Company town: how campus became commercial

The current spat between the AMS and the university administration over holding the year-end Block Party concert at Thunderbird Stadium is, in a word, weird. 

UBC Athletics had agreed in principle to let the AMS host the concert at the stadium this year. On a campus with limited open space, it is the largest event venue and, for almost 20 years, the stadium was home to the Arts County Fair with an attendance that dwarfed Block Party.

To add another layer to the odd case of a university barring a concert from the campus stadium, AMS President Aaron Bailey told The Ubyssey that Campus and Community Planning as well as UBC Properties Trust were influential in convincing the administration to prevent Block Party, despite neither having jurisdiction over the venue. 

But as with so much at UBC today, the answer to all the weirdness lies in money.

[''] Photo courtesy IMANT

If you look at a chart of UBC’s endowment fund growth, the pattern is striking. From around $100 million through the 1980s, the fund begins climbing at a steep rate starting in the early 1990s and today hovers around $1.2 billion. This growth is largely a result of commercial housing development undertaken by UBC Properties Trust (UBCPT), a private entity entirely owned by the university and responsible for maximizing campus real estate assets. While the lucrative nature of their work is hard to argue with, commercial real estate motives inevitably run up against student interests — as was the case with the Block Party tussle.

Toward the end of the summer, Bailey was visited by an account manager with UBCPT. This was the beginning of the university’s decision to reject Thunderbird Stadium as a venue. At a separate meeting, Bailey was informed that Thunderbird was located in South Campus, home to many private residents and where UBCPT has plans to construct more luxury housing.

When university campuses are located in existing communities — usually urban centers or rural towns — clashes like the one between the property developers and students on this campus are unavoidable.

Blessed with a bucolic block of land set apart from Vancouver by parkland and low-density residential housing, UBC has long had the advantage of being adjacent to a major urban centre without needing to worry about rowdy college students or self-absorbed faculty clashing with city dwellers.

Then they decided to bring the town to them.

Building a univerCity

[''] Photo courtesy UBC Archives.

Perhaps, it all began as an accident. A prominent local real estate investor found himself thrust into a vanity appointment on UBC’s Board of Governors and decided to do what he knows best: build. 

“A member recently appointed to the UBC Board of Governors cannot figure out why he is there,” The Ubyssey reported on September 14, 1984. At the time, appointee Robert “Bob” Lee was the president of Vancouver’s Prospero Realty — and it was true that he didn’t quite seem to know how he ended up on the body tasked with running British Columbia’s largest university.

“I don’t know why I was chosen,” Lee told this newspaper at the time.

Four years later, he had convinced BoG to create UBC Real Estate Corporation to manage 28 acres of campus land designated for private housing. Nearly 30 years later, thanks to Lee, our campus is home to over 8,000 private residents. This includes many townies unaffiliated with the university or its academic mission, but able to afford the ritzy condos and single-family homes offered for sale. UBC hopes to see the number of private residents grow to 24,000 over the next 25 years, according to the Land Use Plan.

In a 2000 memorandum of understanding with Metro Vancouver, UBC declared its intentions to develop a land use model “that substantially replicates ... municipalities in British Columbia.” The university, in other words, wants to be a city. It has said as much in the Metro Vancouver memo and elsewhere, expressing its desire for a “distinctive ‘college town’ community.”

Away from student-led development

[''] File photo / The Ubyssey

Through the 1960s, campus was not luxurious. When enrollment tripled to 9,000 students following World War II, the university repurposed army barracks on campus to serve as student residences.

President Norman MacKenzie encouraged the growing enrollment, seeing UBC as fulfilling an important role in educating the masses rather than serving as an elite research institution.

It was student pressure that led to a 1968 campus plan emphasizing “a garden-like environment and preservation of landscape, and limit on southward expansion,” according to a 2009 study of campus by a team of urban planners and researchers.

But the neoliberal shift in Canadian government during the 1980s encouraged public-private partnerships and reduced subsidies for higher education and other public services. That new attitude coupled with a provincial budget crisis in the mid-1980s led to the university hiking domestic tuition around 50 per cent over three years and differentiating international student tuition such that foreign students started paying 2.5 times more than their domestic counterparts.

UBC was also led down the road of corporate partnerships and private development that would both propel the university into the upper echelons of the world’s major research institutions and rob students’ of their voice on campus.

With limited government funds for post-secondary education and ambitions to be “positioned among the elite of the world’s ... universities,” UBC set out to raise private funds and transform its core mission — part of that would mean turning UBC into a real estate developer.

A sign of the university’s changing mission came in 1984 when they hired their first vice president for development and community relations. David McMillan came to Point Grey from the Canadian Direct Marketing Association — which in the 1980s looked like junk mail and telemarketing — with a swagger embodying the decade of greed. 

A Ubyssey article noted a poster in his office seeking “funding support and public recognition” from “big money boys.”

“I only like being associated with success,” McMillan said.

With limited government funds for post-secondary education and ambitions to be “positioned among the elite of the world’s ... universities,” UBC set out to raise private funds and transform its core mission — part of that would mean turning UBC into a real estate developer.

“A few influential politicians leaned on UBC to emphasize its role as an elite institution in contrast to the ethic of broad, democratic access espoused by many in the student movement,” explained the 2009 report, entitled “What Do We Value?” 

The big money boys and influential politicians had found their man in David Strangway, who came into the presidency in 1985 and would transform UBC during his twelve-year term.

