News  RVC residents may demand refund

Administrators scramble to provide compensation for closed dining hall

The Royal Victoria College (RVC) council is considering calling for a partial rent refund for their building’s residents, citing the prolonged renovations that have kept the hall’s cafeteria closed since the summer.

Director of Food and Hospitality Services Mathieu Laperle sent a letter on December 18 notifying residents that the cafeteria “[would] not be opened and fully operational in January as…originally anticipated.” In the letter, Laperle expressed hope that the cafeteria will be open by the middle of this semester, but could not specify a date.

The council responded by sending an email survey asking RVC residents if they would sign a petition calling for rent reimbursement. They also included a message claiming Food Services had broken a promise to have the building’s dining hall up and running by October 2009, expressing frustration with “the way the project has been managed, and the lack of information provided by Food Services prior to the…letter.”

One hundred seventy-eight individuals of a possible 266 – some leaving their names, others voting anonymously – have responded to the survey. All one hundred seventy-eight voted in favour of a petition.

The survey signals growing dissatisfaction among RVC residents over renovations that have lasted several months, slowed by bureaucracy, bargaining, and outdated infrastructure.

Susan Campbell, manager of McGill’s residence dining halls, pointed to the building’s plumbing as an early and unexpected hindrance to construction.

“All of the plumbing had to be changed, and [contractors] didn’t know that until they actually got in and started to tear things apart,” Campbell said. She also noted problems with excavation and ventilation that appeared during construction. “They couldn’t predict these things when they were first looking at the project,” she said.

Campbell added that contractors seldom give clients firm completion dates. “We had hoped [the cafeteria] would be ready for September, then October, then November…. It’s the contractors…. They can only [say] ‘This is what we’re hoping for.’”

Grab and go someplace else
When choosing residences in early 2009, students were unaware of the renovations or the possibility that the project could last through the fall semester.

Hélène Thorel, VP External of RVC council, was upset administrators did not communicate with students more effectively.

“Part of the reason that we pay such high rent is that we have a seven-day meal plan,” Thorel said, pointing to RVC as among the most expensive of McGill’s residences.

Incoming students were formally notified over the summer of the ongoing renovations.

Some of the building’s dons were unaware of the construction until their orientation at the end of the summer.

“You wouldn’t rent an apartment without a kitchen…. It’s kind of a fact of life now, but I’m still pretty upset about it,” said Kelly Stephens, an RVC don.

In lieu of an open cafeteria, Food Services granted RVC residents the freedom to spend all of their money at any McGill-managed cafeteria on campus. Typically, students must spend 85 per cent of their money at their home cafeteria, with the option to spend the remaining 15 per cent elsewhere.

A “grab and go” snack bar was also constructed in the building’s lobby. Students were able to purchase mainly cold and some hot food until the early afternoon. The snack bar was also open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This semester, Food Services extended the snack bar’s hours, and added a greater number of dishes.

Laperle sees this added flexibility as reasonable compensation for RVC residents and says it coincides with Food Services’s goal of increased variety for all students in residence.

“Our goal and our vision was…offering more and more options,” Laperle said.

Campbell agreed. “Once we realized it wasn’t going to be open in January, we knew we had to kick it up a few more notches,” she said.

Though it is a provisional measure, Campbell said she has received positive feedback regarding the snack bar and increased flexibility.

“If you were to take students…at the end of [this year and last year] and say which was the better experience…I think they’d be fairly close,” Campbell said.

Marlene Benavides, president of RVC council, said students appreciate the effort, but won’t be completely satisfied by anything short of a fully functional cafeteria.

“We’re extremely happy to see that the grab and go has been improved from last semester. But it’s still not a cafeteria,” Benavides said. “I suppose the definition of ‘variety’ is based on personal opinion…. They don’t have to live here and eat these meals.”

Stephens also said that during finals last semester, many residents opted to skip dinner rather than travel to other cafeterias after the snack bar had closed.

Long term vision, short term problems
The problems extend beyond what Benavides and others see as a lack of variety. Students view the closed cafeteria as a detriment to the communal aspect of residence life that first-year students look forward to.

“Community building has been a much bigger challenge…. Last year, the cafeteria was a big meeting place,” Stephens said. “Because everyone’s constantly out of the building for meals [this year], it hasn’t come as easily.”

The slowed renovation process may be indicative of a vision for food services that is too broad to conform to neat timetables.

“We don’t want to have something similar [to] what is available [at other universities],” Laperle said. “We’d like to create something different…. When you go to Douglas Hall you [should] feel there is something different…versus Bishop Mountain Hall, versus RVC, New Rez, and Carrefour Sherbrooke,” he added.

Still, some wish more discretion had been used in making a major decision at a time of significant changes for McGill residences.

“Among other things, the prolonged construction could be a result of them having to take on too much at once, with major construction in both Carrefour Sherbrooke and RVC, at the same time as dealing with all of the challenges of serious administrative changes,” Stephens said.

With colder temperatures and hot meals hard to come by, the call for rent reimbursement promises to be a persistent one.

“It’s getting darker and colder and [rent compensation] would make us feel a little bit better about the situation,” Benavides said.