Partnership with Darwin Construction to address short and long-term residence plans

Christine Beyleveldt // NEWS EDITOR

After nearly 50 years of serving as the North Shore’s only post-secondary institution, Capilano University unveiled its premiere student housing accommodation.

While students started moving in Friday, Sept. 1, the journey towards housing began a decade ago. CapU’s proprietor in the five-year lease agreement on the residence buildings, Darwin Construction, owned the university’s surrounding property 10 years ago, where town houses reside today.

President Oliver Webbe, who for a time also attended Capilano College, explains that they approached the school and proposed a housing project that the District of North Vancouver deemed to be premature.“That’s when I got introduced to [then CapU president] Kris Bulcroft and started to understand what their housing needs were. And I didn’t at that time that I was a student there, because I was living at home,” he said.

Darwin bought the 2420 Dollarton Highway property this past March in a partnership with the T’sleil-Waututh Nation. The buildings were occupied by the Bodwell School District until February.

The living quarters can house approximately 250 students in 182 single and dual occupancy rooms. They’ve been in use for the last 15 years and were in good condition when they offered CapU the lease.

“It definitely wasn’t going to be the most profitable choice, but I believe that Capilano University is the most undervalued asset that we have on the North Shore,” said Webbe. “So we thought if there’s a way we can help the University out and provide rents that make it viable for students to be able to afford the rent there, it might be a good idea. And especially if they can be part of this overall longer vision on a student housing project.”

Based on best practices from other post-secondary institutions, the University’s hope is that residences will foster community on campus, one thing many students have said is lacking from the experience.

“Overall, we want to continue to improve student success and the overall learning experience for our students,” CapU President Paul Dangerfield remarked. “We believe that residence will facilitate attendance… while creating an atmosphere of shared learning and of spirit and shifting us from a commuter university to one with full experience.”

Dangerfield declined to state how much the lease would cost the school. However, he assured that operating expenses including a housing manager, residence advisors, security and Internet system upgrades would be covered by housing fees. The University also expects to recover startup expenses and other one-time costs including legal and software systems within two years.

Senate representative for the CapU Alumni Association Michelle Gervais said that the short-term agreement was initially a concern for the University. Darwin’s long-term plan is to redevelop the complex into an Innovation Campus inspired by MIT’s Kendall Square Innovation District. The new hub will provide of office space to tech companies and small startup businesses. CapU and the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) meanwhile hope to see on-campus housing become available in the future.

Gervais added that although space is tight, it is a much-needed first step in the right direction. She campaigned alongside the CSU last September for affordable housing during Lobby Days on the legislative lawn in Victoria. “For me personally it feels like a huge win for the campus, for the students, for the community,” she said.

To accommodate demands for housing, Darwin hopes to prop up temporary structures on the property to increase capacity before CapU’s lease expires and begin addressing more permanent housing options for the school.

The possibility of on-campus housing has previously been barred for CapU. Under a BC Liberal government ruling, colleges and universities could not obtain their own financing or take on debt from the provincial government for large-scale projects such as residences. However, at the start of his term in July, Premier John Horgan mandated the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Selina Robinson, to “create new student housing by removing unnecessary rules that prevent universities and colleges from building affordable student housing.” The mandate makes affordable student housing a priority for the BC NDP government as well as finding a long-term solution to the lower mainland’s housing crisis.

With the first dorms open to CapU students, Dangerfield hopes it will be the start of building a lasting community.