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Architect's rendering of Knightstone U of T residence.Diamond Schmitt Architects

A deal to build a privately run student residence on College Street has ruptured the University of Toronto's relationship with some of its most passionate neighbours.

Private developer Knightstone Capital Management plans to build a 24-storey tower to house 759 students just off the U of T campus, giving the university access to residence spaces it says it badly needs but cannot afford on its own. The university owns part of the land, which it leased to Knightstone.

But when representatives of seven residents associations tried to discuss ways to alter the plan, U of T officials stayed mum, citing a confidentiality agreement inked with Knightstone. Their silence has raised questions over what information public universities owe the broader community, and how much control they should forfeit in their increasing willingness to court private partners.

"The process stinks, and the building stinks, and they're not going to say a word about it, so we're going to war. … Co-operation is over," said Rory (Gus) Sinclair, a board member for the Harbord Village Residents' Association. "We've got a history and a culture of co-operation [with U of T] and that is being dumped over this one project."

The building itself (south of College Street, between Spadina and Huron Avenues) was enough to draw the ire of nearby residents. They felt it was too tall for the neighbourhood (especially the original plans for 42 storeys), and already being used as a justification for taller towers proposed nearby. And they worried that inviting nearly 800 students not governed by U of T rules would destabilize the area.

The same associations have objected to aspects of several other projects in recent years, and found common ground through discussions. That has allowed their relationship with U of T to grow steadily more collegial. It has been the school's refusal – or inability – to discuss the details or desirability of this deal that has scuttled that goodwill, and left relations with the city bruised as well.

"I don't know how to talk to them any more," said Councillor Adam Vaughan, who fields numerous development applications from U of T. On March 30, Mr. Vaughan wrote a letter to U of T president David Naylor requesting a meeting on the matter "as soon as possible," but received no reply.

"All of a sudden they're saying, 'We can't talk to you about applications we have in front of the city.' Okay, if you can't talk to me, then I can't talk to you," he said. "I feel like a curtain's been drawn. Until they draw that curtain back, I don't understand how or why I can be pro-active on helping them move forward on files."

A spokesman for U of T said in an e-mail, "the University is sensitive to those concerns," but "the developer has made significant changes to the proposed project" to address them. He also said U of T "supports the project as a way to help meet some of that need" for student housing in the area.

What is clear is that Knightstone has leased U of T's portion of the land for 99 years, and will pay the university $350,000 annually in return. The university will not be responsible for the residence, but will promote it through its website and have seats on the building's advisory committee.

Knightstone president and CEO David Lehberg said the rest of the 150-plus-page agreement, which remains secret, contains nothing sinister.

"That document is a recipe for how you create that private-public partnership working jointly, creatively with the university. If we'd released this agreement out of the gate, we felt we were giving [our competitors]a head start," he said.

Neighbourhood residents have charged the building will be a "rooming house" – lacking the full kitchen amenities of apartments, the rules of university-run residences and the legal right to reject tenants who aren't students.

But Mr. Lehberg counters it will only accept registered students from U of T, and perhaps other nearby schools such as Ryerson University, and will likely have an even stricter code of conduct than U of T's, as well as a graduate student "don" for every 20 students.

"This is not going to be some privately run wild circus," he said.

Some Canadian universities are following their European and U.S. counterparts who have enlisted private developers to build and manage student accommodations they can't afford. But a new Ryerson plan to have a private firm, MPI Group, build and maintain its latest residence differs in that Ryerson will manage and staff it.

The application to rezone the College Street site will go before the Ontario Municipal Board in August. Meanwhile, the residents' associations are gathering signatures on a petition and open letter to U of T. But there still remains hope for some détente.

"It's controversial … but I don't think anybody's trying to hide out on the community," said lead architect Donald Schmitt, of Diamond Schmitt Architects. "I think resolving those apparently competing objectives is possible, and we're keen to do it."