When Franco Vaccarino became principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough three years ago, he kept hearing a back-handed compliment about his new campus.
"This place," people would say, "is a hidden gem."
Shrouded by trees and invisible from the nearest major streets, UTSC is more like a covert campus. In his careful academic way, Prof. Vaccarino concedes the school needs to blow its own cover.
"I like the 'gem' part," Prof. Vaccarino said. "I'm not so sure about the 'hidden' part."
Now UTSC is on its way to becoming a much more visible treasure, thanks to an international sporting extravaganza bigger than the Winter Olympics.
The 2015 Pan Am Games and a new $170-million aquatic centre for UTSC are propelling an extreme campus makeover that could include a hotel and convention centre, a performing arts centre, a new pedestrian thoroughfare lined with restaurants and cafés, and new residences and academic buildings.
The games are also providing fresh hope that UTSC will score a light-rail link before 2015; right now the school is on an unfunded line that exists only on paper.
While some of the expansion plans were in the works before Toronto landed the games, Pan Am has turned the ideas from vague wishes to concrete possibilities - for instance, the UTSC has commissioned a business case study for a hotel and convention centre that wouldn't make sense without the national and international sporting meets that'll follow the games.
By transforming 50 hectares north of the existing campus, the expansion could do for southeast Scarborough what Ryerson is doing for Yonge Street and George Brown College is expected to do for Toronto's waterfront: Improve the neighbourhood. The spillover effect is especially important at UTSC, where the poor - and poorly served - pockets of Kingston-Galloway and Malvern are a few kilometres away.
"There's a lot of pride in the area, but there's very few opportunities to express the pride," said Andrew Arifuzzaman, UTSC's chief strategy officer. "I think the Pan Am Games facility actually puts the area on the world stage."
Furthermore, the expansion would give U of T's poor suburban sister an identity of her own, along with a leg-up on her fierce competition for the Greater Toronto Area's commuter students.
The expansion will entrench UTSC firmly in the ranks of Ontario's mid-sized universities, creating essentially another full-service post-secondary commuter school for the city.
There's little risk the school's growth will exceed demand from the largely first- and second-generation Canadian families who live in Scarborough, York and Durham Regions, from which UTSC draws 80 per cent of its students. The campus is already over capacity, squeezing in more than 10,000 students, forcing some to study in hallway cubbies at exam time.
It was the threat of overcrowding at U of T's downtown St. George campus that gave rise to UTSC in the first place.
In the late 1950s, when the University of Toronto foresaw an oncoming deluge of baby boomers, the school established suburban satellites in Mississauga and Scarborough, where the first classes were held in a local high school in 1964.
U of T hired Australian architect John Andrews - who would go on to help design the CN Tower - to sculpt a reinforced concrete mega-structure in the woods of the Highland Creek valley in southeast Scarborough.
Futuristic outside and in, Scarborough College, as it was then called, was wired for TV teaching in every classroom and its design attracted international plaudits.
"I think one can argue that maybe the two most famous Canadian buildings from the second half of the 20th century were Habitat at Expo 67 in Montreal and Scarborough College," said Larry Richards, professor emeritus of architecture at U of T and author of a book about the institution's architectural history.
Design buffs may have fawned over the building, but locals were mostly unimpressed or unaware of the college.
"For a long time, a lot of people portrayed it as the bunker on the hill," said Paul Ainslie, a Scarborough native who now represents the neighbourhood next door to the college on Toronto city council.
The school's reputation barely evolved through the latter half of the 20th century, as UTSC was considered little more than an outpost to the far brainier central campus.
Then, post-2000, enrolment exploded, largely because of Ontario's double cohort, which forced two high-school classes into a single university freshman year.
"We went from being a 5,000-student campus to an over-10,000-student campus almost overnight," said Prof. Vaccarino, a former chair of U of T's psychology department.
Fortunately for UTSC, the school owns one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the old suburb, a 50-hectare plot of parkland that borders on underused city land. Dubbed the "north campus," it is now the focus of a master plan slated to be finished this fall.
Straddling the city-university border at the northwest corner is the future home of the aquatic centre, with its planned twin Olympic-sized pools, 10-metre diving tank and state-of-the-art sports field house. UTSC students have agreed to help foot the bill by paying an escalating levy that starts in September at $40 per full-time semester.
Next to it is the proposed site of a new hotel and convention centre.
UTSC has retained hotel and tourism consultants Pannell Kerr Forster to analyze the business case, but campus officials are already bullish on bringing in a private hotel developer to put up visiting athletes, parents and academics in time for Pan Am. (The closest hotel is at Kennedy Road and Highway 401; when the Canadian Society of Zoologists held a conference at UTSC last year, members were cooped up in student residences.)
"If there's going to be significant demand induced into that area, it would make sense to build a hotel to go with [the Pan Am Aquatic Centre]" said Monique Rosszell, senior vice-president at Hotel Valuation Services, another consulting firm. She cautioned, however, that demand has been lukewarm in north Toronto recently because so much corporate convention business has migrated to Markham.
To accomplish all this, UTSC and the city will have to solve two transportation dilemmas. First, they'll have to re-route Military Trail, the winding road into the existing campus, around the new northern expansion. They plan to close existing Military Trail to vehicles, transforming it into a tree-and-café-lined pedestrian walkway.
They'll also have to persuade the Toronto Transit Commission to extend the approved and funded light-rail line for Sheppard Avenue south into the campus, instead of to the dead-end of a car yard to the northeast.
Right now, UTSC is the dreamed-of terminus of the Scarborough-Malvern Light Rail, which has no funding or target to break ground.
UTSC isn't losing faith. Some mayoral candidates, most prominently George Smitherman, have vowed to construct the Sheppard-to-UTSC connection before the games begin.
In the meantime, Prof. Vaccarino and Mr. Arifuzzaman are stoked about this first tangible evidence of the makeover: A new $78-million instructional centre slated to open in March as the first building on the new north campus.
Before long, officials might even have the guts to erect road signs announcing UTSC's existence. When a student approached Mr. Arifuzzaman with the idea last year, he gently advised against it.
"If you do that, what do you think people will think the University of Toronto Scarborough is? A bunch of parking lots. Because there's nothing there," he said. "Students want to express their pride in the area but they haven't had the venue - until now."