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The final proposal for the new U of T residence includes a plan to preserve most of the heritage building, which currently houses a second-hand bookstore and a few tenants on the upper floors, as part of the overall structure.Diamond Schmitt Architects

The University of Toronto has received approval for the construction of a new residence building on the city’s bustling Spadina Avenue after a lengthy consultation process with the local community.

The 23-storey building, proposed for 698 Spadina Ave., is the first student residence U of T will build in almost two decades, according to the university’s vice-president of operations, Scott Mabury. “We have a large demand from students wishing to live in a University of Toronto residence. … We’re a little past due in this regard," Mr. Mabury said.

The residence has been approved by the city and local groups, and is pending a final hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board in September. It is slated to house 511 beds for students, with a 60-per-cent capacity for first-year students and a 40-per-cent capacity for upper years, as well as housing for faculty in adjacent townhouses. It will begin construction in the next year with a completion date of 2021.

Enrolment at U of T has been growing steadily in the past decade, which is prompting the university to expand its on-campus housing capacity. The university’s St. George campus has a population of more than 60,000 with only 6,000 units available to house students in residence. The goal, Mr. Mabury said, is to boost the number by an additional 2,300 by the year 2020. In addition to the Spadina Avenue residence, there are plans to expand a graduate-student housing unit on Harbord Street by 200 beds. The university’s Scarborough campus is also in the process of finding a contractor for a proposed 850-bed residence building.

Anne Boucher, the president of U of T’s undergraduate student union, said in an e-mail the value of a new residence on Spadina Avenue "cannot be overstated,” given the shortage of on-campus housing.

The Spadina Avenue property was purchased by the university in 2010 and consultations for the building began in 2013, Mr. Mabury said. Neighbourhood residents were active in the process through the Harbord Village Residents' Association.

Susan Dexter, a member of the Harbord association who acts as the U of T liaison, said the community was particularly concerned with building maintenance and the addition of green space in the area, as well as preserving the heritage character of buildings. She said consultations with the university ensured the community’s voice was heard. “They’re a very big neighbour,” Ms. Dexter said of the university. “They’re the elephant and we’re the mouse."

This is not the first time U of T has built in the Spadina Avenue area, according to resident Nick Provart. In the late 1960s, the university demolished 32 houses to create recreation facilities on Robert Street, including a beach volleyball court and a skating rink, both of which are now in “derelict” shape, Ms. Dexter said. The final plan for the residence includes transforming part of these facilities into a community park, an idea that has been well-received as there is “a shortage of green space,” in the area, Ms. Dexter said.

Still, the 1960s development saw the demolition of homes built in the late 1800s “in opposition to the community at that time,” according to Mr. Provart, who lives beside the proposed residence building. This has prompted him to actively defend a heritage building on the corner of Spadina and Sussex Avenues by starting an online petition, which gathered 147 signatures. “I think some people hoped to block the residence altogether by appealing to ‘history,’” Mr. Provart said in an e-mail. “But I think some genuinely want to preserve what little of Toronto history is around.”

The final proposal includes a plan to preserve most of the heritage building as part of the overall structure. The current building houses a second-hand bookstore, Ten Editions, and a few tenants on the upper floors, Ms. Dexter said. The bookstore will not be part of the final building and is set to close. Displaced tenants will be offered assistance from the university to find interim housing and will be placed back in the neighbourhood once construction is completed, according to the project’s terms of settlement.

Ultimately, Ms. Dexter maintains “the settlement that was reached was significant for the neighbourhood." She added that given the consultation process, she hopes this development signifies a “game-changer” in the way the university interacts with the community if it pursues more developments in the area.

“I hope they understand us a bit better,” she said.

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