Emily Carr University’s Big Move

September 3, 2013

Broom closet. Total broom closet." This from a friend who's just completed a degree at Emily Carr University-he was an installation sculptor, so his need for elbow room may have been greater than most. His complaint about the cramped space, though, is pretty common among students at the 33-year-old Granville Island campus-which was, itself, designed to replace the cramped Vancouver School of Art on Dunsmuir Street. Michael Clifford, vice-president of finance and administration, is in full agreement. "We've outgrown our capacity on Granville Island," he tells me. "It's not effective, and it's not efficient. We're renting two additional buildings, but that's really just been a Band-Aid solution."

We're sitting in a space at what's meant to be a more enduring fix, on Great Northern Way. From 1964, this was home to industrial distributor Finning International, but in 2001 the company donated the 19-acre plot to four academic institutions: UBC, SFU, BCIT, and Emily Carr, which make up the GNWC Trust. Emily Carr is the only one moving its campus here. The rest share the site's first complex, the sharply designed Centre for Digital Media, where master's students now graduate with credentials from all four schools. The city and province are conspiring to do much more, though: this is meant to be a mecca for the creative industry.

Clifford and the two other VPs I'm sitting with-Jennifer DeDominicis (enrollment and student services) and Cindy Brooke (new campus project)-are part of the team bringing Emily Carr to the neighbourhood. Their slice of Great Northern Way is a 3.4-acre plot just west of the digital media centre. One day soon this midsection will be the site of a new Emily Carr University-serviced, it's imagined, by a SkyTrain station on a forthcoming line, perhaps running from Clark Drive to UBC.

If all goes according to plan, construction of the building will start in a year and students will file onto their new campus for the start of classes in September 2016. What that campus might look like, though, is anyone's guess. I try to pull details out of the VP trio but am told only that the building will "reflect the university's values," which, coming from an art school, might mean anything. The vagueness, though, is not deception: they don't know what it's going to look like. Continue reading…

As of this writing, three teams eager to design, finance, and run the campus have been shortlisted. Developers like Bouygues Building Canada have partnered with equity outfits like InfraRed Capital Partners and architects like Bing Thom (the other two architecture practices are Toronto's Diamond and Schmitt, and Zeidler Partnership) to form dense, full-service groups capable of handling everything "that we're not experts at," explains Brooke. This means whichever team is chosen will be designing, building, and running of the buildings for many years after completion. This P3 arrangement brings the bulk of the cash, too-$113 million. The university hopes a remaining $21 million will come from a capital campaign that includes an Indiegogo video (the Canadian equivalent of a Kickstarter video) and a promise from real estate marketer / art collector Bob Rennie to match alumni donations.

Those funds won't, however, be building a substantially bigger institution. The new campus will accommodate 1,800 full-time students, the same number the university has now, and at 26,600 square metres, it won't be substantially larger than the current 19,527 square metres when satellites are included. (Granted, a single purpose-built campus will have far greater space efficiency.)

The rationale for the move may be as much about geography as anything. Great Northern Way is fast being cast as the city's creative heart (a "cultural precinct," in university president Ron Burnett's words). At least 15 galleries make up a new art district self-titled The Flats, and animation studios like Nerd Corps are a few minutes away. The gleaming Centre for Digital Media, now surrounded by 14 acres of dusty soon-to-be-something space, even has a touch of Silicon Valley's "happy workplace" about it, with video game consoles set up for students in the foyer.

So what might the first neighbours look like, come 2016? Emily Carr's VPs know they want an Aboriginal Gathering Space (the old campus has one), and they know they want a Learning Commons that pushes the idea of what a library looks like and how it functions; they know, too, that they want a Concourse Curatorial Space, a hearty area where student work is displayed and the public can be welcomed. But the actual design remains very much up in the air; with so many players at the table, and current proposals sealed by the P3 competition process, the VPs have a hard time offering anything conclusive. Clifford pipes up, though, saying, "It'll have to be iconic." But then he looks to his colleagues and retracts his words. Brooke tries again: "I'd say flexibility is one of our core values."

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