Tower of wobble

Fenwick Towers, the south end monstrosity, maybe in its final year as a student residence. It's had a troubled past, but for 400 students a year, it's home.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: When it gets windy, Fenwick Towers sways so much the water sloshes in the toilets. There's a pool on the top floor of Fenwick that can't be filled because the weight of the water would topple the building. Or exert so much pressure that tenants two floors below wouldn't be able to open the doors to their apartments.

Or maybe you've just heard the insults. One local blogger refers to it as "Nova Scotia's own monument to brutalism," which is about as complimentary as descriptions of the building ever get. A newspaper panel once called it one of the city's ugliest buildings. "We don't want another Fenwick Towers," someone will inevitably protest when a developer rolls out plans for the city's latest high-rise building. I've heard it called an architectural crime against humanity, a monstrosity, a leftover set piece from Blade Runner, a giant erection, or---less imaginatively---ugly.

For almost 40 years, Dalhousie University's largest "non-traditional student residence" has towered over southern Halifax, the tallest residential building east of Montreal, dwarfing almost everything in its path. Each year more than 400 students pack themselves into the building, finding shelter in rooms throughout its 33 storeys. Many of them are graduate students, or here on international exchanges. Not all of them study at Dal---nearly every university in the city had at least a few representatives living in the building in 2007.

But, even with its inescapable presence and large, ever-changing roster of tenants, the building remains little more than a source of great urban legends, or something to grimace at while walking down South Street. Halifax's own 486-foot enigma.

For the first three years of my university career I felt terribly sorry, and somewhat concerned, for everyone trapped inside. How could anyone survive in that concrete monster, I wondered, especially when it sounded like a few litres of a water and a stiff wind could topple it?

Yet survive they did. Each year the tower filled up with another 400 students who, presumably, didn't mind having to clean up splashes of toilet water during high winds and had mastered the art of nailing down their possessions. And in the summer of 2007 I joined them, armed with a hammer and an extra load of bath towels, just in case.

Then, in January 2008, Dalhousie University did what years of storms and students couldn't. For the first time in decades, the future of Fenwick Towers is as uncertain as city gossip has always made it out to be. No, not because of the pool.

The building Halifax loves to hate is up for sale. The high rise's current tenants are guaranteed apartments until the end of this year, but what the future holds for Fenwick after that, as university spokesperson Charles Crosby puts it, is "a lot of question marks."

But, when it comes to Fenwick Towers, a little mystery is nothing new.

“As you crawl into your warm beds tonight, 600 of your fellow Dalhousie students will be out searching for a place to stay,” wrote Dorothy Wigmore in September of 1970.

If there was ever a lousy time to be a student renter in Halifax, it was 1970. Over the previous decade, Dalhousie's enrollment numbers had shot up. By the fall of 1970, almost 7,000 students were showing up for classes---which was 2,000 more than had enrolled just three years earlier.

The campus was expanding, too. Construction had already started on the Life Sciences Centre---a sprawling, half-submerged maze of concrete that would house the school's biology, psychology and oceanography departments---and the school's new arts centre and library were set to open in 1971. As the decade began, Dalhousie was making the transition from quaint to concrete, transforming itself into the very model of a modern provincial university. There was, however, one small problem.

"As you crawl into your warm beds tonight, 600 of your fellow Dalhousie students will be out searching for a place to stay," wrote Dorothy Wigmore in a September 1970 edition of Dalhousie's student newspaper, the Gazette. "Homeless Students Roam Streets," the headline ran. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. Though Dalhousie had stepped up construction on classroom space, it hadn't built a new residence since 1964, well before its current enrollment boom. Only 1,250 students had a place to stay on campus.

Off-campus, the housing situation was just as dire. Halifax's vacancy rate was less than one per cent. Students crammed themselves into basement apartments, sometimes sharing two rooms between six people.

For the privilege, they paid as much as $216 a month---the equivalent of $1,200 with inflation.

Enter Andy Winstanley, a second-year law student and Dalhousie's new student union president. During a tight presidential race, Winstanley had promised to focus on the needs of Dal's ever-expanding student population: Lower tuition, a student-run book store and, of course, an end to the housing crisis.

"My whole campaign had been parking and housing," Winstanley, now a lawyer in Vancouver, remembers. "That was really the two issues that got me elected."

