New U.B.C. theological neighbourhood is less than divine
From Friday's Globe and Mail
POSTED ON: 20/04/07
The University of British Columbia's theological colleges used to be set within a verdant park at the gateway to the campus. The colleges are still there, but now they have become almost invisible, lost within the latest of the residential neighbourhoods that have made the U.B.C. campus the Greater Vancouver Regional District's fastest-growing area. One of this city's most sublime sites has been densified, but the results fall far short of divine.
The story of how an academic theological precinct became a theological neighbourhood mainly home to residents without campus connections is one of the collision of worldly mammon with heavenly good intentions.
It all begins with special leases for college buildings granted in U.B.C.'s early years for each of the major Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches. So eager were campus officials to attract and keep theological colleges — the spiritual foundation for most older Canadian universities — they granted them leases running not the 99 years typical for other on-campus institutions, but for 999 years. Their future secure, a series of college buildings were then constructed from the 1920 through the 1950s on wide lawns backed with lush plantings, a serene, bucolic, and yes, meditative gateway to the campus along Chancellor Boulevard.
By the late 1990s, the theological colleges were facing both fading enrolments and failing buildings. With condo developments starting to rise all over campus, the college's long term leases turned out to be a hugely valuable asset, since exploited to the hilt. Under the terms of their leases, revenues generated by the sale of college properties to developers have gone not to general U.B.C. accounts, but to the colleges themselves, turning some of nation's poorer theological institutes into some of its richest. I have no problem with this windfall, but the resulting architecture and public spaces are a huge disappointment.
This is particularly apparent in the spaces and buildings around the Iona Building, the severe grey granite 1927 building for the United Church that long acted as the entranceway citadel for the entire Point Grey campus. The stern bearing and Collegiate Gothic style of this six-storey college is no match for the 14-storey Corus condo tower that now looms behind it. The tower was moved to this unfortunate location because of strenuous objections from residents in the long-established Endowment Lands neighbourhood to the north.
With a dazzling view of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains, the space in front of the Iona Building should have become the key urban plaza for the mid-rise, medium density development that now surrounds it. Instead this space is ungainly, unsightly and undefined, but the blame for this lost opportunity has to be spread around. Campus planners and on-campus developer UBC Properties Trust talked about this as the hub for the new neighbourhood, but did not stand by their convictions through design and development. Intercorp, the private sector developer of three sides of this would-be square did not load retail functions and townhouse doorways around it, which might have enlivened this public space's edges. For its own part, the United Church college insisted on retaining a dozen parking spaces located at what is, by rights, the centre of the square. Vehicles stationed there now have one of the best views in the city, but then Hondas and Chevrolets don't have eyes.
Early plans for the neighbourhood show a grand boulevard with a rivulet-fountain proceeding from Iona's tower to Chancellor Boulevard. In a somewhat questionable appeasement to residents on the other side of this key campus access road, the new duplex housing along this edge are not only the smallest in scale, but also detailed with gables and period detail to recall suburbia — the suburbs of Calgary, it seems
. [ooh, burn!
Formerly, U.B.C. visitors were greeted by vast lawns and quaint colleges; now they get a strip of Cowtown. What is worse, ungainly mock-bungalows at either side of the entrance of this road up to Iona now effectively reduce campus visitor's views of the college to milliseconds as they pass by on the main boulevard. As there are many ways this density could have been achieved without blocking views to the old building, I am obliged to ask: what profiteth it a theological college to gain a housing development, if it looseth its own presence?
The architecture and housing layouts completed to date by Intercorp and Bastion developments are the equal to or better than other recent condos on campus, but this is faint praise, as U.B.C.'s new housing design standards elsewhere are surprisingly low.
Some of the best parts of the new development are the student residences that come in at double the condo area development of 1.2 times as much building as site area. Parking for these uses the Dutch idea of "Woon Erfs," with pavers removing distinctions between roadway, sidewalk and the stoops of flanking student lodgings.
This urban design idea and the residence architecture comes from Delft-trained architect Jan Timmer, commissioned directly by the university. Mr. Timmer saw the project through an early phase, but alas, the university did not retain him when designs and development plans got more specific — and in need of independent judgment — later on. Mr. Timmer is frank in admitting that the built result does not always rise to the hopes expressed in his own 2001 planning guidelines: "a dynamic interplay between economic, social, ecological and spiritual issues in the building of a sustainable community."
This is the most physically blessed and high profile of all the redeveloped corners of the U.B.C. campus. Too bad the neighbourhood's stewards at the UBC Properties Trust and university administration did not treat it that way.