Campus transformation: A look at the past five years

The UBC campus of five years ago was a strange place. There were roads where there shouldn't be roads and random open lawns that have since been supplanted by towering, concrete residences and fancy new lecture halls.

Is it an improvement? That depends. It is certainly newer and larger. In the span of your average undergraduate degree — five years nowadays — UBC got a nice, new Main Mall, a bunch of spiffy residences, the Nest and a wooden extension to Earth and Ocean Sciences. On top of all that, Wesbrook Village has ballooned in size at an almost exponential rate. 

For you new, bright-eyed students unfamiliar with the “good old” campus that your jaded, wiser elders on the cusp of graduation got their start in, The Ubyssey provides you with a portal into the past five years of perpetual construction and the buildings that have followed.

Let us take you back to a mystical time where Vine hadn't even been invented yet — let alone killed — Lady Gaga was still doing stuff that people talked about and we were all mildly curious about that new HBO show called Game of Thrones, but were pretty sure it would never be better than Lost

Main Mall and Martha Piper Plaza

[''] Google Maps

Before it was the beauteous, grassy stretch of landscaping decadence that it is today, Main Mall was pretty much just an annoying and fairly ugly road with some parking spaces and a roundabout for decoration.

The original plan for pedestrian corridors on campus was set out in 1914. It had a much more ambitious and natural vision which, largely due to construction complications and the increased importance of vehicle transportation, was never fully realized. What resulted was concrete and drab. 

Almost 100 years later, as part of the university’s 2010 Vancouver Campus Plan, Main Mall, Memorial Road, Agricultural Road and University Boulevard became next in line for revitalization. With a project cost of $16.3 million, construction began in 2011 with an aim to be completed by spring of 2013.

The crown jewel of the project was Martha Piper Plaza. A replacement for the grungy roundabout that came before, the new plaza was intended to represent the epicentre of the campus as well as an embodiment of what was planned for future development. Benches, grass and a large fountain — which boasts some technically impressive jets and an accompanying river — replaced a largely unremarkable road.

During the time of its construction, students were treated to the now-traditional sight of swaths of fenced-off campus and labyrinthine routes to classes. But when it was all completed and unveiled, the student population was treated to a truly impressive transformation that has completely reshaped what the campus is today. 

Is it better than it was five years ago?

By far. When you consider just how much we rely upon Main Mall as well as its accompanying roads, it seems strange to think that there was a time when it wasn’t this way. That part of campus has now become a more natural, quieter environment. Now, instead of car traffic, we just have to worry about annoying pedestrians who decide to suddenly alter their course at the last moment while looking at their phone.

Could it be improved?

Not really. Of course, the landscaping could always be touched up and there are patches of grass that seem unlikely ever to grow. But as it is, this is leaps and bounds above what existed five years ago. A boring road through the campus’ centre has been transformed into a beautiful stretch of green that is a central character in every UBC student’s life.

The Nest

By the time 2008 came around, the Old SUB was over 40 years old and pretty worse for wear. The building is very much a product of its time and was designed with a much smaller campus in mind — the rooms dark, the linoleum cracked and the basement dingy. It was far from the sort of student hub expected of a modern, world-class university.

When confronting the problem of how to move forward, the AMS was faced with three options: fully renovate the SUB, partially renovate and expand, or build a whole new building. It was unanimously agreed that the third option was the best and, most conveniently, there was this nice chunk of land next door known as University Square. With a budget of $103 million at their disposal — which would later increase to $106.5 million — construction soon began.

The project was not without its difficulties though. Do you see that mound of dirt in front of the Nest? Well, that little knoll there is part of a dark chapter in UBC history. Back in 2008 when the construction of the Nest was just an idea, the knoll’s destruction seemed inevitable. Most students didn’t care that much, but a few dedicated “knollsters” decided that this was something to take issue with. Several were arrested for their defiance of the landscapers who, as we all now know, rebuilt the knoll anyways. 

In addition to this, the construction of the Nest itself was an arduous process full of delays and logistical issues. Those lovely fins on the front of the building that obstruct your peripheral view of the outside world and seem to possess no innate purpose, almost cost $500,000 extra (the construction team decided to change their approach) because of how difficult they were to install. This, along with other minor changes, repeatedly pushed the Nest’s grand opening further and further back. By the time it was completed, most of those “knollsters” were long since graduated.

Finally, in the fall of 2015, the new Nest opened to a group of freshmen who would never know of what came before, which is sad because the new knoll kind of sucks.

Is it better than it was five years ago?

Of course it is. Have you seen the Old SUB? It looks like the kind of place that even heroin junkies would be afraid to visit. All the Nest had to do was let daylight in and serve good Blue Chip cookies to make older students forget any nostalgia for their old and somewhat greasy haunt.

Could it be improved?

