Uneasy bedfellows

‘Queen’s can’t sneeze without the city at least catching a chill’

Mike Wheeler, chair of the Sydenham Ward Tenants and Ratepayers Association, says the student housing area is like ‘a mould.’
Mike Wheeler, chair of the Sydenham Ward Tenants and Ratepayers Association, says the student housing area is like ‘a mould.’
Sydenham Ward councillor Bill Glover says academic standards at Queen’s have deteriorated since he was a student.
Sydenham Ward councillor Bill Glover says academic standards at Queen’s have deteriorated since he was a student.
Journal File Photo

Mike Wheeler says he can appreciate the benefits of having a university in Kingston.

He said the academic environment compliments the growth of industry in the city.

Wheeler, a retired Alcan employee and chair of the Sydenham Ward Tenants and Ratepayers Association, said he saw the mixing of the intellectual community with the city at large on a regular basis.

“You have a lab full of workers but you also have research facilities,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any resentment or concern about a lot of students coming into the place that are going to be, we hope, the movers and shakers that are going to help run the country in years to come.”

But Wheeler also sees some inherent problems, including the expansion of the student housing area.

“I’ve likened it to a mould that grows outward,” he said. “More and more of the significant older housing is being absorbed by student housing.” He said the spread of student housing also damages the integrity of the historical buildings in the area.

“It’s a shame to see traditional family houses converted into student apartments.”

He said expansion of the University campus may help with space issues in the short term, especially lack of parking, but it won’t solve the lack of space.

Kingston Mayor Harvey Rosen said he thinks Queen’s should focus on “diffusing” or spreading out rather than growing.

“Certainly, relative to the size of the city it calls home, it has a very large presence.”

As a larger university in a smaller city, Queen’s plays a bigger role in Kingston than the University of Toronto does in its city, Rosen said.

“Because of that I think we have to work a lot harder on our relationship to ensure a healthy relationship between the University and the city.”

Despite the University’s growth over the last few decades, Rosen said it doesn’t affect the whole city.

“There are parts of the city where you don’t know the University exists, where you can live your life without any kind of influence.”

But that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Rosen said the key to better integration between Queen’s and Kingston is diffusion rather than expansion. Many of Queen’s resources, such as the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, could benefit a much broader range of people were it placed away from the main campus, he said.

“It is a significant national gallery in terms of the significance of the collections but because of its constrained location on campus, it can only display a very small part of its collection.”

Rosen said the University would also benefit logistically if it were less concentrated in one area. Spreading facilities throughout the downtown and along the waterfront would help solve parking shortages while keeping services relatively close to students, staff and faculty, he said.

Rosen argued this diffusion would make the benefits of having a prestigious institution in the community more accessible to permanent residents.

He said he can see why students, especially, might be hesitant to spread themselves out.

If the University were more dispersed, he said, its actions would be more widely felt throughout Kingston.

“The drawbacks are that Queen’s can’t sneeze without the city at least catching a chill,” he said. “We all know what happens during Homecoming.” He said distributing resources and facilities more widely would also help with space shortages without damaging the integrity of the campus.

“The central campus, the old campus, will always remain the heart of the campus like the downtown of a city,” he said.

A more seamless integration of school and city would also necessitate a greater level of co-operation between the two, he argued, creating a more efficient transit system.

“[It would] allow students to use transit to reach a University building that maybe is not on campus but is a short bus ride away.” Rosen said the University also needs to realize it’s not the only entity in Kingston that’s growing and changing.

“We want to intensify residential areas in the older part of the city.” He said the province has mandated the city to fill spaces where infrastructure such as sewage systems and water and gas mains already exists.

“There may be some tension when they hit up against each other, but I think with good will and good communication we’ll be able to solve those problems and mesh the two together.”

Sydenham Ward councillor Bill Glover said expansion is only adding to the University’s problems.

In addition to worsening town-gown relations, he said, the growth in student population is also detrimental to the quality of the education offered.

“The University has, I think, embarked up on unreasonable growth at the cost of academic standards.” Glover said the decline is illustrated most clearly in the increased student-professor ratio.

“For example, when I was studying history, class of ’73, the normal limit for a seminar was 15. For popular courses … it could go to 20,” he said. “The academic standards have deteriorated considerably in the last 30 years.”

Queen’s growth rate, he said, doesn’t reflect changes to the student demographic since he was in school, school which time the University population has doubled. The student population in 1970 was about 7,800 students.