But how to fill those campaign promises? Earlier that year the university and student union had purchased an old, barrack-style building left over from World War II. Unfortunately, it had only provided space for another 30 students. "That," Winstanley observes, "was obviously not much of a solution."

Then, as Dalhousie's fall term began and the Gazette's 600 homeless students were making headlines, Winstanley found the solution he needed. It was gutsy. It was expensive. It was big. It was Fenwick Towers, a mostly-finished luxury high-rise just down from University Avenue, whose owners had recently gone bankrupt.

With the help of student union general manager John Graham, Winstanley set out to convince the university that the building, which was about 70 percent completed, was exactly what it needed. With some creative partitioning of rooms, Fenwick could house hundreds of students. And, Winstanley and Graham argued, it would be cheaper than building a new, smaller residence.

"To our surprise," Winstanley says, "the university agreed."

In April of 1971 Fenwick Towers sold for $5.25 million. The Gazette reported construction on the building would be finished by September, less than six months away. Rent would start at $17 a week.

"Everyone was happy they had a place to stay and could get out of some of their basements and overcrowded rooms," Winstanley remembers. "We didn't have any problem filling it."

The problems came a few months later.

It was August, 1971, and Winstanley had just become the first student to move into Fenwick Towers, where he would also become the building's first night manager---essentially a late-night concierge and conflict resolver all rolled into one.

As out of place as Fenwick looks today, it must have seemed even stranger to Winstanley. There were almost no high-rise buildings in Halifax at the time and the apartment was surrounded by average-sized houses that, even today, barely seem to come up to Fenwick's elevated main doors. It was all completely out of place. But to Winstanley it also looked very elegant. Inside, it was clear Fenwick had been meant for far grander things than student housing.

"The living room was parquet floored," Winstanley remembers. "The bathroom had marble counters... it was obviously built to luxury standards."

Most of the building's living rooms had been partitioned off to make extra bedrooms, and in some cases, two-bedroom units were now housing five students. But Winstanley's bachelor apartment was still a single, spacious unit. Not bad for someone whose only piece of furniture was a waterbed.

The rest of the building was a different story. Though students were due to move in at the end of the month, Fenwick was still incomplete. There was no glass on the main floor, the elevators weren't ready for student use and the ground was littered with piles of Gyprock and uninstalled partitions.

The trouble started soon after Winstanley's arrival. On August 15, Hurricane Beth passed through Halifax, flooding Fenwick's elevator shafts. A pile of building materials caught fire. Then, suddenly, it was September and the rest of the building's tenants arrived, only to discover they'd rented rooms on an active construction site. It took less than a month for that novelty to wear off. "Fenwick Ills Still Here," was the Gazette's headline that October. The newspaper reported many apartments were still missing stoves, toilet seats, windows or, in some cases, brackets to hold up the partitions between bedrooms. The parking lot was flooded. Doors were missing. Two of the building's elevators were off limits to students.

"The other," the Gazette reported, "is run by an operator at all times. Those tenants who wish to move between floors must pound on doors and yell their floor number into the shaft... It is generally accepted that such a service is not effective."

As night manager, Winstanley was having other difficulties.

"Anything would happen," he remembers. "Overdoses and visits from Saint Mary's, multiple fire alarm pullings... I believe once or twice we had a pipe bursting in the wall. It was not easy for the first residents of that building."

Louis Lemoine, another Fenwick tenant, sent his own complaint to the paper. On the morning of October 11, just before 5am, Lemoine awoke to a strange humming noise coming from his window. Or rather, the spot where it was supposed to be. The window itself, he reported, had sprung free of the wall and was currently lying across his back, pinning him to the bed. To Lemoine, this seemed like a bad sign.

"The popping window factory may not be a safe place to live," he wrote. "If they have to tear it down and start all over again they had better do it."

The building had been open less than two months, and it already seemed like Fenwick Towers was minutes away from crashing down.

The last 37 years have not been kind to the building. Its once-sleek concrete exterior is scarred and scraped. The elevator buttons are worn from thousands of impatient fingers. As is the case in most old apartments, the hallways are long, somewhat dim and dingy, and eerily identical to each other. On the 21st floor, piles of half-flattened frozen pizza boxes and empty bottles lie shoved against one wall. This, I discovered upon my arrival, is Fenwick's recycling system.

