University of Windsor Alumni Magazine

UWindsor’s Downtown Footprint - A Creative and Collaborative Community

The reimagined Windsor Star building, now home to the School of Social Work and the Centre for Professional and Executive Education.
Jennifer Ammoscato

On a chilly day in November 2012, a crowd gathered in front of the same building where reporters, editors and printers had churned out thousands of editions of The Windsor Star newspaper for more than a century. They weren’t waiting for that day’s edition, however. 

Instead, the mix of students, staff, faculty and administrators celebrated as the Star’s publisher, Marty Beneteau, handed over the building’s keys to University of Windsor president, Dr. Alan Wildeman.

It was not the first, but the most symbolic step in realizing the university’s vision of launching a downtown campus. This site—the corner of Pitt and Ferry Streets—would be where the School of Social Work and the Centre for Executive and Professional Studies (CEPE) would relocate.

“This is a place that has documented and communicated much of the history of Windsor-Essex,” the president declared. “We will preserve the exterior and it will become a place for us where people forge new lives, and grow their education.

“It’s going to stay a big part of this community and new stories will be told out of here.”

Three years later, in the fall of 2015, a sensationally transformed building opens its doors and embraced its new role. Not only was it the university’s newest academic learning facility. It was also the flag proudly planted in the city’s core that marks UWindsor’s rightful place in the revitalization of the Windsor downtown.

The university is investing a total of $75 million in the city core. In addition to what is now referred to as the Pitt Ferry building, it is drastically reimagining the Major F.A. Tilston Armoury, erected in 1902, which will house the School of Creative Arts, and the old Tunnel Bar-B-Q site where students will study filmmaking in a brand-new facility.

When completed, these moves will bring more than 1,000 students and faculty to the downtown. This will “breathe fresh life into the city’s urban core, and revitalize and strengthen each of our programs of study,” says Wildeman. 

Response to the ambitious plan included a 2013 Globe and Mail article that praised the university’s commitment to being a community leader and infusing the downtown with fresh blood. 

“Behind the depot,” the article noted, “a former city parkette is set to become a performance space for student and community use, complementing city ambitions to reconnect public spaces to a spectacular waterfront that lies 7.6 metres below street grade.

“In another nod to connections, Mr. (sic) Wildeman broke from past practice with a pledge to exclude food services from the renovated buildings—an open invitation to business to invest in coffee shops and other retail activity on nearby streets.”

Wildeman commented in the article that, “We recognize the downtown is where we have the home of the symphony, the art gallery and the theatres and all the social agencies. It lets us fulfill what is part of our strategic plan, which is to create one of the most exciting learning environments we can.”

University of Windsor School of Social Work.
Patick Hansor, Master of Social Work student
University of Windsor School of Social Work interior

For the School of Social Work, the downtown relocation means opportunities to expand its programs, attract more students, provide well-trained graduates to the profession, and build upon inter-disciplinary and inter-professional program opportunities.

One year after the move into the Pitt Ferry Building, about 600 people work and study there. What was once a dark interior with winding hallways, many tiny offices and a basement devoted to a massive press, bears little resemblance to the new facility.

Light streams into an open-air atrium in the main entrance through massive windows. This space is dominated by a unique, three-storey staircase and made welcoming with modern seating areas, and a fireplace. 

To the left are two high-tech, glass-walled classrooms—divisible classrooms that offer flexibility and are wired for simulcast to allow for distance learning. Each looks out over the Heritage Courtyard, a relaxing outdoor area where students can gather to chat.

Several multi-purpose seminar and breakout rooms are available in the building for PhD cohorts, group meetings and projects, small workshops and gatherings. Some of the spaces are available to the public to promote community engagement.

An interviewing suite provides an opportunity for students to practise fundamental interviewing/counselling techniques in social work.

The third-floor boardroom boasts a spectacular view of the Detroit skyline through towering glass walls. It opens out to a rooftop terrace augmented with green space.

It was CS&P Architects who faced the daunting mission of bringing a century old building up to modern standards while still paying respect to its past. For example, the very delicate façade of the Pitt Ferry building required careful handling to ensure it survived the monumental transformation happening within. And it did with flying colours. 

In fact, this was a major factor in the university receiving the 2016 Built Heritage Award from the City of Windsor last March.

For Patrick Hansor, a Master of Social Work candidate at the time of publication, the transformation of the Pitt Ferry building has been nothing less than stunning. 

“I love it! Architecturally, it’s a masterpiece,” he says. “From the inside there is a lot of openness and transparency, which couldn’t be more appropriate for a school of social work.”

Hansor, who plans to pursue his PhD after gaining some relevant experience, says that he migrated his research work from the Leddy Library to the new building. “It is a good place to think and it puts me in the mood to do some good work.”

