How to build a legacy

“The places we’ve built have affected people beyond Ryerson,” said Sheldon Levy to the audience attending his Nov. 7 keynote address for “Who Builds the City?” at Glenn Gould Studio, a Ryerson symposium exploring architecture’s role in the development of Toronto. “Everything that we do, we think about the impact it will ultimately have on the city.”

Ryerson University was a different place when Levy first took over as president in 2005 – the Image Arts Centre was still housed in the former O’Keefe Brewery building, the Mattamy Athletic Centre did not yet exist, the Quad was not being maintained and Gould Street was still open to vehicular traffic.

“When we decided to close the road, and they started putting out tables and chairs for coffee, the university changed 100 per cent,” said Levy, who will step down in the spring of 2015.

Almost a decade later, he has solidified Ryerson’s reputation as a major downtown presence and the school’s role as a “city builder.” Levy will leave behind a legacy built on innovation – in 2013, Toronto Life named him one of the 50 most influential people in the city. But before he finishes his final term, he has launched the planning and construction of three more developments.

The most high profile of these is the Student Learning Centre. Currently under construction on the remnants of Sam the Record Man and five other properties, it will open this January and is already notable for its glass exterior. First begun in 2012 with a budget of $112 million, the Student Learning Centre will feature various student areas, a bridge to the library building and retail space on the ground and lower level floors.

The two remaining major developments are a residence building on Jarvis Street and a health sciences building on Church Street – the former is still in the planning phase, but is expected to boast 30 storeys, 191 units and street level retail spaces, while the latter, which will open in 2018, will also work as a multi-purpose building with a sleek, white exterior.

Levy has been credited for spearheading Ryerson’s increasing emphasis on expansion and integration with the rest of the city. The school’s development strategy, dubbed the “master plan” and created in 2008, is based on three guiding principles – urban intensification, a people first mentality and commitment to design excellence.

“I fundamentally believe that great architecture creates great public places. I am totally against buildings that are personal places as a priority,” said Levy to the audience. “This way of thinking is uncommon for a university, but we’ve proven it right.”

His time as president, however, has also been marked by criticism and controversy. During his keynote address, for instance, he described the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre as a “beautiful failure” for ignoring the master plan’s “people first” principle – unlike the Ted Rogers School of Management building, the ground floor of the engineering building is not open to the city. And Ryerson’s decision to purchase and tear down Sam the Record Man – famous for its signage and cultural heritage – was a source of contention for many Torontonians.

“The whole street is changing, which means the economy is going to change too. There are people out there saying that I’m changing the city, booting people out and affecting affordability. I understand that, but from my perspective, the university has become a safer place, and Toronto has become a safer place as well,” said Levy.

Levy’s decision-making has helped transform Ryerson into the third largest university in the province by population, and one of the most popular – approximately 70,000 students compete for the 7,000 available first year positions. In October, Maclean’s released their annual university rankings, in which Ryerson University was placed eighth.

At the end of his address, Levy, who was recently appointed to newly elected mayor John Tory’s advisory council and also serves on the board of Waterfront Toronto, attributed Ryerson’s recent architectural success with its decision to combine production with innovation.

“Everyone else is focused on either production or innovation,” said Levy. “We aren’t. That’s why 70,000 students want to come to our university. That’s why we’re creating these buildings. That’s why we care for the city. Because we didn’t do it all on the production side, we did it on the innovation side too.”


[P]hoto: Robert Liwanag