speaking in favour of UBC’s official plans is Vancouver architect and green design expert Peter Busby, the man behind the 48-storey Wall Centre hotel and condo tower – but students grouse that he is probably just looking for a design commission.

Emeritus professors banged their canes on the floor in anger, saying the precious membrane between town and gown had been violated

The most electric moment of the evening arrives when the first of several emeritus professors rises to speak. They had previously joked to each other about dubbing themselves “The Group of Six,” but now there is a cold fury in the words from these retired dons of chemistry, oceanography, pharmacy, classics and neurology as they declaim what they see as the corruption of the most important academic spaces of the institution to which they dedicated their lives. What galls them more than anything else is that private condo residents would be able look down upon faculty members’ former laboratories, lecture halls and classrooms, a disturbing visual symbol of changing institutional priorities. In their view, the precious membrane separating town and gown had been violated. There are few sights more certain to put terror into the hearts of senior university administrators than emeritus professors banging their canes on the floor in anger. Universities are more conservative institutions than they seem, and superannuated faculty cast long shadows over influential alumni. By the end of the evening the expression on Pavlich’s face told the tale: UBC would have to find another way to plan and rebuild University Boulevard. It might surprise you to know that UBC has quietly become one of the largest land developers in the Lower Mainland. Private firms finance and build the new housing there, but on sites that are remnants of UBC’s original Point Grey land endowment. According to Pavlich, “460 hectares remain to sustain and support the university’s future growth.” These are part of his purview as the senior university official overseeing private development on campus. Next to the Concord Pacific lands on False Creek, the UBC campus is now B.C.’s second-largest development site. The second half of Martha Piper’s term as UBC president has seen the biggest building boom in the campus’s history. We are not talking classrooms and chemistry labs here either, as more than half of all recent campus construction has been private housing filling every campus crook, cranny and parking lot, under the aegis of a development plan called ‘University Town.’ This is not to be confused with Simon Fraser University’s similar private push, ‘UniverCity.’ One figure about University Town says everything about why the province’s largest institution of higher learning has so enthusiastically embraced private development on its surplus land; within two decades, these projects will generate an endowment of up to a half-billion dollars to fund teaching, research and the construction of academic buildings. The seeds of the current turn to university-as-land-developer were sown earlier, before Pavlich and Piper. To fully understand what is hoped for with both the University Boulevard redevelopment and the University Town plans that frame it, some historical background is important. The éminence grise behind the recent turn to private construction is a low-profile real estate developer and former member of UBC’s Board of Governors. Appointed when David Strangway was president, Harold Kalke fought with passion – and perhaps more importantly, with financial arguments – to unearth the benefits of UBC building condos, even in the most central spaces of the campus. Kalke was arguably Vancouver’s first ‘green’ developer, attracting the private foundation offices of media prophet and UBC professor David Suzuki to Kalke’s smart, granola-crunching Kitsilano development on West 4th Avenue – the complex that also houses Capers and Duthie Books. UBC jumped into the development business big time in the early 1990s, but that was for a rainforest-edge site on the southeast border of the campus along West 16th Avenue. Called Hampton Place, this development alone has generated $81 million in revenue for the university. In the early 1990s, when our provincial funding of universities was at one of the lowest per-capita rates in the country, this new income stream proved irresistible. Strangway’s focus back then was in lining up personal benefactors for campus initiatives. Many of these donors had ties to Hong Kong, such as the Chan (eponymous theatre) and Liu (international research centre) families, and were alumni of Shanghai’s former St. John’s University, closed by the communists in 1949. Thanks to the generosity of old boys and girls – including Concord Pacific’s key urban designer Stanley Kwok – St. John’s has been resurrected as a UBC college in a James Cheng-designed building at the western edge of the campus. [pagebreak] While Strangway transformed the campus with academic buildings, almost no market housing was constructed at its core, even though campus plans were amended to permit them on his watch. Moreover, towards the end of his presidency the large donations from Hong Kong began to dry up. The university had been blessed by competitive, one-upmanship donating among a tight circle of the former Crown colony’s wealthiest families – many of whom sent their offspring to UBC. When the giving ended, university budgets – as stressed under the NDP as they were under the Liberals and Socreds – desperately needed a replacement for this flow of capital. This was Harold Kalke’s opportunity, and the university soon came around to his position, even though some faculty and students complained that promoting private development in the core campus was like letting money lenders into the temple. The rejection of high-rise condos, new cross-campus roads and other radical changes that hectic spring night in 2003 in SUB’s Ballroom led directly to the idea of an international architectural competition. The colour and drama associated with an architectural competition is also evidence of how large organizations use design and designers as a powerful form of soft marketing – the architect as creator of visuals for re-branding. Martha Piper states that when she first arrived in her post, academic and administrative issues were paramount but her attention soon turned to the fabric of the campus, to its problems and latent strengths: “The question at UBC is, ‘Where is the entrance?’” Piper observes. Less than six months after the public meeting in the SUB Ballroom, Pavlich approached her with the idea of a design competition for the very same site under discussion that night – from SUB and the present bus loop, past the Empire Pool and Memorial Gym along University Boulevard, and jogging north on Wesbrook Mall to finish near McInnes Field. An architectural competition had the added benefit of insulating UBC staff from the final design decisions that would have to be taken before re-developing their most sensitive zone. “The public meeting and the 480 sets of public comments we received on our survey made it clear we needed to plan University Boulevard a different way,” says University Town associate director and competition co-organizer Linda Moore. She, Pavlich and their team had already revised their concept, banning private condos and high-rise towers in what they called “the University Boulevard neighbourhood.” The emeritus ‘Group of Six’ had triumphed. When they discussed the possibility of a competition in the fall of 2003, Piper recalls asking Pavlich, “Dennis, are you sure?” Pavlich promised her, and nearly everyone else subsequently, that a public design contest was the best way to combine transparency with “excellence in architecture.” She was eventually convinced. VP of external affairs, Dennis Pavlich has pushed UBC into its current mode of hyper-development. Born in Zimbabwe, he has degrees in law from the universities of Witwatersrand (1968) and Yale (1975) and has spent his entire teaching career at UBC. He is that rarest of British Columbians; a worldly intellectual, with a Falstaffian zest for life, ideas and construction cranes stacking up campus condos – appropriately enough, he has written a book on condominium law. A master builder in both the best and worst senses of the term, he’s the one who set the terms and pace of the architectural competition, and with it, all other on-campus, private housing development that falls under the key item covered by his vice-presidency, University Town. When he was a UBC urban planning student, Peter Whitelaw often disagreed with Pavlich’s ideas and willfulness. Today he acknowledges his efficacy to UBC: “Dennis taking over was a good thing because of his legal and public relations skills.” Under the terms of University Town, by 2020 UBC will see a doubling of the population living on campus, from 10,400 in 2004 to 20,900. Eighty per cent of these new residents will be condo owners. University Town projections indicate that this shift to privately owned housing on campus is intended to generate that half-billion-dollar endowment mentioned earlier. It should be noted that most of what was formerly called the UBC Endowment Lands was turned into Pacific Spirit Regional Park and rendered undevelopable. But UBC has found and exploited a residual endowment in the empty corners of the remaining property under its control. This is in large part because Vancouverites have accepted living cheek-by-jowl with labs, varsity playing fields and classrooms in what some now call “the West Side’s new West Side.” On January 29, 2004, UBC’s Board of Governors gave a go-ahead for the University Boulevard Design Competition. Instead of the half-million square feet of new construction originally proposed, the total was trimmed back to 350,000 square feet, consisting of 326 all-rental housing units, plus retail space and offices for campus administrators and campus-related private businesses. While Pavlich’s office has not released figures for what the competition will cost, similarly elaborate contests elsewhere (the World Trade Center in New York and Winnipeg’s Museum of Human Rights, for example) have cost up to $1 million, most of it going to fees for consultants, prizes, promotion and the very real expense of assembling a jury of the architecture world’s highest-profile taste-makers. Think airfares, hotel accommodations, per diems, etc. More than half of the expense of this competition consists of professional fees paid to the three finalist teams, who were given $225,000 each to prepare their drawings and models. But given the huge costs of the resulting constructions – and when some are rented out, similarly large potential revenues to the university – even the extra cost of convening a competition might only represent a one-per-cent increase on the $120-million estimate for the new buildings and landscapes along University Boulevard. This is an investment Pavlich and Moore are convinced will pay off in a better design. As well, intellectual reputation by association with some of the world’s top architects as finalists and jurors does not hurt UBC’s academic ego. Crucially, any public relations benefit is an undeclared but real sweetener. Announcing its competition in the grandest manner possible, the university paid the going rate of $120,000 for a full-page colour ad in the Sunday New York Times of November 7, 2004. Some complained that this marketing expenditure was more than the university had spent on outside urban design consultants in the previous five years, and described the ad as an attempt to create a public relations circus when the campus actually needs the plain bread of teaching spaces and affordable student housing. Certainly, in 25 years as an architecture critic and Times reader, I have seen no other design competition take out a full-pager in the American newspaper of record. But this slick package was also clearly intended to market UBC itself, filled as it was with photographs of the campus, its museums and Howe Sound vistas. Fifty-three architectural firms responded to the call and submitted their credentials, which is by no means an overwhelming response in terms of numbers, but among this group were some ‘starchitects’ who could definitely further UBC’s public relations agenda. It is truly unusual in major architectural competitions that the invited outside jury took no part in the first two stages of the selection process, which reduced the 53 to a short list of eight and then a finalist group of three, who were funded to produce actual designs. Bumped off the semi-finalist list were two prominent names: Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the architecture world’s equivalent of the Oscar, the Pritzker Prize; and the London-based designer of the high-tech Lloyds Building, Richard Rogers.