He adds that, “the MSW Working Professionals program that I’m enrolled in was originally held off campus, so we had very little need to visit the university proper. Now, with the new building, I feel very much more connected to the U of W. I know where to go during my professors’ office hours, where the social work librarian is, and where to find the program administrators. For me, it is a very important part of the student experience.”

The School of Social Work is a leader in such areas as developing theory and interventions for addiction, bullying, disabilities and accessibility; housing and mental health outcomes; Aboriginal health and safety; and research on poverty. Over the years, it has established strong partnerships with such leading community and Windsor-Essex organizations as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Children’s Aid Society and St. Clair College. 

Community University Partnership (CUP) is the school’s award-winning program that has involved hundreds of students in field practica as a means to address well-being, mental health, and socioeconomic issues. These efforts have had significant results including six neighbourhoods engaged in programming, representing 1,497 individual housing units and improved health and mental health among residents. Crime has been reduced in target neighbourhoods including a drop in violence against women.

The downtown relocation means closer proximity to these agencies and user groups. This allows students and faculty to work with mental health services in new and innovative ways to provide far greater access for the community. 

Melissa Yue Li and Anita Bondy of the Centre for Executive and Professional Education (CEPE).

Melissa Yue Li, at left, and Anita Bondy of the Centre for Executive and Professional Education (CEPE).

The Centre for Executive and Professional Education (CEPE) is the other major tenant of the Pitt Ferry Building.

Since 2001, more than 1,000 people have graduated from its programs, which not only draws interest from local professionals who wish to upgrade their qualification, but also on a national and international level. 

CEPE offers Master’s programs in: Social Work; Management; Engineering; Education; Medical Biotechnology; Applied Computing; Actuarial Science; and Applied Economics and Policy.

CEPE’s relocation provides three significant benefits: 

  • Expanded space and efficient scheduling 
  • Technological advances that promote effective learning—including distance learning in real-time for the busy professional—through classrooms wired for simulcast lectures. 
  • Broader programming and extended reach. The new facility will allow CEPE to broaden its staff, enhance current programming and expand its offerings as well as the number of individuals it serves. 

Dr. Ram Balachandar, vice provost, International Development, and executive director of CEPE, “enables the university and CEPE to extend our reach into the community by facilitating the delivery of expanded continuing education programming in Windsor-Essex, including within the fields of business, education, engineering, and health sciences. 

“The university has a demonstrated strength in educating professionals in our degree programs, and this building, and our expanding professional development programming, which can now be offered complements this rich history.” Balachandar adds that CEPE looks forward to leveraging novel classroom design, the integration of cutting-edge technology, and collaborative breakout spaces to provide professional learners with a great learning experience.

The Social Work and CEPE move comprised Phase One of the downtown campus. 

In September 2017, Phase Two will be unveiled: the opening of the Armouries building, home to the School of Creative Arts’ (SOCA) music and visual arts programs. Across the street will be the new SoCA building, which will house a multimedia studio, film production studios and large “making” labs where students will create with metal, wood, and other media. 

Overall, this will translate into an infusion of another 500 students, staff and faculty to the area.

More than a year before it opens, this part of the downtown campus project has already drawn keen attention. As with the Pitt Ferry building, the challenge of peeling away the old to make room for the new while retaining its sense of history and place in the community is not a small one. 

Once again, CS&P Architects Inc. took up the gauntlet. The building was stripped back to a shell with two-foot walls, which provided a solid base from which to work. The concrete floor was broken up to dig another 11 feet down to create a basement that runs the length of the Armouries. It will allow for a 150-seat recital hall in the south end, a critical component for the music program.

The end result of the construction will be open, airy and conducive to collaboration—a theme that underpins the entire downtown campus’ reason for being.

Peter Whatmore, senior vice-president for Southwestern Ontario at CBRE Ltd., a commercial real estate services firm, predicted in that 2013 Globe and Mail article that, “When the university gets fully established and you have activity on the street, it will drive other activities.

“Like any downtown, it needs feet on the street and needs to feel and look safe to people who would say ‘I would like to spend my money here.’”

And, that’s exactly what TD Bank did in June 2015 when bank officials announced a gift of $850,000 to enhance, revitalize and expand the urban green space as part of the university’s vision for the Armouries building and the former Greyhound bus depot which was also purchased as part of the campus.

Mark Chauvin BSc ’77, BComm ’79, MBA ’80, TD’s group head and chief risk officer, said that plans call for the former Chatham Street Parkette to be revitalized “into a vibrant green space” with benches, trees, shrubs and a portable stage.

The downtown campus isn’t even fully realized and it’s already a game changer—bringing together the university and the greater community for the better good of all.