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The Ryerson revolution: how the once dumpy polytechnic is redrawing downtown

Sheldon Levy, Ryerson’s fiercely ambitious president, persuaded students, politicians and Bay Street to bankroll his big idea. Now his once dumpy polytechnic is turning into an urban academic force, swallowing up Sam’s and the Gardens and redrawing the downtown

Big man on campus: Levy’s greatest love—after his work and his wife—is his motor­cycle. He keeps a picture of it on his BlackBerry (Image: Markian Lozowchuk)

When he was a teen in 1960s Toronto, Sheldon Levy would take the subway downtown and buy standing-room-only tickets at the great arena where Foster Hewitt broadcast from the gondola in the rafters. He was mad for hockey, and the Leafs were in their glory. Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich were Levy’s gods, and Maple Leaf Gardens was their temple.

Forty years later, when Levy became the president of Ryerson University, in 2005, the Gardens was a silent, empty mausoleum. Levy saw potential in the great hulk on Carlton Street. If Ryerson could grab a piece of the iconic arena, the university would get both desperately needed space and a huge boost to its reputation. Just months into the job, Levy called the head office of Loblaw, the owner of the arena. “You have a building I want,” he said. “Sell it to me.” It was an act of pure bravado. Ryerson, the poor cousin of Toronto universities, had no money to buy the Gardens, much less turn it into the new athletic centre that Levy had in mind.

Loblaw wasn’t interested. The company had purchased the building in 2004 with thoughts of turning it into a superstore. Levy wouldn’t let it go: he invited key Ryerson executives and governors to dinner at his house, where they discussed how the university could get its hands on the Gardens. “Some people were just wide-eyed,” recalls Peter Lukasiewicz, a Toronto lawyer who chairs the board of governors. “I frequently heard from colleagues, ‘Sheldon’s got too many balls in the air.’ ” The idea of getting Ryerson’s name on the Gardens was tantalizing. “People walked away saying, ‘Wow, this is huge,’ ” says Lukasiewicz.

At the end of 2007, Loblaw returned with its own proposal: it would sell Ryerson the top floor of a remodelled building while keeping the bottom two for the store. The university rejected the plan, which it couldn’t afford.

About a year and a half later, Loblaw came back with a new plan to put its parking lot in the basement, allowing the grocery store to sit at ground level. The cavernous, two-storey space above would go to Ryerson. At the same time, Levy got help from an unexpected quarter: the student body. Students, frustrated with Ryerson’s crummy athletics centre—buried underneath a field, with a roof too low for a regulation volley­ball game—approached him about holding a referendum to approve an added charge on tuition. The proposed levy of $126 per student would help pay for the new sports facility, including a new arena for the Ryerson Rams, which currently play at the George Bell rink at St. Clair West and Runnymede. Such campus referendums usually fail, but against the odds, 74 per cent voted yes last spring. Finally, a deal seemed within grasp.