Sure. The Nest is certainly quite modern and all around nice, but it lacks a lot in the way of character and comfort. There is a slightly clinical feeling to everything — like being in an airport lounge — and though the wooden egg suspended over everything looks cool, it is also a colossal waste of usable space. Especially since we are now dealing with a shortage of club spaces, the fact that half of the building’s footprint is a massive, empty void seems more and more like a bad decision.

The Nest has also faced a few significant financial issues with its food venues — the Perch restaurant closed its doors after only five months and Lowercase was replaced by P.H. Tea due to lack of profit.

Ponderosa Commons

With 1,116 beds, dozens of classrooms and a few tasty food spots, it is easy to never stray beyond the walls of the complex for the whole term. Ponderosa Commons now proudly encompasses the intersection of West Mall and University Boulevard with its pale, blocky visage.

Phase One, which were the Maple and Arbutus buildings located on the west side of University Blvd, opened in the fall of 2013. While residents will remember it for adding 590 beds to our student-housing starved campus, more will remember it for the opening of Mercante, the Italian pizza place that starving students were delighted to sacrifice all of their meal dollars to, as if it were a cheesy Italian god. By August 2015, Phase Two, which is located on the east side of University Boulevard, was completed to add a grand total of 1,116 beds for upper level and graduate students.

Today, Ponderosa shoots up taller than most of the campus landscape and obstructs the view of some Marine Drive residents living in what used to be the tallest buildings on campus. Despite significant elevator controversies, the tragically unknown Audain Arts Centre and the exorbitant rent prices, Ponderosa Commons has a lots of things going for it.

Is it better than it was five years ago?

Yes, but at what cost? One treasure lost during construction was the Pond Cafe. This charming spot felt like an extension of the Nitobe Gardens, as the building was hidden from street and shrouded with trees and gardens. It was the best place to get a coffee on a rainy day and get away from the bustle of campus life. Now we must journey further afield to experience the sweet relief of not having to endure irritating people.

The $136.4 million facility replaced some of the less permanent annexes on campus that are similar to the ones still nestled behind Sauder, Klinck and the Geography Building. It's not hard to speculate that those buildings will likely be the next to go on campus.

Anyone trying to access the Kenny Building circa 2011 to 2013 had another thing coming during the simultaneous construction of both Ponderosa and EOSC. You think getting to the bus loop is bad now? Those poor souls trying to get to Totem Park and the psych building had to navigate a yellow-fenced nightmare the like of which has yet to be rivalled.

Could it be improved?

Although the 17-storey Ponderosa Commons responded to the cries of students concerning a lack of on-campus housing, it hasn't affected the 3,000-plus waitlisted students, a number which continues to grow as the campus expands.

Another barrier to students is the pricey cost of rent. Reaching around $900 per month, students expressed valid concern about accessibility and economic diversity. To this, UBC responded to these complaints by saying that there were less expensive housing options available on campus elsewhere. By that, one can only assume that they mean camping on Wreck Beach or in the trunk of your Toyota Corolla.

Wesbrook Village

It doesn't really count as part of the campus, but Wesbrook Village is nonetheless a key factor in most students' lives. You have to cross an endless expanse of sports fields to reach this strange utopia where everything is nice, clean and expensive. We know it today as the place to buy alcohol and groceries when you are too lazy to leave campus. The people who live there tend to drive Mercedes, Porches and have children who wear the latest in the Brooks Brothers baby catalogue.

Back in 2011, it was a fraction of the size with the Save-On and much of its main core already there, but far fewer of those six-storey apartment and condo buildings that line the other streets. They also got a new secondary school, a baseball diamond, soccer fields and a Menchies to go to when you've been day-drinking.

Furthermore, that BC Liquor Store that currently consumes most of your spending money used to be beside Staples. Its new location compliments Wesbrook just fine, but means that we now have to trek immense distances across campus just to find out that the liquor store closed at 7 p.m. and not 10 p.m. like you thought. Because who the hell buys alcohol while the sun is still up? 

Is it better than it was five years ago?

That is a tricky question to answer, but... yes? Wesbrook has continued expanding over the past years to become what it has always planned to be, which is a nice-looking place near campus that attracts those with money. So in that sense, what it is now is a better version of what it was five years ago, offering more places to live near campus as well as some cool places to eat. That being said, with rent that easily exceeds $1,200 a month, most of what Wesbrook has to offer is far out of reach for most students. It also looks pretty boring.

Could it be improved?

Sure. Make it less bland and more student-centric, and you might have a place that we will go to for things other than booze and food. But that isn’t what Wesbrook is for, so it isn’t a very realistic expectation. Wesbrook does what it sets out to do well and if the continued construction is any indication, it will have pushed its gentrified borders further and further into the trees of Pacific Spirit Park over the next five years. 

