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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.

  • Rania Maroun

    Amazing article. I am so proud to be a Ryerson student. Not just because we’re expanding in a crazy way, but because of the quality of our facility and student body.

  • Ry

    I love Ryerson! I’m in Chang school for continuing ed, but if I could go back 6 years and do university all over again, I would’ve gone to Ryerson. I am very impressed with Ryerson’s innovative, practical curriculums.

  • TIM DEVLIN

    I live at Carlton/Jarvis and Ryerson taking the top two thirds of Maple Leaf was great news. I was, however talking to someone from LCBO which was suppose to be part of the Loblaws Superstore along with a bank, cleaners, plant shop, Marche and spa. I was told Ryerson vetoed the LCBO and said it was a deal breaker….can this be true?
    An LCBO at this spot makes Loblows a one stop shopping experience other wise if I have to shop there and then get in my car and go to Lakeshore for a bottle of wine…I may as well shop there. I hope Ryerson realizes its joining a very eclectic and established community.

  • Toronto Girl

    I hate when people say Ryerson is not a real university…look at them… change. innovation. energetic student campus. and just a great downtown atmosphere ..

  • Little Lady

    I love my school and I love that people are realizing that Ryerson is such a great school. Just because it’s not as old as U of T, or as…. (I don’t even know how to describe York U), doesn’t mean it isn’t an institution to be reckoned with. People are finally taking notice and it is thanks to Sheldon Levy. A good man.

  • Carol Robertson

    Interesting article … candid, positive and hopeful.
    Deeply integrated into the heart of its city, Ryerson is already a great place.
    If you go there, you know.
    If you graduated shortly after RyU became a degree granting institution like I did, you’re old enough to have watched it slowly develop physically and spiritually. From a vaguely apologetic and somewhat introverted facility, Ryerson has evolved to its present day, still polite and benevolent yet doggedly persistent, fun-loving and frankly “kick a– with class” personae.
    Can Ryerson inspire the scruffy Yonge streetscape on its doorstep just north of Dundas? Just as surely as its banner will fly from Maple Leaf Gardens. Not merely a catalyst, Ryerson is changing within as it channels the flow of the diverse urban milieu that swirls around it.
    From big box signage to graduate programming and new technologies, RyU is building that somewhat intangible yet invaluable reputation that attracts the best intellects, and perhaps more importantly, those who also dream and persevere to realize those dreams.

  • Erica Scime

    This was a fantastic article and I am so pleased to read all of the comments on here from proud Ryersononians. I myself am a proud Ryerson student as well. While there is certainly greatness in tradition and history, I feel that there is something much greater in innovation and progressive thinking. Kudos to Ryerson for all its hard work :)

  • Mark James

    As a UTSG student, I have to admit, the culture at Ryerson is very welcoming. Apart from that, I really love the fact that I can walk from Kerr Hall, a relatively quiet building, to Yonge and Gould and be in the middle of such a busy intersection.

    I took a sociology courses at the Chang School over the summer for substitutes/transfer credits. The education was at par, but what I really enjoyed the most were the small class rooms. only 40-50 students vs the 200-300 at UTSG. It was fantastic! I was able to openly speak with the professor after class for as long as I wanted. What was even more surprising was that there was even a TA, for a course with only 50 kids!

    My only complaint is the library. Its terrible and doesnt even come close to the facilities of what UofT has to offer. That and the fact that the Kerr Hall and Victoria Buildings are terrible. But, its a start for Ryerson.

    My views have changed. I honestly thought most of the students attending wouldn’t be as smart or capable, but boy was I proved wrong.

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