The Man Behind The Curtain
Students Should Reconsider the Faubourg: Wener
Forty-eight hours before Concordia’s undergraduates overwhelmingly rejected a $43 million bid to place the long-planned student centre in the Faubourg, Jonathan Wener finished negotiations for the university to acquire the building.
“The students have one last chance,” said Wener three months after the plan to purchase the shopping centre collapsed.
“I think it will last four or five months, and then it will be over,” he continued, hinting at another referendum in the near future.
The Concordia Student Union currently has no plan to put the question on the March ballot, especially after 69 per cent of students rejected the plan on Nov. 25. The November referendum failed despite the lack of any organized student opposition, an unlikely absence during a future election.
The head of property giant Canderel and chair of the university’s Real Estate Planning Committee, Wener spoke to The Link on Feb. 11 from his country estate. Despite the failure in November to increase the fee levy going into the student centre from the current $2 to $4.50 per credit, Wener believes students should get behind the idea of buying the Faubourg with the Concordia administration.
“Now that it’s under contract, it doesn’t have to go through students. The university can go different ways, but it would be a travesty if the students didn’t benefit” he explained passionately.
“We do have a plan B, and it doesn’t matter if the student’s don’t want it because, quite frankly, we can make it work for the university without the students, but I think it would be a shame if students lose it. “
Plan B would see the university purchase the building itself and use it for administrative space and classrooms.
“I don’t know of anywhere else that we will find a better building—and I am quite positive about this, by virtue of the urban nature of Quartier Concordia,” he said. “I feel that students have really missed an opportunity, and we got it. It’s a goldmine.”
During the fee-levy campaign in November, groups of students without funding or recognition took it upon themselves to convince their peers that the project was a bad idea. Many of them questioned the rush in opening the building, promised to be open 12 to 18 months after a “Yes” vote, as well as the cost.
Wener diagnosed the real problem as a lack of communication and vision about what the student centre at the corner of Guy Street and Ste. Catherine Street West would look like. He conceded that a 3D model should be prepared by the university.
“It’s very difficult for people to look at that building and understand how it might work, and it behooves the planning people in the university to explain how this would function,” he said.
The real estate executive had little trouble in rousing a passionate defense of what the Faubourg could be. Calling the building an ideal spot for student life on campus, Wener emphasized the student union’s ability to expand the building over time. Sitting on 11-acres of green space downtown, an “unprecedented” opportunity according to Wener, the CSU would slowly convert storefronts to student space as leases expired. He also envisioned an auditorium built below the building’s rear terrace and a tunnel linking it to the EV building and the Metro system.
“It put us right in the middle of all the action” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of passion on my part because I really believe that this is the right thing for the students. You’ve got high ceilings, theatre spaces, places that can be turned into assembly areas, the ability to expand or contract, you’ve got revenue to keep the fees down; it is not controlled by the university.”
“I feel that students have really missed an opportunity, and we got it. It’s a goldmine.”
Chair of Concordia’s Real Estate Planning Committee
When asked about the second failed fee-levy referendum—an earlier referendum held in March 2010 also failed—Wener didn’t mince words.
“I think it failed because, if I may, it was doing quite well until The Link came out with this article without having all the facts,” he said, claiming student media was used “in a massive way” to give the wrong information to students.
At the time of the referendum, however, the university administration and Concordia Student Union were unable to reveal many specific details about the potential student union building—including its location and business strategy—citing a fear that this information could lead to an increase in the price of the building during real estate negotiations.
Though he admitted the cost of purchasing the Faubourg was ultimately not affected by The Link’s coverage, Wener said the articles “didn’t help.”
While the referendum may be over, money meant for the student centre will continue building up in the CSU’s bank account. Nearly $7 million has already been collected. Wener was able to put aside fears from some student leaders that the money was legally bound for the Faubourg.
“There is currently no obligation to the Faubourg by the students, and I can say that with great confidence,” said Wener. “It’s an option, not an obligation. The option is something that I believe you guys should consider.”
This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 23, published February 15, 2011.