Université de Montréal quietly scales down vast project to build new campus in Outremont

Federal and provincial officials announced Thursday an investment of $60  million toward completion of a Université de Montréal project in the  former Outremont rail yards (foreground). The money is to be spent on  infrastructure work for the joint project, which has the backing of the  city of Montreal. Federal and provincial officials announced Thursday an investment of $60 million towards completion of a UniversitÈ de MontrÈal project in the  former Outremont rail yards (foreground). The money is to be spent on  infrastructure work for the joint project, which has the backing of the  city of Montreal. (Photos courtesy of University of Montreal)

MONTREAL — Faced with budgetary constraints, the Université de Montréal is  raising doubts over its long-term plan to create a sprawling new city  campus once expected to accommodate up to a quarter of the university’s  population.

Université de Montréal’s Outremont Campus — initially envisaged with a student residence, in addition to 20 departments and 10,000 people by  2030 — now only has the go-ahead for two pavillions with new classrooms, a library, and its chemistry, physics, geography and natural science  departments.

If only this first — of the original plan’s three phases — is  completed, the Université de Montréal would be left as owner of nearly  646,000 square feet of empty institutional land on the former rail yards it acquired from Canadian Pacific Railway for $18 million in 2006,  university figures show.

“We are not abandoning it (the long-term plan),” university  spokesperson Mathieu Filion told The Gazette. “But for the moment what  we want to concentrate on doing is this part of the project, which are  these two pavillions that we urgently need. And after that we will do  another analysis.

“If we see that our budget allows it we will construct the student residence, but that’s not the priority of our budget.”

The now uncertain state of the Université de Montréal’s “one campus,  two sites” project  came under scrutiny this week by a small group of  the university’s own professors. They questioned the necessity of a new  campus with one million square feet of developable institutional land,  when the university’s own figures show it needs only 430,000 square feet of new space for a relatively stable student population of 45,000.

Their comments follow instances of Quebec universities coming under  fire for what critics call the diversion of badly needed funds from  academics to large-scale real estate projects, or on severance packages  for departing administrators. The case of the Université du Québec à  Montréal’s failed Îlot Voyageur development project — a likely topic at  the Parti Québécois’s planned sommet on higher education next year — has already led to increased scrutiny over the role of universities as  developers.

Filion said the Université de Montréal’s space needs and development  plans were evaluated by the university’s real estate committee, which is composed of administrators and members of the private sector, including an executives from the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and the Société du  Vieux-Port de Montréal. He said the university is being fiscally  responsible in choosing to spend $350 million to expand this new site  located 1.5 kilometres away from the main campus, instead of trying to  renovate its aging buildings to meet the standards of modern  laboratories.

The new campus would allow the Université de Montréal to give up  spaces that it now leases, although Filion declined to tell a reporter  how much the university would save in rents.

The two pavillions are to be built on 333,000 square feet of land as  part of a $1.6-billion project on the 2-million-square-foot former rail  site that would also include a separate new residential neighbourhood  with city parks, roads and 1,300 homes to be constructed by a private  builder.

“The cost of the renovations, and even trying to do this in a  historic building that dates from the 1930s would be very complicated,” Filion said.

Real estate sources say Université de Montréal administrators are  scaling back their plans because they recognize they can no longer have a “Cadillac campus” within the province’s current budgetary limitations.

In fact, the Outremont campus was not the university’s initial choice for its expansion plans. In 2002, Université de Montréal administrators refused an offer to buy 1420 Mount Royal Blvd., the former mother house of a religious order, real estate sources told The Gazette.

But after the religious order turned to the private sector, the  university changed its mind and decided it needed the space. It agreed  to buy the building for $15 million — the highest bid made by a private  developer.

In 2006, after acquiring the Outremont site, the university decided  to sell the mother house for $28 million to developer Frank Catania and  Ass. because studies showed the cost of renovating the building had  soared.

“We had a lack of space, so we bought this building,” Filion said. “Then we sold it three years later because we realized the renovation  costs were becoming too high.”

Filion said the university is now committed to the Outremont site and won’t tolerate cost overruns.

“We have a $350-million envelope that cannot be exceeded,” he said. “If we surpass the amount, then we will reduce the scale of the  project.”

alampert@montrealgazette.com

Source:The Montreal Gazette

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