By Doug Sweet
It is an iconic site. It sits right in McGill’s backyard. In about a year or so, it will stand empty, awaiting its next vocation. Could it be the cure for the University’s chronic space deficit? The possibilities are interesting.
The Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH or the Vic) has stood for more than 120 years on the slope of Mount Royal. The original structures are an architectural echo of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland. The RVH has been the scene of many medical firsts for Canada, and to this day it offers a wide range of specialized medicine and innovative care that belies its ancient façade.
The Vic is one of Quebec’s major centres for organ transplants. In fact, Canada’s first kidney transplant was performed there in 1958.
It is also the site of Canada’s first palliative care unit. Next year, the Vic, along with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and other medical institutions, will move to the MUHC’s new Glen Yards site in N.D.G.
“It’s an important piece of real estate, given its location,” Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Michael Di Grappa said in an interview. “McGill is landlocked on all sides and there is this magnificent site that is becoming available to the north, which seems to be a natural extension of our campus.”
In fact, with the Montreal Neurological Institute to the east, residence buildings curling around it to the north and the Allan Memorial Institute and Ludmer buildings to the west, the Vic is literally surrounded by McGill.
The site is obviously attractive to a university that is bursting at its seams, said Provost Anthony C. Masi, noting that the Quebec government agrees that McGill is under-spaced.
“A project to annex the Vic could be really important to McGill’s future,” he said. “We obviously need space, even the Ministry (of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology) admits that. Further, the RVH is contiguous to our downtown campus, it is iconic-looking space, and it has a long history with the University.
“When we started our strategic planning exercise over five years ago, looking at the strengths and aspirations of the University, one of the first things we did was look at space requirements over time,” Masi said.
“What struck us is that every faculty is under-spaced and, as a consequence, we thought that, over the next 10 years, even if the number of students at the University remained constant, the requirements of additional space for projects, laboratories and the modern way of thinking about learning spaces would require upwards of half a million to a million more square feet.
“So academic needs of McGill were really pressing in terms of space, whether that’s modern teaching spaces or up to date laboratories or spaces for projects. And when we do renovations, we have no swing (temporary relocation) space.”
“Our physical space does have an impact on our academic performance and I think we need to be aware of how we can fix that, and that means being able to expand,” Masi said.
Knowing this, and knowing the hospital would become vacant with the construction of the new MUHC facility in the Glen Yards, McGill’s senior administration has been exploring a number of options with various levels of government about what could be done with the site. Preliminary suggestions are focused around developing an urban project that would benefit both Montreal and McGill by
• preserving heritage buildings
• reducing paved areas by up to 50 per cent
• nearly doubling green space
• using University Street as a better public pathway to Mount Royal
• returning the over-all site to something more closely resembling its original look and feel. (See artists’ conceptions on these pages)
Some buildings on the site, with little or no heritage value, would be demolished and, without adding to the footprint on Mount Royal, be replaced by modern, less intrusive structures. This could also provide McGill with an opportunity to build the large, modern auditorium, suitable for such events as Convocation, that it has sought for years.
The University needs to know whether it will get the necessary support from government sooner rather than later, Masi said, because McGill needs to choose from among a number of plans in place to deal with the enormous requirements it has for additional space.
“The Go/No-go decision probably requires at least 12 months of detailed feasibility studies,” he said. At the moment, it is too early to get very specific about how long it would take or what it would cost.
And a project as vast as this won’t be accomplished overnight, but will be a multi-year undertaking, completed in phases.
Without hesitation, both Di Grappa and Masi noted that McGill could easily occupy close to two-thirds of the available 1.2 million square feet of space in the short and medium term. And they both noted that to do so could cost, by very rough estimates, somewhere in the vicinity of $750 million.
But they both noted that McGill will not handcuff itself financially and, because of the Vic project, be unable to deal with other issues on the rest of the downtown campus and at the Macdonald campus.
“We cannot do this alone,” Di Grappa said. “This is a project that is not just a McGill project. This is a project that will have to involve the City of Montreal, the Government of Quebec and the Government of Canada. It is more than a McGill project; it is an urban project. It is in part about giving the Mountain back to the citizens of Montreal. It is about simplifying access and making access to the Mountain easier. And to really enhance the attractiveness of the Mountain for Montrealers.”
“Our proposal for the Vic has clear Go/No-go gateways – like a flow chart in a computer program,” Masi said. “If we get to a gate and it says, ‘No,’ then it’s No, and we’re out. But even if it says ‘Yes,’ there will be many other gateways to pass with additional conditions, before we could sign on the dotted line.”
More details will emerge as McGill gets an indication that the project is feasible and supported by government, Masi said.
The over-all goal remains the same: a win-win project that benefits both the University and the community.
“It’s useless to put a lot of emphasis and effort into ‘this faculty or that faculty will go there now,’ Masi said. “The planning and the presentation to the community will include some ideas, but they have to be flexible.
“It’s appropriate for Canada: instead of being carved in stone, the plan is etched in ice.”