The rollercoaster journey of KPU’s student union building development

A look at the ups and downs the project has faced over the past 13 years

(Kristen Frier)

(Kristen Frier)

Just like how the University of British Columbia has its own student union building (SUB) called “The Nest,” the Kwantlen Student Association has been working for years to build one with the hopes of offering a centralized space for clubs, study spaces, offices, student services and activities. 

The attempt began in the fall of 2009, when the KSA successfully passed a referendum to begin collecting $2.90 per credit from students to be “used to build and operate student-owned SUB buildings on the Surrey and Langley campuses, and to develop autonomous student centres on both Cloverdale and Richmond.” The referendum passed with 289 students voting in favour and 188 students voting against.

In the spring semester of 2010, the KSA unveiled its plans to commit to creating a SUB at the Surrey campus. The association was optimistic that the building process would proceed quickly, however, in the fall of 2011, these plans were delayed, as the KPU Board of Governors passed a motion to cut the university-sourced funding for the building until they “deem[ed] it appropriate.” 

At the time, KSA director of finance Nina Sandhu said that the move was likely due to budget issues, and that “the architect said it could not be done with the budget that we had.” In a follow-up interview, Sandhu said this was actually an assumption on their part, as no one from the board had given the KSA an explanation about the decision, after notifying them of the decision.

In a statement to The Runner, Jody Gordon, the KPU associate vice president at the time, contradicted Sandhu’s statement, saying the real reason that the university passed the motion to stop the funding was due to internal disputes the KSA was facing at the time.

“The university is not prepared at this time to pursue the student union building initiative with the KSA given the KSA’s current litigious proceedings,” Gordon wrote, referring to an ongoing controversial lawsuit between the KSA and five of its former elected members that, at the time, executives had been actively working to settle.

In 2016, after years of talks trying to figure out how to revive the project, the KSA submitted a loan application to Vancity Credit Union requesting approximately $15 million to put towards the construction of the SUB. It wasn’t until the KSA annual general meeting in 2017 that students were able to approve the loan. With a vote of 107 to one, the KSA was able to discuss the agreement with Vancity for more funding.  Later that year, progress was made as the new KSA “steering committee” for the creation of the SUB began to hold its first meetings.

“We’re super excited to have this building up and running as soon as humanly possible, and about the opportunities it will provide to KPU students,” said Tanvir Singh, the KSA president at the time. The committee was meant to provide advice and oversee projects like this for the KSA, and council meeting minutes show that the SUB development was talked about throughout the year.

In early 2019, the KSA was in talks to sign a contract with Titanium Projects to help with construction. Titanium Projects have been contracted by the British Columbia Institute of Technology and UBC for various projects. One of those projects was UBC’s SUB community centre which opened in 2015, and provides students with amenities such as a climbing wall and daycare.

“We have made more progress on the SUB in the last year alone than all other years combined,” said Murdoch de Mooy, who was the KSA vice-president of university affairs at the time. 

“Once the construction contract is signed, it will be a significant milestone for the SUB process and will start the countdown until all of us students inevitably get our student union building.”

In late 2019, the KSA passed a motion to renew the debenture on the loan to support the SUB’s construction. The KSA has said that part of the reason the project had experienced delays in recent years was due to KPU2050, or the “Campus Master Plan” the university established in 1981.

Having to work around the possibilities of other buildings and other spaces added more difficulty to an already troubled project.

“The current version of the building … the actual attempt has really been in effect for the last four years,” says KSA executive director Ben Newsom.

Newsom says there have been considerations on how to fit the SUB into those plans, including whether to value traffic in the near future or 20 years later and how much of a factor other buildings getting constructed are. 

“We don’t know what the right answer is just yet, we’re waiting to have more in this conversation with KPU at the moment,” Newsom says.

As to where the building could go, there is no definitive location, but Newsom says there are a couple of possibilities at the moment. 

“The space in between the Birch building and the library is where they would like it to be,” Newsom says. “There’s a corner space that’s accessible from there. We weren’t sure if that was going to be the best spot, but it’s a spot.” 

Having the building located in a space opposite of the parking lot close to the Fir building is another possibility. 

Regarding who could construct the current iteration building, Newsom says MakeProjects and ThinkSpace were the two companies chosen to work on the project.

ThinkSpace has previously worked on Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology building, among other projects. MakeProjects is currently constructing the BCIT Health Sciences Centre that is set to open this spring. One of MakeProjects contractors, Bird Construction, also built “The Nest” at UBC.

“We have to pay the people that we’re working with to help us design and work with it,” Newsom says. “But they’re actually working with us to build the building, so again, the funds are being used to build it.”

At the KSA AGM last year, the audited financial statement report showed the project’s pre-development costs totalled $33,696 in 2019 and $201,504 in 2020. In the same meeting, then vice-president of finance and operations Ripunjot Kaur Brar, reported that the Capital Fund had accumulated “$6 million worth of assets and cash which is quite an achievement and essential as the KSA continues to work towards its goal of having its own Student Union Building.”

During the presentation of the financial statements at the AGM held this year on March 31, financial auditor Gary Wonzy said that about $142,000 of deposits were made “for future work on the possible student union building.” 

The agenda for the meeting had also included a motion for a SUB debenture authorization — making this the third time since 2017 that the KSA has asked students to approve the society’s decision to take out a loan to fund the building.

The motion would have required two thirds of the members present to pass, or 40 out of the 60 students needed to make quorum. When the meeting attendance was counted, only 57 people were present. 

It has been over a decade since KPU students used their votes to consent to paying for the creation of a student union building. 

The SUB Capital Fee, which now costs $3.20 per credit for students in semester-based programs, has been collected by the KSA every semester for twelve years since the initial referendum was passed. Every year, that money has been added to a growing fund for when the SUB can finally be built, but the KSA has never released an official plan, cost estimate, or concrete timeline for its construction.