New day dawning downtown?

The University of Western Ontario has been given the green light to start preparing a comprehensive business plan for the use of City Hall and other areas of the Civic Campus, following a motion approved Tuesday night during a special meeting of the London city council.

Council has agreed to enter into discussions with Western regarding the university’s interests in downtown. Western must submit a business plan by March 2012, which would include details as to the potential use of the Civic Campus – City Hall, Centennial Hall and the associated parking facility.

CHAKMA

CHAKMA

 There is currently a long-term lease agreement on Centennial House. So, while it will be part of the discussion, the timeframe for when it would be available would be different.

But before Western can move downtown, City Hall must be relocated.

The city is also asking for details on what investment requirements Western is expecting in the current facilities, as well as information about funding partners including other levels of government. The city wants Western to outline the benefits to the community as a result of this endeavor, an implementation strategy and timeline for completion.

“I am very pleased to hear that the mayor and council have confirmed their interest in bringing Western to City Hall,” says Western president Amit Chakma. “We look forward to discussing how Western will be able to play a considerable role in creating a more vibrant and prosperous London through an expanded presence in downtown. This is a tremendous opportunity to partner with the City of London to fulfill the future potential for this important location.”

This puts in motion a plan to create a presence for Western in the downtown.

“The concept is Western should have a presence in this city,” Chakma says, noting the only way the university is entertaining the idea is if a building donation is on the table.

FONTANA

FONTANA

“If the proposition from the city is we have to buy that building for $30 million or $40 million, the conversation ends immediately,” Chakma says. “Not because I don’t think it is worth investing that sort of money. No, the business plan simply does not work. How do I know? I’ve done these sorts of things many times before.

“We need to have the land and the building free of charge. We need some support for renovation, then actually the business plan works.”

None of this is off the table as far as London Mayor Joe Fontana is concerned.

Part of the discussions will include the possibility of donating the Civic Campus to Western.

“We are talking about the whole City Hall lands, which includes the City Hall, Centennial House and Centennial Hall as a campus,” Fontana says. “Therefore, part of the negotiations and discussions will be what the city is prepared to donate and give to Western. But we want to work with them on their business plans to see the timing, (and) the financial implications as we do on a going-forward basis.

“But that’s an important first step that we’ve taken to welcome the proposal and the opportunity to work with Western on them bringing their campus here.”

Fontana speaks about a significant contribution to Western in much in the same way as he did with Fanshawe College. In May, London City Council agreed to provide $20 million in funding for a new downtown campus for Fanshawe.

“The hard work begins in terms of talking about timing, about financial considerations. It also means a lot of financial considerations for the City of London because we have to move,” the mayor says. “It’s got to be a win-win for everyone and it is because Western coming here is a big win for the City of London and downtown.

“This is part of a greater vision for London.”

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Currently, Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president academic, is consulting with Western’s faculty deans to discuss their interests in expansion downtown.

The university is interested in creating a ‘Western Centre’ focusing on graduate education, professional programs, continuing education and service-learning activities.

At present, Continuing Studies at Western, located in the Citi Plaza (formerly Galleria London), is the university’s only presence downtown.

Chakma says the downtown presence will serve as a ‘Gateway to Western.’ As the buildings are located along a main transportation route through the city, there is an opportunity to use the facility as a hub for research activities involving the community. For example, public policy and municipal government research would be a natural fit, he says.

“It is not the building that is of interest, per se, as useful as it is. It is really the location of the site,” he says.

Undergraduate programs will remain on the main campus, Chakma assures, as will graduate programs with strong ties to campus, such as those requiring lab space and regular use of campus resources.

The transfer of the property of City Hall and Centennial Hall from the City of London to Western would likely occur over a five-year time period and is dependent on numerous factors, such as Western preparing its academic plans and the City Hall finding a new location.

The Centennial House apartments would be acquired at a much later date, as the city is subject to lease terms with the current tenants.

“Western’s interest in coming downtown in a significant way is not only positive and constructive for the university’s growth and future, but obviously very much impacts our growth and future,” Fontana says.

Moving Western downtown would produce significant economic value for the city, he says.

“As the mayor, I want to make London the education capital, the centre, of Canada and I think there is no doubt with Fanshawe (College) coming and Western wanting to come downtown … we think this is an incredible opportunity for both institutions.”

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But a move to City Hall doesn’t come without its costs.

The 40-year-old building requires much-needed renovations. A Jan. 27 report to council discussing renovation plans proposed for City Hall (for its current needs) estimates the cost at $25 million. That number includes the removal of asbestos and accommodating accessibility requirements.

Fontana promises to provide Western “with a clean bill of health, so to speak, on the building as part of the arrangements,” meaning the asbestos removal will be completed.

“By being opportunistic, we are trying to marry what this opportunity presents with our strategic goals,” Chakma says. “We are not going to do something that cannot be supported and we need to have a solid business plan.”

The estimated cost of renovating the 170,000 square feet of space at City Hall for Western’s purposes is unknown. Much depends on which programs are relocated. The university also wants to ensure it is inheriting “clean and usable space,” meaning the asbestos is removed and the building is not stripped to its shell.

“Once we know what we want to do, we can estimate what those costs are going to be,” Chakma says. “The next stage, I would imagine that we would be seeking other sources of funding. … Clearly, we have to find more resources to adapt the building to our needs. It may so happen we may have to put in some of our own money, as is the case with most of the projects.”

With London Central Secondary School neighbouring City Hall, the university sees potential in partnering with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) to offer transitional programs for international students. At the council meeting Tuesday, it was revealed TVDSB has expressed interest in the downtown education campus concept. King’s University College is also interested in a downtown campus.

“I think, in return, what the city is going to get in the long term will be worth significantly more than it is worth now,” Chakma says, citing the development of the Advanced Manufacturing Park as an example of adding value and kick-starting development of municipal-owned property.

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Top universities, such as Harvard, have experienced significant growth in professional programs, continuing studies and certificate programs, Chakma says. Likewise, Western needs to meet this growing demand for such programs.

“My prediction is we will continue to grow, not necessarily in the traditional areas,” he says. “It is prudent to be careful, but it is not wise to be hunkered down within the 400 acres of Western.”

Centennial Hall is also being considered as part of the package, but Chakma says “it is not in good shape for high-level performances.”

He continues, “At some point in the time, the city and the university will need to bring our thoughts together to deal with the performance theatre. I think that is the next step. It is not just us – it’s not just the university and the city – there are other stakeholders. … Centennial Hall may not be the right location for that.”

A performing arts facility has been on Western’s Long-Range Space Plan for several years, championed by former Don Wright Faculty of Music dean Robert Wood and former provost and vice-president academic Fred Longstaffe. However, in the 2011-12 operating and capital budget, it remained item No. 27 of 29 under the category for future consideration.

“The performance hall is No. 26 not because it is not as important as the other items above it on that list,” Chakma says, noting should funding become available for the performing arts facility, it would move up the list. “We need to be strategic and we also need to be opportunistic, and finally, of course, we also have to be realistic.”

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