The University’s expansion into Sandy Hill

In the 1950s, the University of Ottawa’s campus in Sandy Hill was much smaller than it is now and was divided into two discrete sections: there was the historical core, around Tabaret Hall on Laurier Ave. East, on land first acquired from Louis-Théodore Besserer a hundred years earlier; and then there was the Varsity Oval south of Somerset St. E., where the University was developing its engineering, sciences and medicine faculties in the World War 2 barracks it had purchased in 1946. In between lay a roughly nine-block residential area bounded by Laurier Ave. E. to the North, Nicholas St. to the West, Somerset St. E. to the South and Henderson Ave. to the East, that was composed of mostly modest houses, three schools, a few local businesses and some institutional buildings.


In 1959, the University announced its intention to acquire the land it did not already own between its two campuses. It would do so by purchasing properties at fair market value but, if necessary, also through expropriation (a power it shared with a few other Ontario universities). In his hour-long press conference unveiling its master plan, the University’s rector, the very rev. Henri Légaré, OMI, tried to reassure Sandy Hill residents. He emphasized the long-range nature of the University’s expansion plans, explaining that they would be spread out over a 25 to 50 year period and that the University’s land acquisition would be “so gradual as to be almost imperceptible.” He added that “the University lives in this community and our development is dependent upon the goodwill we enjoy in it.” (Ottawa Citizen, 5 February 1959)


The boom in post-secondary enrollment, however, proved greater than anyone had expected. In 1960, the University had fewer than 3000 students. In 1963, it expected to double that number before 1970. It did so and kept growing, enrolling 8000 in 1973 (the University now has some 42,000 students).


Not surprisingly, the University had to accelerate the implementation of its master plan and the pace of its land acquisition ceased being imperceptible. If, in the 1950s, the University had been buying a few private homes per year on average, in the late 1960s, it was acquiring them at a much faster clip: 40 properties in late 1967 and early 1968, 26 more in 1970, 19 in 1971. While the University purchased most of the properties it needed (and painted them grey to signal the change in ownership), that was not enough and it also had to resort to expropriation. In July 1969, it posted 13 expropriation notices for houses on Cumberland, Osgoode, College and Hastey Sts. Earlier, it had expropriated 7 houses on King Edward and Laurier Aves. It ended up expropriating some three dozen properties altogether.


In September 1968, 500 Sandy Hill residents met in Academic Hall to learn about the University’s revised master plan.  It involved the expenditure of $100 million over 20 years, the biggest downtown redevelopment Ottawa had seen to date. Residents complained about a lack of communication from the University, that the University was not keeping up the properties it had acquired, and that the prices offered were inadequate to purchase replacement properties. While Allan Gillmore, the vice-rector of administration stated that the University would “lean over backward” to deal fairly with the people it was displacing, he acknowledged that “some of those living in houses were bound to suffer”. (Ottawa Citizen, 25 September 1968)


The construction of what is now the core of the campus (the student centre, the library and various academic buildings) started in the late sixties and stretched well into the seventies. The change was most dramatic in the early 1970s, when dozens of houses were demolished and new university buildings started sprouting up in their place.


The University’s expansion in Sandy Hill involved land purchases, expropriations, the closing and renaming of several streets, the disappearance of a few local businesses, the demolition of several dozen low-rise houses and their replacement by large institutional buildings.  The transformation of this section of Sandy Hill was taking place against very different urban planning norms than today. A few years earlier, Lebreton Flats had been razed, Lowertown east of King Edward Ave. had been subjected to large-scale “urban renewal” and planners were still championing a four-lane King Edward Expressway bisecting Sandy Hill to link the Queensway to the Macdonald-Cartier bridge to Québec. As the Ottawa Journal editorialized at the time, “the replacing of some old and tired houses in Sandy Hill with new university buildings doesn’t represent much of a sacrifice on Ottawa’s part. The University of Ottawa’s continued growth is the city’s gain.” (4 March 1964)


Yet, the University’s growth created a large tear in Sandy Hill’s fabric. The neighbourhood’s population dropped[1], its demographics changed (fewer Irish and francophones, fewer families, more short-term young residents), part of its history was erased and the lived-in neighbourhood became physically smaller. In the 21stC., the University has continued to expand, notably to the south. While it has not acquired new lands in Sandy Hill proper, its burgeoning student population has led to the replacement of many single-family homes with low-rise student apartments on streets adjacent to the University (and the conversion or construction of high-rise residence buildings along Rideau St.), altering the neighbourhood’s character further.


The University will continue to grow physically, if not geographically. Its latest master plan envisages the demolition of several old buildings on campus and their replacement by larger, taller ones, particularly along King Edward Ave. While its physical footprint may have stabilized, the University’s shadow will continue to grow over Sandy Hill.

[1]Part of this drop was the result of an exodus to the suburbs that affected all of Ottawa’s downtown neighbourhoods.

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