The U of R wants to bring Conexus to its Wascana Park campus

City by Paul Dechene

This story is about a plan to demolish heritage buildings and replace them with new buildings, including an office tower. The setting: The University of Regina’s College Ave. campus in Wascana Park. It’s the kind of stuff this paper gets fired up over.

Unfortunately, I can’t yet tell you if what’s being proposed is good, evil or somewhere in between. There are nuances.

Also, we just don’t have all the information we need to make the pious pronouncements this paper likes.

So for now, let’s just start with the facts.

The University of Regina unveiled very early plans for the renewal of their College Avenue campus at two public engagement sessions hosted June 16 and 23 by former CBC host, now U of R spokesperson, Costa Maragos. At the events, University president Vianne Timmons — alongside a representative from Conexus Credit Union — outlined how the University plans to leverage a partnership with Conexus to restore and expand their aging downtown facility.

The University anticipates the project — which will cost between $60 and $70 million — will involve demolition of the Lifelong Learning Centre portion as well as most of the Conservatory (though the Conservatory façade will be retained). Of those costs, the Conexus partnership will contribute $8.25 million in cash and millions more in cost savings.

In return, Conexus plans to build a new head office on the green space west of Darke Hall and build an atrium that connects them with that revered performance space.

The catch? The chunk of land slated for a Conexus office tower, while situated next to the University and within the Wascana Centre, is owned by the City of Regina.

For the project to go ahead, the University hopes to get that city-owned land donated to them. And they have reason to believe that donation will happen.

“Almost three years ago we approached the city about a donation to our project and it was their suggestion that a possible donation of land is what they could afford,” says Nelson Wagner, the University of Regina’s associate vice-president of facilities management.

As a land donation means transferring city property for less than market value, the process had to be conducted in public and get approval from the city’s finance committee and city council. And there don’t seem to be many obstacles in the way of getting that council approval.

“[City administration] said in principle they agreed with it. It was the administration at the time that suggested it,” says Wagner, referring to the administration of former city manager, Glen Davies.

The Official Community Plan (OCP) could present a slight snag, however, as it prohibits the construction of Class-A office space (i.e., the fanciest office space) outside of the downtown. Wagner says they are hoping this project will be an exception to that rule.

“We’re also portraying this as a contribution to our College Avenue Campus. And that renewal won’t likely happen if we don’t get that kind of support and finances from Conexus. We’re looking at the broader community benefit as well,” he says. “On top of that, the southern boundary of the OCP is on the north side of College Avenue, and we’re just across the street. And there are businesses and offices right across from us. So it’s not like we’re on the west side of the city or far removed from the downtown. This is our downtown campus.”

Mayor Fougere says that as the project has not yet come formally to council, he can’t comment.

“The project is really the University’s project. Sounds intriguing. Lots of public support for it, it seems like. But it hasn’t formally come to one of our council committees or to city council yet. So I’m not going to formally comment until I actually see what it is yet,” says Fougere, who also chairs the Wascana Centre Authority (WCA) board, one of the other organizations linked to the College Avenue Campus.

And according to Wagner, the WCA board — which not only includes Mayor Fougere but also councillors Mike O’Donnell and Barbara Young — have already said they approve in principle the transfer of land between the City and the University.

“They [the WCA board] are supporting the transfer of the land,” says Wagner. “What the land will actually be used for is a different question. You have to remember there’s a distinction there. The use of the land is what we’re talking about now. And the council approval. Because [council] won’t transfer the land unless they understand what the use is and they make sure we’ve done public consultation, which we’ve done.”

Wagner says the University expects the land transfer to go before council in August. If approved — and if they get some additional federal funding — the campus renewal could begin as early as September.

Wagner was less willing to speculate on what would happen if council turns down the land transfer.

“That will be a discussion we’ll have to have with Conexus to see if there is another option. But the way they’ve described it is their first, second and third option is that land,” says Wagner.

Prairie Dog will continue to cover this story as it develops.