Construction left, right & Centre

As the Queen’s Centre gets off the ground, the Journal looks at student centres at other Canadian universities

Western’s $35 million recreation facility, financed mostly by students, opened last Monday.
Western’s $35 million recreation facility, financed mostly by students, opened last Monday.
Credit: 
Supplied Photo By Heather Travis/Western News

With Phase One of the Queen’s Centre set to open in September and the layout of Phases Two and Three still undecided, the University will be finalizing the designs for the later stages of the project in the next two months.

Construction Director Jacques Sauvé said the University will be having workshops with various groups before presenting the concrete plans for Phases Two and Three to the Board of Trustees in March.

“We’ve already set up a series of meetings with groups like the AMS, athletics and so on,” he said.

Sauvé added that some of the suggestions will be aimed at cutting costs.

He said Phase One of the project, including the new fitness centre, is still on schedule to open in September 2009.

Other Canadian universities are taking different approaches to accommodating their increasing student populations in a difficult economic climate.

Last Monday, the University of Western Ontario opened its new $35.7-million recreation facility.

Gitta Kulczycki, Western’s vice-president (resources & operations), said high student demand for a new facility helped make the project happen.

“We wanted to improve the student recreational facilities that we had, and students are interested in that,” she said. “Students are much more focused on fitness than they were when I was a university student, I would say.”

Construction on the building started in July 2006, with a plan to open in September 2008. The building contains five gyms, a 50-metre pool, space for cardio machines and a number of multi-purpose rooms.

The University pledged an initial commitment of $10 million to the project, and students held a referendum to approve funding for the rest, Kulczycki said.

“We reached a deal quite quickly. At the end of the day, [Western] contributed $11.7 million.”

Kulczycki said the project only went $700,000 over budget because of crucial decisions made regarding the inside of the building.

A series of small changes were made to the final product, such as reducing the number of squash courts from six to five.

“I’m sure there were people that felt strongly about that, but you look at it and say, ‘What can we do?’ and can everyone live with the end result,” Kulczycki said.

“You’ve got to make some really hard choices,” she said. “At the end of the day, everyone could live with it.

“There was a project-steering group with a variety of representatives. It had some student representatives, campus recreation representatives, physical plant representatives … and if you have to make those tradeoffs you take it to that group.”

She said there were a number of reasons for the four-month delay.

“At the early side of it there were some additional preparations required for the site. … Crane operators went on strike, … we had trouble with the general contractor with the boom going on in construction. Little things here and there,” she said.

In the end, the building was worth the wait, she said.

“We opened the doors at 11:30 last Monday morning and there was a huge queue outside. There’s just a buzz in the place that’s just incredible.” Western also has plans for a three-phase, $700-million construction plan involving multiple new buildings. Kulczycki said they’ve had to delay construction on a number of projects.

“We know we have to scale back on our capital projects which we did, the ones we must absolutely go forward with were related to academic imperative. We have put our physics and astronomy building renovation officially on hold. It’s important to us, but we just can’t afford it.”

The University Community Centre at Western—which houses stores, food service outlets and recreational activities—has an accompanying building under construction scheduled to open this summer. That project is currently on budget.

“What we’ll have is when students need to access the majority of the services they’re looking for, outside of academic classrooms—student development centre, health care, registrar’s office, etc.—it will all be accessible within those two buildings,” Kulczycki said.

At Wilfred Laurier’s Brantford campus, which has about 2,000 students and is growing at a rate of about 200 students every year, construction for a proposed new campus centre is currently on hold.

David Prang, Student Services director, said the centre was originally conceived in 2006 as a $6-million building. As the campus grew, the size of the project increased to $16 million and a group of stakeholders worked on design studies into 2008.

Last spring, the preliminary costs were about $4 million over-budget, Prang said. The University secured additional funding to cover the cost.

“The project was proceeding with demolition and excavation and pouring some foundations over the summer,” Prang said. This fall, however, additional costs—primarily steel and concrete issues—brought the price tag to another $4 million over-budget and the project was “essentially put on hold,” he said.

“At this point, the project is on hold but moving forward … on a different format. To simplify the building, we’ve removed the food and residence features of the building so that it will be classroom and office space, as well as our community bookstore,” he said.

Although the campus already has a student centre—which includes student services, the student government and student activity space—Prang said the new building was supposed to be a central space.

“It’s far from what it’s supposed to be,” he said, adding that the food space in the new centre was going to be owned and operated by the student union.

“Between our residence management, our students and the rest of the university, there’s a sense of disappointment that this might delay our plans for growth and won’t be the centre of campus as it was originally supposed to be.”

The building is set to open by September 2010. Prang, who was examining revised drawings for the building as he spoke to the Journal over the phone this week, said there will be continued consultation with the campus bookstore and those involved with planning the academic space. “There’s also some optimism that the current speculation around infrastructure spending by the province and the federal government may result in some additional funding that would make the original project go ahead,” he said. “But for the moment, the University’s proceeding forward with reduced building.”

Other universities are happy with their aging student centres.

The University of Alberta Student Union Building was built in 1967. The 230,000-square foot building originally housed a curling rink and bowling alley and was featured in Time magazine upon completion. It has since increased in size—with two renovations since 1967—and said goodbye to its bowling pins.

Kristen Flath, Alberta Students’ Union vice-president (student life), said there are long-term plans to build a new centre.

“We’re still facing a shortage of space right now,” she said. “The last time it was renovated was in 2002, and now we’re talking about kind of going down that road again. We started with a program to see what our space needs are. We’re on our way down that road. I don’t imagine it’s going to happen in the near future.”

Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick is accommodating the growth of its student population by renovating current facilities. Its new student centre, the Wallace McCain Student Centre, was completed through a $15-million renovation of an existing residence.

The 71,000-square foot building received $3 million in funding from the New Brunswick provincial government and $5 million from donors Wallace and Margaret McCain. It was completed on time and on budget, and opened in September.

University spokesperson Laura Dillman Ripley said the centre is the new focal point of Mount Allison’s campus life.

The building features all student essentials including the Campus Health and Wellness Centre, student media outlets, pubs, fitness facilities and entertainment locations.

“It has everything outside a classroom a student would need—all student media, wellness centre, student government. … It’s kind of a one-stop shop under one roof.”

—With files from Kerri MacDonald

Student centres by the numbers

Queen’s Centre

Square footage: 650,000

Budgeted cost: $250 million (This figure is under review. The project was more than $41 million over budget as of March 2008.)

Cost per square foot: $384.62

Mount Allison University Wallace McCain Student Centre

Square footage: 71,000

Cost: $15 million

Cost per square foot: $211.27

University of Western Ontario recreation facility

Square footage: 160,000

Cost: $35.7 million

Cost per square foot: $223.13

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