Three kilometres is a short distance, but far enough to isolate the University of Windsor from downtown.
That's about to change. With key support from the city, the university begins construction this summer on a $70-million campus downtown.
Once strangers, Canadian postsecondary institutions and local municipalities now see themselves as intimate allies in realizing their respective ambitions. In Windsor, the collaboration features a once-dominant car town struggling to redefine itself and a below-the-radar university, turning 50 this year, seeking to raise its profile.
By September, 2014, the University of Windsor expects to offer programs in three heritage buildings being renovated and expanded to serve 2,000 students and faculty.
"We recognize the downtown is where we have the home of the symphony, the art gallery and the theatres and all the social agencies," says University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman. "It lets us fulfill what is part of our strategic plan, which is to create one of the most exciting learning environments we can."
Rebuffed by previous University of Windsor administrators, the city last year found the institution receptive to expanding downtown – historically off-limits to postsecondary institutions under past zoning rules – to complement other municipal efforts to reinvigorate a careworn core.
In 2012, the city sold two landmark properties – the former Armouries and a former bus depot (and an adjacent city parkette) – to the university for $2. The city also contributed $10-million for the project, along with $25-million from the province.
"If the university was going to build a new school of arts on campus, the city was not going to play a financial role," says Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis. "As soon as the university says 'we will play a role in economic development downtown,' they got $10-million from us and the buildings for $1 each. It really is a shared opportunity."
The Armouries, which date to 1902, will house the university's newly merged schools of music, film, sonic and visual arts, with a new recital hall on one end of the 110-year-old building and a newly excavated lower level for shared teaching spaces.
Across the street, the 1939 Greyhound bus depot will be restored to reveal an art deco façade of limestone and granite currently shrouded in metal siding and stucco, with an infill of a one-storey addition behind the existing building for studio space to accommodate the university's film programs.
Behind the depot, a former city parkette is set to become a performance space for student and community use, complementing city ambitions to reconnect public spaces to a spectacular waterfront that lies 7.6 metres below street grade.
In another nod to connections, Mr. Wildeman broke from past practice with a pledge to exclude food services from the renovated buildings – an open invitation to business to invest in coffee shops and other retail activity on nearby streets.
As important as the buildings themselves is their location – across from each other on University Avenue. City and university officials envision the transformation of the wide, dreary thoroughfare into a multi-modal transportation spine (with green space) linking downtown and the main campus.
A five-minute walk from the Armouries and bus depot is the former Windsor Star building, purchased last year by the university from The Star as another project anchor. The heritage façade remains, but the 1920s-era building is being gutted and expanded for the School of Social Work and the Centre for Professional and Executive Education, chosen for the space because of their downtown-oriented programming.
"Through the 1950s and 1960s, the automobile ruled the roost and then as that industry started to deteriorate so has the city," observes Craig Goodman, principal of CS&P Architects Inc., hired to design and implement the new campus. "This is creating a huge opportunity for a refreshed view of what Windsor could be, and the university is going to play a huge part in that."
Key to revitalizing the core is foot traffic. With pioneering moves downtown by St. Clair College that began in 2007 with city support, the core eventually could attract up to 5,000 postsecondary students.
"When the university gets fully established and you have activity on the street, it will drive other activities," predicts Peter Whatmore, senior vice-president for Southwestern Ontario at CBRE Ltd., a commercial real estate services firm. "Like any downtown, it needs feet on the street and needs to feel and look safe to people who would say 'I would like to spend my money here.'"
Over the past six years, the city has made a series of investments (including the sale of dysfunctional buildings) to create new downtown destinations for arts and entrepreneurial clusters as complements to postsecondary education. Larry Horwitz, chairman of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, hopes the cumulative investments can restore balance to the core. "It is finally happening where I think we are turning the corner."
The expected pedestrian activity contrasts to limited foot traffic from the Windsor Casino which, by design, attracts patrons indoors. "The [postsecondary] facilities will create foot traffic the casino does not," observes Thom Hunt, executive director of planning for Windsor.
Still, some wonder whether an influx of students will be enough to redefine Windsor, whose auto-manufacturing employment was sliced in half to about 13,300 jobs in 2011 from a decade earlier, according to the Canadian Auto Workers.
Italo Ferrari, president and owner of Wilsondale Assets Management, which controls more than half a million square feet downtown, says economic spinoff from students is "an optical illusion," because they lack disposable income to patronize specialty shops downtown.
But others see the downtown campus as a timely effort to repair a frayed urban fabric. What's happening in Windsor, says CS&P's Mr. Goodman, "is a wonderful merging of public and private sectors and that is what cities are all about."
Other Windsor projects
In addition to the University of Windsor's downtown campus, other projects are reshaping downtown Windsor. They are:
– A $78-million city-owned aquatic centre, under construction.
– A city-envisioned arts cluster, with the city-purchased Art Gallery of Windsor as a centrepiece.
– New headquarters for the Windsor Star in a former cinema, refurbished for $5-million by Mady Development Corp.
– Establishment of a federal government-backed "accelerator centre" for incubating business startups.
– A move by the local branch of Investors Group, with 80 employees, into a long-vacant office tower overlooking the Detroit River.
– City sale of the former Capitol Theatre to the Windsor Symphony, providing $1.8-million for renovation.
– City sale of its former convention centre to St. Clair College for a centre for the arts.
– St. Clair College redevelopment of a former Salvation Army building for journalism and media production programs.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the new downtown campus will be near the Ambassador Bridge. In fact, the current campus is near the Ambassador Bridge.