“In the intervening years, the population of Canada has not increased 100 per cent,” he said.

He said the expansion is also having a negative effect on the demographic of the permanent residents living near the University. He said as more students fill in the areas around campus, fewer families with children, including Queen’s professors, live in the area. This puts the future of elementary schools in and around the Ghetto in danger of closing.

Instead of spending money on expansion, he said, Queen’s should focus its resources on better serving the student body at its current size.

Principal Karen Hitchcock said that’s just what the University is trying to do.

Responding to Rosen’s suggestion the University spread its resources to give residents better access, she said it’s important to remember the University’s mandate.

“I think the thing to keep in mind is the main reason we’re here is for the students.”

She said she doesn’t think the location of the art centre on University Avenue is a deterrent for community members. She said residents just need to become more familiar with the University buildings.

“A lot of people don’t know the campus.”

Hitchcock said Queen’s physical expansion is a necessary response to student needs, not a desire to grow its campus.

“A lot of the building that went on in the past went on to accommodate a growth that had already happened,” she said. “The campus as you see it was designed for 10,000 [students]. We now have 20,000.”

She said the University’s major projects over the last decade have all been an effort to better accommodate that number.

“All of this work is to ensure and assure that our students have state of the art facilities to do their work.”

Queen’s purchased properties such as the J.K. Tett Centre with the goal of alleviating overcrowding on campus and to provide facilities that have been lacking for a long time, Hitchcock said.

“The music department has been without a concert hall for years and years.”

She the University needs to “decompress” main campus if it’s going to fulfill the needs of all of its departments.

She said the Kingston community also factors into the University’s expansion plans.

“[Stauffer Library] was designed in a way that it has space for large gatherings that members of Kingston can be a part of.” Hitchcock cited last year’s Holocaust Education Week speaker Elie Wiesel as an example of students and residents coming together to enjoy what the University offers.

She said a city can’t help but benefit from the presence of an institution of higher learning.

“I’ve never seen a university that, through the kind of programs designed for students didn’t enhance the quality of life of the residents of the community it was in.”

She said the University attracts opportunities that might not otherwise be available to Kingstonians. In recent years, the University has drawn such cultural icons as violinist Pinchas Zukerman and tenor Ben Heppner.

“Probably Kingston wouldn’t be a normal stop on their tours,” she said.

Vice-Principal (Operations and Finance) Andrew Simpson said the University keeps city infrastructure in mind when deciding where to expand. “Every generation always says, ‘Do we have enough infrastructure in place to satisfy the needs of today but also the needs of tomorrow?’” he said. “In 2007, I don’t think we’re asking any different questions that the people before us were asking.”

He said purchasing government-owned properties such as the Tett Centre and converting them to suit the University’s needs is one way for Queen’s to expand to serve its students without displacing permanent residents.

“It is a reality as the University expands that it has an impact on local neighbourhoods and we take that seriously,” he said. “[The Tett Centre] did not require us to purchase residential homes to make space for University buildings.”

To make room for the Queen’s Centre, Simpson said, the University expropriated about eight properties and reached settlements with the owners of several more.

Queen’s has been working in partnership with the city and Utilities Kingston on projects such as the University Avenue Restoration Project and the rerouting of services beneath Clergy Street for Queen’s Centre construction.

The city contributed about $1 million to the University Avenue project, Simpson said. The money will help to ensure the city’s infrastructure will be able to support the new constructions.

Jim Keech, Utilities Kingston president, said many of the projects the University undertakes result in improvements to city infrastructure that benefit both the school and the city.

Utilities such as water and sewage mains under Clergy Street had to be rerouted before construction on the Queen’s Centre could begin and gas mains on University Avenue had to be lowered so the street level could be lowered.

Utilities Kingston supplies energy to all properties within the boundaries of the old city of Kingston, bordered on the southeast by Lake Ontario, Highway 401 on the north and Bath Road on the west. Queen’s accounts for about 10 per cent of the area’s energy consumption.

Keech said he expects the Queen’s Centre to have little impact on the city’s energy grid. Queen’s built its own electric substation. Combined with the existing substations built by Utilities Kingston, it will support the energy needs of the new student centre.

“When we put together our plans for improvements to the infrastructure, the electrical distribution system, we always look very hard at Queen’s and find out what their plans are,” he said.

“These buildings, they all take years to plan and construct so that gives us time to prepare and adjust for the electricity that is needed.”

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