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Twenty-five years of life at the HUB

When HUB was built, its innovative adaptation of the covered street, first used in Europe almost 200 years ago, attracted considerable attention. Magazines and newspapers from across Canada and around the world acclaimed its design and followed its development. An editorial in the August 1974 issue of Canadian Interiors proclaimed HUB to be "bold, imaginative and yet practical," and the building was featured prominently in important architectural publications in both North America and Europe. To this day HUB remains well known in the world's architectural community as an alternative approach to high density development.

Almost the length of three football fields, HUB was built straddling 112 Street from 89 Avenue almost to the edge of the river valley. Viewed from either end, it forms a massive ‘H' — each side a bank of housing units; the crossbar, the floor of the arcade separating the housing rows. Protecting the arcade is a single-dome skylight running the entire length of the mall — 292 metres.

The complex itself was a response to the serious lack of affordable student housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when the University's enrolments were climbing rapidly. Buoyed by its success with the design and construction of SUB, the Students' Union turned its attention to developing affordable apartment-style housing on campus. HUB (originally an acronym for Housing Union Building) was the result, and its development was enthusiastically spearheaded by Jim Humphries, a third year chemistry student, who chaired the SU housing commission.

Construction commenced in 1971, even though funding had not been finalized; and Humphries was forced to wrangle with banks, government, and the University to secure loans — unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the SU's financial headaches related to the project. Once construction started, innovative building techniques — including use of a single crane that shuttled back and forth between the banks of apartments on either side of the arcade — were employed to save time and money. However, HUB was not completed by its original deadline and cost much more than anticipated. The final bill was close to $6.5 million (as opposed to the original $5.5 million estimate).

The mall was plagued with problems in its early years and began to develop a reputation as a "white elephant." By 1975 the building was only 85 per cent occupied despite SU subsidized rental rates as low as $60 per month for each tenant in a four-person unit. (A bachelor unit rented for $90 and a two-person unit for $150 total.) Deficits for this period totaled $1.8 million and, on an annual basis, $10 of each student's SU fees were spent on bailing HUB out, draining the coffers of the once-richest students' union in Canada. Businesses in the commercial strip were not doing well either. The mall had been positioned where it would become the "hub" of the campus as envisioned by the University's long-range building plan drawn up in the optimism of the late '60s. When the planned campus expansion into North Garneau failed to take place, HUB was left on the edge of campus. Without a clearly marked entrance or walkways connecting the mall to other University buildings, foot traffic was limited.

A series of SU executives labored to solve the problems associated with the mall, and finally decided that HUB would be too time-consuming and problematic to operate even if it could be made to turn a profit. In April 1976, the University agreed to purchase HUB and release the SU from its obligations related to the mall. The purchase price: $1.

Gradually the University managed to ease HUB's financial woes. Eleven million dollars went into correcting the structure's problems, including a $2 million repair job for the leaky roof. The street that previously ran unimpeded beneath the arcade walkway was closed in, making room for a community centre, the University's International Centre and a small multi-faith chapel. Walkways were built to connect HUB to the Fine Arts Building and the Tory Business complex, as well as the Humanities Centre and the Rutherford Library. To further promote traffic in the mall, a new southern entrance was created. A break-even rental policy was initiated, increasing students' rents and eventually hiking commercial rates as well. Businesses responded by tailoring their products and services to meet student needs, and many prospered. Today the mall is a success. It is estimated that currently 2,000 people walk through the mall each hour during a typical winter session weekday, the commercial strip operates at a self-sustaining level, and the student apartments are at a 100 per cent occupancy rate.

HUB has often been likened to a skyscraper turned on its side. By day it resembles a living wall; its sunlit interior is a centre of vitality on campus. At night, the great windows exude light from the building's heart, while a motley of bedroom windows pierces its concrete flanks. Bernard Wood, when he was president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada; pointed to HUB as a "well known" demonstration that "low-rise, high-density housing can provide an adequate alternative to high-rises, with perhaps more desirable sociological implications."

The innovative design that prompted these remarks was provided by Toronto architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers in association with Richard Wilkin of Edmonton. Diamond and Myers; who were also the prime consultants for the University's long-range development plan, had first attracted attention for their lively renovation of Yorkville Square in Toronto. In designing HUB, they once again combined old ideas and new, and also kept a close eye on the student lifestyle. The housing units provide tenants the privacy of their own cooking and bathroom facilities — a departure from traditional dorms — while features such as windowed stairwells and shutters opening from the housing units out into the commercial arcade encourage openness and a sense of community.

Michael LeBoldus, '87 BSc(Pharm), was a HUB tenant in the mid-1980s and enjoyed his stay. "I loved living in HUB — I loved being able to get up 15 minutes before class and still make it on time," he says. "Everything I needed was right there. I could go home anytime during the day. You could hang out the window onto the mall and watch the milieu go by. And the leaky roof was homey."

Although it wasn't planned that way, HUB has become possibly the largest international living centre on any campus in North America. HUB apartments are particularly attractive to foreign students, many of whom feel quite at home with the bustle and activity of the mall. In addition, the cooking facilities in the housing units allow them to prepare their own national dishes, rather than having to adjust to the primarily North American fare of the campus cafeterias.

It was in recognition of the growing international character of HUB that the mall was renamed HUB International and the International Centre incorporated into the complex in the late 1980s. A current resident of HUB, fourth-year pharmacy student Sorouss Sardari, is typical of those who enjoy the distinctive HUB experience. It is like living "everywhere and nowhere," she says. "It's like going to cities where you meet people from all different racial backgrounds, except they're all students," says Sardari. "It's a unique experience."

Published Autumn 1997.

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