To announce the competition, UBC took out a $120,000 full-page ad in the New York Times. Some argued the campus could have used the money for teaching spaces and student housing

Keeping a tight hand on the tiller, Pavlich and Moore placed themselves on both of the UBC selection committees for the first two stages. The rules they concocted for the design competition mandated a number of controversial urban assumptions including a ramp dropping down along University Boulevard to an underground transit hub, transit riders then rising up through a retail centre to the new University Square. Circling the plaza are new UBC administration premises and office spaces for leasing to university-linked businesses. Had they allowed only prominent but independent jurors to select the finalists, Pavlich and Moore risked weakening commitment to these debatable design choices. Campus design specialists Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica paired with Vancouver’s Hughes Condon Marler, the firm responsible for the Renfrew Public Library and Burnaby’s Eileen Dailly pool and fitness centre. UBC’s Board of Governors picked this proposal (a campus community poll agreed) over bids by London’s Allies Morrison Partnership and UBC’s Patricia and John Patkau. [pagebreak] It incorporates a diverse range of smaller pavilions around a covered plaza, the whole scene abuzz with dramatic sculptural stairs, decks and balconies. The design is all over the map stylistically, but then so is the rest of the UBC campus, as it has been manically rebuilt over the past decade. The choice reflects a desire for a new University Square that continues the helter-skelter patterns of the rest of the campus. Without doubt now, this design competition is the seal on the re-branding of UBC into a bold new hybrid called University Town. Designs by the three firms were unveiled to the public on April 1 of this year and some 200,000 members of the extended campus community were given 10 days to vote by email for their preferences in a non-binding consultation. The votes by the campus community joined technical evaluations and all were put before a final selection jury of UBC officials supplemented by prominent international architects including Library Square designer Moshe Safdie, HRH Prince Charles’s architectural advisor Leon Krier, New Urbanism prophet Elizabeth Playter-Zyberk and the dean of Canadian architects, our own Arthur Erickson. The three finalist designs were all significant improvements over the forest of mid-campus towers that so dismayed the local community two years ago. But not everyone is happy. Lining one side of University Boulevard will be 326 new housing units in a variety of blocks, all of which severely restrict views to one of the most-loved buildings on campus, the War Memorial Gym. According to microbiology professor George Spiegelman, the removal of the outdoor pool and the subsequent overshadowing of the gym by new construction “is an insult and unnecessary. These are icons of our campus, things that give us identity,” he says. Pavlich says that this competition is “an opportunity to establish an internationally recognizable signature image for the UBC campus.” Bricks and ivy used to be all the marketing imagery that prominent university campuses ever needed but under the roving eye of our competitive media culture, this is no longer true. Something more ambitious is afoot here, as Pavlich and team are investing heavily in architecture as a means of re-branding UBC. Architecture is expensive, but the investment might just be returned in the new currency of the 21st century: intellectual capital. According to Linda Moore, it’s thanks to the university’s pro-development policies that campus residential rents now average $1.45 per square foot compared with $2 in comparable areas of the city, making it easier to stem the brain drain and attract prominent faculty and graduate students from around the world. Led by art galleries and museums in the 1990s, architecture has become a way to raise profile and generate funding for all sorts of public institutions, be they libraries (think of Moshe Safdie’s downtown coliseum, Library Square), medical research institutions (note the huge petri dishes on the outside of Richard Henriquez’ new B.C. Cancer Institute at 8th and Heather), or even the City of Vancouver’s own state-of-the-art essay in ever-visible sustainability, Omicron Architecture’s National Works Yard on the False Creek Flats. Ironically, over the last decade B.C.’s private corporations have become more low-key in their use of architectural design, many of them leaving prominent downtown Vancouver office towers for modest low-rise regional headquarters in new office parks like Burnaby’s Glen Lyons Drive.

THE SHORT LIST: The plans of Patkau Architects and Allies & Morrison made it to the final three

Harold Kalke’s ideas literally transformed the UBC campus, right up to the current architectural competition. But it took the push and passion of Pavlich and his colleagues to implement University Town on a grand scale and make the current design competition happen, whatever its flaws. No matter what the architectural merits of the Moore Ruble Yudell design, the residents who eventually move onto University Boulevard will ensure that the heart of UBC is a safer and livelier place at night. Their presence also ensures significant cash flow to an institution keen for independence from micro management by whichever political party happens to reign in Victoria. In this, UBC is but a miniature of all of Vancouver, predicating its future as a locus of housing development, all other means of generating wealth seemingly put on hold. Vancouver’s downtown planners don’t talk about that date soon when every viable site has a tower on it, and UBC does not have an easy replacement for the income that comes with filling every pocket of the campus with private housing. On spring evenings a decade from now, a newly ‘Vancouverized’ campus will not be as empty as it was that fateful night in 2003. Whether it will be a better place to teach and study remains to be seen.