Earth Science Building — a.k.a. ESB or “EOSC”

[''] UBC
[''] UBC

In a city having a fruitful love affair with wood and glass architecture, this building takes the cake as one of the most fashionable and sleekest buildings on campus. A visible jewel along Main Mall, this $75 million facility is home to a fusion of laboratories, office space, lecture halls and UBC's own Science World. Behind ESB’s glamorous floor to ceiling windows, students can admire rock samples and a pit-like lab where earth science TAs are thrown when they don't mark assignments on time.

For all you arts kids out there, you might mistakenly know this structure as “the EOSC Building.” It’s okay, we can see where you got confused as EOSC is a field of study that often inhabits ESB. Also note that the Earth and Ocean Science Main Building — a.k.a. EOSC Main or EOB — is the forgotten and less flashy building hiding behind the glassy science palace.

Confused still? The reason for this tomfoolery comes down to the building abbreviations on class schedules and the UBC map. But odds are if you don’t already know this, you probably won’t have to for your whole degree.

Before there was the Tall Wood Building — a.k.a Brock Commons — ESB dominated the wooden building world as the largest panelized wood building and the largest application of cross laminated timber in North America. In science, architecture and forestry circles, this facility is definitely something worth bragging about. You know, besides the Tall Wood Building.

Is it better than it was five years ago?

Hell yes. The buildings that were there before — Earth and Ocean Sciences East Building (EOS East) and the Engineering Annex Building — looked like older and sadder versions of Buchanan D. In fact, it was so unremarkable that the only photos of it on Google are hidden in UBC archive docs, taken right before it was demolished. Also the nice green lawn that now separates ESB and MacMillan used to be a parking lot before Main Mall was closed to vehicles in 2012. For once, UBC unpaved a parking lot and put in paradise.

Could it be improved?

Room numbers can be uniquely difficult to navigate. One example is the ESB 2012 lecture hall. It’s on the second floor, but is not accessible by the stairs in the main atrium.

Despite all of the gloriously open space, there are virtually no desks or tables in this building. There were two tables that were recently added toward the aptly named Magma Cafe, but science students are begging for more. Legend has it that there is only one sole outlet near said tables and students frequently duel for it.

Also, for a building colloquially known as the “Earth and Ocean Science Building,” it needs more ocean.

Totem Park and Orchard Commons

Totem Park has been around since 1962, but the new buildings were finally open for business in September 2012. While the original six heritage houses have shared washroom facilities on each floor, həm’ləsəm’ and q’əleχən have private or semi-private washrooms in each suite.

During construction of these two new houses in 2011, T-Park was plagued with complaints concerning loud noise in the early hours of the morning which was disruptive to students trying to study or sleep. Not to fear though, because Totem offered all of the residents complimentary ear plugs, which they thought would solve all of their problems. There was also the hot water scandal that went on from 2011 to 2012 that finally ended in the reimbursement of $200 to each student affected.

Directly across the intersection of West Mall and Agronomy now stands Orchard Commons. This $12.9 million facility is home to the controversial Vantage College and 1,050 more beds in two new residence towers named Bartlett and Braeburn.

While construction began 2014, this residence is similar to həm’ləsəm’ and q’ələχən houses, as it features single rooms with connected bathrooms. However, it’s different from the first-year residence as Orchard Commons is not exclusively for first-year students. Although this building opened to residents last summer, the official opening ceremony took place October 20.

Is it better than it was five years ago?

Yay! More on-campus student housing! Orchard commons has added 1,048 new beds and no buildings were lost. While the rarely-used parking lot is most definitely seeing more action, Totem Park residents have to endure a longer trip to central campus.

Totem Park and Thunderbird residents crossed the often empty parking lot, as the most direct way to access Main Mall was by climbing the stairs behind MacMillan. The stairs were colloquially known as “the rape stairs” before first-years were educated as to why this was problematic.

Could it be improved?

With weighted doors that automatically close, the main complaint of həm’ləsəm’ and q’əleχən was that the social climate was severely lacking compared to the other six houses, which allowed residents to have their doors wide open. However, this can easily be remedied by a nifty 1878 invention called a doorstop.

The controversial Vantage College is still widely regarded among students as another way for the university to squeeze money from international students, as they can begin their first year of their undergraduate degree without meeting the regular undergraduate English requirements.

Ocean view aside, residents are also unhappy to have moved into an unfinished building this summer. Like Ponderosa, the elevators are also reported to frequently break down or be inefficient. Also the wavy, asymmetrical lines are an eyesore. You’re not a zebra, Orchard Commons. Stop pretending.

There is something equally exciting and sad about the campus looking completely different from the beginning of your degree to the end. It's hilarious to think that future first-year students won't be able to properly appreciate the Mackenzie Field revival the way us graduating students will. But with the development of a new Gage tower, Indian Residential Schools History and Dialogue Centre, bus loop and Aquatic Centre, students have a lot to look forward to in the next five years. While it might not look like the same place graduating students will remember spending five years of their lives in, we'll always find a way to connect to the charm of UBC and its beautiful campus as long as there are yellow construction fences — it just wouldn't be UBC without them.