“Universities are a major source of free enquiry, providing the ideas that can later be exploited by free enterprise,” Strangway said in 1986, outlining his vision of higher education.

The commercial campus

[''] Photo courtesy UBC Archives

It was as part of this new orientation toward a university existing in the free market that UBC Real Estate Corporation came to be.

The first development undertaken by the corporation in 1988 was Hampton Place, a development intended for non-students and non-faculty members. 

While the initial plans called for the profits to be put toward student housing, by the time Hampton Place was finished, nearly $90 million profit simply contributed to UBC’s growing endowment.

Various student leaders found this galling given that, during the late 1980s, UBC students were facing a housing crisis and did not understand UBC’s expansion into condos.

“It was highly controversial, [Metro Vancouver] was appalled that this was happening without oversight,” Poettcker, the Properties Trust co-founder, said in a UBC Archives video.

Meanwhile, the AMS was seriously considering requesting permission to build their own student residences to alleviate the shortage of housing for members of the university community on campus.

Protests against Hampton Place were loud and a suspected arson destroyed a model of the site being used to promote the development.

“The Alma Mater Society is united in being against the development,” AMS Director of External Affairs Vanessa Geary told The Ubyssey in 1988.

Mark Betteridge, who led UBCPT at the time, belittled calls from local residents who were asking for both affordable housing and opposing the decision to clearcut a forest to build luxury housing.

“Well, if you’re going to build housing, you can’t have trees,” Betteridge told this newspaper in 1989. He suggested students should stop demanding more residences on campus and simply share private housing.

"The Alma Mater Society is united in being against the development."

— 1988-1989 AMS Director of External Affairs Vanessa Geary on Hampton Place

Student opposition to private development on campus persisted even as the the private housing fueled UBC’s transformation into an elite institution. But given its status as a private entity run by a team of real estate developers, UBC Properties Trust has been able to move ahead despite community protest.

Poettcker explained the role UBCPT played accelerating campus development.

“In a university setting ... it’s just very consensual,” he told UBC Archives, explaining that this just was not acceptable when it came to building projects. “You can’t wait until you get everybody on side — if something is being built, answers need to be made immediately.”

The disconnect between Poettcker and others leading campus development from the students is apparent in comments made over the past 30 years. In response to demands from Metro Vancouver, UBC developed a land use plan in 2000. The plan outlined commercial and private housing developments and raised hackles from many in the community. 

However, Poettcker noted during a community consultation, “If we don’t reach a critical mass here, we’ll never attract the kind of services that will make people stay on campus 16 to 18 hours a day.” It is unclear when people staying on campus 18 hours a day became one of UBC’s goals.

In 2003, when UBC proposed building three 18-story residential towers with retail space along University Boulevard — where Shoppers and Mahoney’s now are — Chair of the Development Committee Harold Kalke suggested students’ parents could buy condos for them.

'Company town'

[''] Photo courtesy UBC Archives

Campus and Community Planning is the UBC department that oversees development on campus — serving as a kind of City Hall for approving building and event permits as well as ensuring a 2010 Land Use Plan is properly implemented.

While CC+P goes through rigorous consulting processes on proposed developments, they are ultimately an undemocratic body and answer to the largely unelected Board of Governors which has a mandate to oversee the university’s financial health.

“It’s quite an amazing story if you look at it broadly,” Michael White, leader of CC+P, said of the transformation of campus into a small city. “Something we always remind people [is] that, as an academic instruction and as a quasi-municipality, place is a big factor in our success.”

White said the goal was not just to grow the endowment, but also to build a sustainable community on campus that will cut down on commuting times and encourage people to both live and work on campus. The Land Use plan calls for half of all households in private housing to have at least one member affiliated with the university. CC+P also wants to ensure 25 per cent of the student body can live on campus.

By all indications, White and his colleagues at UBC’s planning department want to build a model community on campus. But with development being the primary source of growth for the university’s endowment and that they are not democratically accountable to the student community, the student body is marginalized. 

Moreover, while Campus and Community Planning is theoretically the sole arbiter of development at the university, UBC Properties Trust holds outsize influence for its supposed role as a private entity distinct from the university. 

“There is a very important separation of roles on this campus,” University Counsel Hubert Lai said, emphasizing that UBCPT was only a stakeholder on campus and not a decisionmaker. Campus and Community Planning “is required to exercise their judgement independently.”

Yet, Bailey said representatives of both Campus and Community Planning and UBCPT came to suggest moving Block Party away from the private residential areas on South Campus. More, he said that Poetckker was part of the university’s executive committee meeting that put the final kibosh on Block Party at Thunderbird Stadium over concerns related to land values.

That does not mesh with Lai’s explanation of UBCPT’s status as a private entity outside the university’s structure.

“If the chief executive officer of UBC Properties had something to say, of course anybody can express their views to Campus and Community Planning and they will consider all those views, but ultimately the decision they make is their decision,” he said.

The rather convoluted and undemocratic nature of what campus development has become was summed up well by disgruntled faculty member Mike Feeley in a 2003 Ubyssey article.

"[UBC Properties Trust] is there to make money. They’re there to get your money,” he said. “We’re living in a company town.”

-- With files from Vassi Sharlandjieva and Samantha McCabe


- UBC Properties Trust should be excluded from executive committee discussions

- UBC Properties Trust should be required to solicit student feedback in addition to the consultations conducted by Campus and Community Planning when proposing new developments on campus

- The university should diversify the source of its endowment such that it is significantly less reliant on commercial real estate development on campus

Arno Rosenfeld, Features Editor