After years of uncertainty, the University of Toronto Schools, an independent high school that has trained generations of the country's leaders in business, politics and the arts, is looking forward to a half-century of stability after it reached an agreement with the University of Toronto to stay in the downtown red-brick building it has called home since 1910.
"It's a renewal," said Jim Fleck, a philanthropist, former business professor and entrepreneur who is chair of the school's board of directors. "We are so entwined with the university that it would have a tremendous impact if we didn't have this," he said.
Created as an educational lab for teachers in training, UTS has developed into a highly selective school with more than 600 students. To gain admission, students must score top marks in a high-school admittance test, math exam and in-person interview. Only a third are successful.
"One of the reasons we chose UTS is that it's truly a merit-based admission process. It's very demanding to get in [and] it's a demanding school," said Prabhat Jha, a professor and endowed chair in disease control at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T.
Dr. Jha's two daughters attend UTS.
"Our daughters are learning the importance of working hard, of organizing your time, that ability to figure out how to study and learn."
The 50-year agreement still has to be approved by the university's governing bodies. But if it passes, it will end any questions about tensions between the university and the school. Only four years ago, U of T had said it wanted its building back so it could redevelop the site. Now, it will focus its redevelopment on nearby land and begin consultations this year. Neighbourhood residents are already wondering what the university's plans will look like.
But the school's biggest immediate challenge is how to maintain accessibility. Alumni like former TD Bank Financial Group CEO Charles Baillie, authors Lawrence Hill and Catherine Bush, Toronto Mayor John Tory and architect Don Schmitt all paid tuition of about $300 a year, thanks to provincial funding. (Mr. Schmitt, of Diamond Schmitt Architects, has been making sketches of possible renos.)
After public support ended in 1993, UTS had to become financially self-sufficient, a task it has accomplished partly by raising tuition. It now costs approximately $24,000 annually.
Still, a sixth of families whose children attend UTS receive financial aid from a fund of more than $1-million. The school wants to maintain and grow those bursaries.
"In spite of it being a private school, the mission has been to get students from all over the city, regardless of their ability to pay," Dr. Jha said.
But if the deal is likely to make it easier to persuade alumni and donors to give in order to maintain the institution's ideals, some in the surrounding community are anxious.
One nearby residents' association said it's dismayed the agreement was announced before the end of ongoing discussions it has been involved in on a wider campus plan.
"Everyone at the table in that process has believed that things at the university will stop in respect of that process. If they've done a 50-year agreement, they're jumping the process," said Sue Dexter of the Harbord Village Residents' Association. "It's great that UTS could stay there, but it could impact the neighbourhoods in a serious way."
The university had to act, said Scott Mabury, vice-president of university operations at U of T.
"This is just an individual project, rather small in the scheme of things on that block. ... UTS needed clarity because the current agreement has them vacating by 2021, and you need appropriate time for that."
He suggested a tower building at the corner of Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue would not be out of keeping with the city's intensification plans.
"Spadina and Bloor is a unique intersection in all the city; it has two subway lines plus a streetcar line. I'm not aware of any other intersection like that. On the corner, we will be exploring the option for retail, commercial and some kind of residence above," Dr. Mabury said.
In exchange for staying put, UTS will pay the university $10-million in cash and in-kind payments over time, as well as give U of T access to some of its existing and future facilities, including a new auditorium to be built at 371 Bloor St. W.
If the deal is approved in mid-December, a ramped-up fundraising strategy will proceed quickly. For the past year, Mr. Fleck has been having lunch with alumni in preparation.
"We're geared up and ready to go, but we don't want to assume anything before we are sure that we are firmly attached to the University of Toronto," he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a new auditorium would be built across the street. In fact, it will be built at 371 Bloor St. W.