Two new McMaster University student residences are going to “turn downtown Hamilton on its ear,” says the architect involved in the projects.
“In a town that hasn’t had a lot of development in the core, this changes the game from the point of view of design quality,” says Donald Schmitt, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto, which has designed multiple university hubs, including University of Toronto’s Spadina-Sussex student residence, currently under construction.
The $100-million, 30-storey building at 10 Bay St., set to open this fall, is a purpose-built academic hub that will be home to more than 600 graduate students and their families.
The residence, which features one- and two-bedroom and studio apartments, is steps from the Art Gallery of Hamilton, City Hall and McMaster’s new David Braley Health Sciences Centre.
Amenities in the graduate residence include a fitness centre, a music room, a movie theatre, green roofs, lounge areas, communal kitchens and a rooftop playground.
A second residence for undergrads, Lincoln Alexander Hall, is scheduled to open in 2026. The developer for both projects, which will have LEED Gold Certification, is Toronto-based Knightstone Capital Management Inc.
“Running and operating student residences has not always been a core business [of Canadian universities]. There’s been an opportunity to increase the quality and quantity.”— Donald Schmitt, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects
The $150-million undergrad residence is located on Main Street, close to the city’s planned Light Rail Transit Line. Most of the building will be 10 storeys, with a 15-storey tower at the southwest corner.
It will house 1,366 beds, a fitness centre, communal kitchens on every floor, a dining hall, 43 underground car parking spots and 325 long-term bicycle-parking spots.
The McMaster expansion is part of a growing market of quality student-housing projects, modern rental buildings that offer a level of comfort and services beyond the old-style student dormitory.
Global commercial real estate firm CBRE sees so much potential in student housing, along with senior living and hotels, they’ve created a dedicated team to focus on the Canadian market.
“We think student housing is evolving into an institutional platform in Canada that has come about through the growth of international students coming to the marketplace,” says Mark Sparrow, executive vice-president of CBRE’s alternative assets group. “We anticipate that trend will continue with our federal government eyeing continued immigration.”
Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Sparrow say developers are taking a page out of the U.S. playbook by creating communities on campuses. According to McMaster research, structured residence living for first-year students leads to improved student retention into second year, higher rates of graduation and a better grade point average compared to kids who live off campus in first year.
“Those community feelings are what’s driving a lot of students to stay in their residences for more than just one year,” Mr. Sparrow says.
“Running and operating student residences has not always been a core business [of Canadian universities],” says Mr. Schmitt. “There’s been an opportunity to increase the quality and quantity.”
The new student residences at McMaster will mean space will be open to anyone who wants it, says Debbie Martin, assistant vice-president and chief facilities officer at McMaster.
The university’s current student enrolment is around 37,000, of which about 6,000 are first-years; it has 13 residences and 4,000 beds, which are at full capacity. The 500-bed Peter George Centre for Living and Learning was the most recently opened residence in 2019.
The new buildings will make the university more competitive, Ms. Martin says.
“The reality is if you’re choosing between two universities, [residence housing] can be a deciding factor,” she says.
Student needs are changing in a digital world, she adds, and the new residences give the university opportunities to create programming, such as cooking classes, that will integrate the students more into campus life.
“We want to provide options for people coming to McMaster, whether they are first- or second-year or graduate students,” Ms. Martin says.
A 2021 national survey of 18,000 students, released last fall by UTILE, a Montreal-based non-profit that specializes in building affordable student housing, showed that the median student rent for on- and off-campus accommodation in Canada was $1,250 per month, 25-per-cent higher than the rest of renter households.
UTILE estimates that more than 1.5 million students are renters, of which 1.3 million are in the private market (outside of campus). It showed that 58 per cent of McMaster students who rent off campus live in accommodations with three or more roommates.
According to the survey, seven out of 10 students spend more than 30 per cent of their total income on housing. Across Canada, most students (62 per cent) earn an annual income of $20,000 or less.
While rental fees for McMaster’s two new projects have yet to be set, a single room at one of the current residences is $8,965 (September to April) and includes access to residence facilities and wireless internet.
“Affordability is always top of mind for all of us,” says Ms. Martin, “but there’s also a financial model that we have to be conscientious of.”
Hamilton resident Michael Thomson owns several single-family homes close to the campus, which he renovated into seven-bedroom homes. In January, one of the available homes received 600 online viewings, followed by 100 groups of seven kids wanting to see it in person, all within 24 hours.
Limited housing stock continues to push kids further away from campus and push up rental prices. Much of the local student housing was lost after landlords converted their properties back to single- family homes during COVID-19, says Mr. Thomson.
That has some people wondering what the rental rates in those two new properties are going to be, he says.
“It’s desperation out there, utter desperation,” he adds. “There’s been a [student-housing] crisis here for 10 years.”