When its doors opened in August 2012, La Citadelle was McGill’s priciest residence, and remains so – over the past three years, the rent costs have increased by almost $200, reaching an all time high. Documents acquired through an access to information (ATI) request by former McGill student Christopher Bangs, who delegated the rights to review the documents to The Daily, show that the hotel-turned-residence cost McGill over $20 million more than anticipated, and it is alleged that students are bearing the brunt of the cost.
The steady increase in the size of the undergraduate class has left McGill scrambling to fulfill its guarantee to provide housing for all first-year students under the age of 22. For instance, in 2008, a shortage of residence space forced McGill to rent an entire apartment building for students lacking housing.
Between 2003 and 2010, in order to address these pressing housing issues, McGill bought three hotel properties and converted them into Carrefour Sherbrooke, New Residence Hall, and La Citadelle.
“McGill was not the first university that bought hotels – a great example is the University of Toronto, they have also hotels at the downtown campus,” said Mathieu Laperle, Senior Director of Student Housing and Hospitality Services.
“Living in that sort of a residence is not the same as living in a first year dorm at any other university.”
In 2009, the Globe and Mail reported that the prices of hotel properties had hit an all-time low since the 1990s, and that it had become commonplace in Canada for universities and colleges to convert hotels into residences to alleviate housing shortages.
“We’ve been able, with the three hotels, to add more than a thousand beds,” Laperle continued. “The occupancies have been close to 100 per cent, so the fact that we have the hotels is an asset for McGill University.”
But some students feel that there is a steep price to pay for McGill’s adherence to its housing mandate. “Living in that sort of a residence is not the same as living in a first year dorm at any other university,” said Olivia Cantwell, who lived in La Citadelle during the residence’s first year of occupancy. Cantwell said that living in a converted hotel meant students sacrificed the sense of community with the “classic dorm experience.”
In addition, the actual costs of living in residence is quite high. In August 2012, at the time of its opening, a double room at La Citadelle cost students $1,059 per month, and a single room cost $1,194 per month. In 2015, the rent costs have increased to $1,260 per month for a double room, and $1,442 per month for a single room.
“[This] just means so many people can’t afford to do the residence experience,” said Cantwell.
The only reason Rez rents should be raised, in my opinion, would be inflation, or the Rez is getting significantly better or nicer – not because the building is falling apart because McGill messed up.
Emily Stanford, a U3 student who also lived in La Citadelle in 2012, argued that the increase in rent costs might have to do with the unexpected costs associated with the renovation of the building.
“The only reason Rez rents should be raised, in my opinion, would be inflation, or the Rez is getting significantly better or nicer – not because the building is falling apart because McGill messed up. That’s not fair,” Stanford said.
Stanford also pointed out that it is possible that students may find La Citadelle prohibitively expensive, which may lead to a stratification among residences, based on students’ financial situations.
“People with more money would obviously go to Citadelle over Upper Rez, and for that reason, you kind of just get a completely different feeling,” said Stanford.
Problems with acquisition of La Citadelle building
According to an estimation document dated October 28, 2010, the initial total cost of transforming the hotel into a residence was estimated at $16,717,000. By the completion of the project in March 2013, as stated in another accounting document, the final cost was $37,166,125 – more than double the initial estimation.
A memorandum to the McGill Board of Governors, dated March 11, 2013, justified overshooting the estimate, stating that “this was to cover the cost of additional work associated with site conditions which, as the work progressed, were revealed to be worse than anticipated.”
In the environmental evaluation of the building preceding its acquisition, traces of asbestos were found in the mechanical insulation, drywall compound, textured finish, plaster, and vinyl floor tiles. The evaluation also noted the presence of mercury vapour in lamps, lead in some paint and wiring connectors, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) – a carcinogen linked to developmental issues – in light ballasts. Moreover, “heavy growths” of mould and concrete “deteriorated to the point that one could crumble it with the fingers” were found.
Robert Couvrette, Associate Vice-Principal of University Services, assured The Daily in an email that the hazardous materials have since been removed, the building is currently up to code, and “all materials are safe and actually have a very low VOC [volatile organic compound] content.”
Laperle asserted that the building was a “good investment,” in part due to the difficulty of finding reasonably-priced land to purchase close to the downtown campus. “It’s not a new property, it’s not a new building; but for today, for us, it’s like we were able to build from scratch,” he said.
Student complaints from the past
Students who lived in La Citadelle in the first year following the renovation tell a different story.
“They hadn’t finished construction for the first six months that I was in there,” said Stanford. “Floors two and three also were definitely not done […] the [cafeteria] wasn’t done, also the first floor little sitting area was not done. The only thing that was done was the rooms.”
Stanford also stated that work on the parking level hadn’t even started. In the due diligence final report acquired through the ATI request, structural consultants noted that “the underground parking garage levels require the most immediate and important structural attention,” noting extensive concrete damages, leaks, and presence of lead-based paint.
Cantwell explained that the La Citadelle Residence Council, of which she was VP Finance, had applied for compensation for students in late September 2012 on the grounds that study areas and the kitchen were still under construction.
“It just took a really long time to get any compensation and [the University was] really not very helpful, nor did they want to give us anything – it was like, ‘here, here’s some money, be quiet,’” Cantwell said.
Laperle dismissed the six months of overlap between renovation and student habitation, saying “it’s normal to see some repairs maintenance, but [that’s] not something major to impact the student life or to impact the safety or security of the students.”
“One time I was taking a shower […] and the spout that the water comes out of when you take a bath flew off the wall and just hit me in the shin. And then it took them, like, two weeks to fix that.”
Relating another story, Stanford said, “One time I was taking a shower […] and the spout that the water comes out of when you take a bath flew off the wall and just hit me in the shin. And then it took them, like, two weeks to fix that.”
The administration insists that La Citadelle was worth the renovation costs and is one of the most popular residence choices. “The students appear to be voting with the occupancy rates, and they’re voting in favour of the hotel experience,” said Doug Sweet, McGill’s Director of Internal Communications.
While some students may not mind the expense, others think that the prospect of maintenance construction, rising rents, and the lack of community-feel in hotel-style living makes La Citadelle unattractive.
“I know it’s very poorly constructed. […] I’d say it’s pretty common knowledge,” said Stanford. “I would definitely not live there if it was $1,200 a month.”
—With files from Christopher Bangs