Most of my favourite rumours about the building had been busted. By the time Hurricane Noel hit Halifax in November 2007, I had given up hope of ever seeing the water in my toilet sway. Even Fenwick's mysterious pool is no building wrecker---Dalhousie never filled it because pumping that much water 400 feet into the air would break the building's budget.

Luckily, the stories I heard from my roommate more than made up for all this disappointment.

Risa Corbett, a 23-year-old, red-headed, larger-than-life history major, worked at Fenwick's front desk from May to September, 2007. From her I learned about the things students like to throw from their balconies: Fruit, coat hangers and, every so often, shopping carts. About another tenant who turned the unused second bedroom in his apartment into a cage for his rabbit.

I heard about the day she moved into unit 2106, when the oven door and the toilet tank both fell off within hours of her arrival: "So we had to go up to the 25th floor to use the washroom until they could get it fixed...It took about five days---which may not sound like a lot, but when you're running up three flights of stairs in the middle of the night to use the washroom..."

I heard about, and eventually met, the building's small team of maintenance men. One, a bespectacled Dalhousie student named Carl, spent so many hours hauling garbage, mopping floors and grimly riding the elevator to the next emergency that I don't know when he had time to go to class.

I even heard a rumour about a girl who lived a few storeys above us, who came back from a study break on a windy day to find her window lying on her bed.

None of these stories, however, prepared me for my first maintenance disaster. As Noel's 113km/hour winds hit Halifax, the windows in my apartment began to drip, then to produce their own steady stream of rain, just slightly out of sync with the pounding droplets outside. The groove the balcony door rested in was overflowing, creating its own miniature Halifax Harbour on the floor. It took every towel in our apartment and a couple of wash cloths to stem the flow.

Afterwards, I wondered why the person who started the toilet water rumour thought a few splashes in the bathroom would be stranger than the truth.

Andrea Smith is counting strikes. With a building like Fenwick there are a lot to count.

"Height, scale, age, funding," they all work against the building, she says. "And then there's the social stigma. Because everybody wants to blow up Fenwick, right?"

Smith is Ghanaian, one of many international students who call Fenwick home. She moved to Halifax two years ago, and has been living here ever since. She's been working at Fenwick's front desk almost as long. There's no complaint about the building she hasn't heard, and though she laughs when she says it, she's not kidding about the "blow up Fenwick" movement.

"To me, the Fenwick experience really and truly boils down to how you conceptualize home---what is home for you, what's comfort for you," she says. "It's a willingness to adapt, and to make something your home, and some find it difficult to make this transition. And some people love Fenwick. I love Fenwick."

No, she's not blind. She knows the building isn't pretty. But it's next to a grocery store, and only five minutes from Dal's Sexton Campus on Spring Garden Road, where she studies urban planning and community design. Sometimes, she says, function just trumps form.

It's not a widely shared opinion. In two years she's seen Fenwick inspire more anger and indifference than love.

"I find it very ironic, people complain a lot about Fenwick and when they leave, they will leave the apartments in a total mess," Smith says. Some times the places are just dirty. But holes in the walls and innovative property damage aren't uncommon either.

As far as I could tell, there are only three ways tenants react to life in Fenwick Towers: Anger, indifference and Stockholm Syndrome. I went with the latter. I felt a strange sense of accomplishment every time I managed take an elevator to the first floor---especially when it stopped on the sixth floor for no reason, as it did every day for months.

Smith wonders if the building's reputation is to blame. People don't expect students to have respect for property, so maybe we're all just living down to that expectation. After all, she argues, if Fenwick Towers is already an irredeemable eyesore and a city wide joke, what can we possibly do to make it worse?

"Just flip them all off when you're ready to go," the night manager told me, jiggling the fuse that controls my kitchen lights.

Even with the power still flowing, the apartment was almost too dark to navigate. May, 2008: All that remained in unit 2106 were bare walls and a roll of toilet paper. I wondered, what will happen to this place once I'm gone? For Fenwick Towers, falling down has always looked an awful lot like staying up.

"The apartments may need to be totally renovated, but I don't expect the building will be torn down," Tom Margolian, a vice-president at the real estate firm charged with selling Fenwick, tells me. He'll be shocked, he says, if Fenwick's next owners demolish Halifax's only 33-storey building, especially since it's unlikely anyone will be allowed to build anything that tall in the area again.

Instead, Margolian expects Fenwick's future will be much the same as its past.

"I think it will continue to have some sort of multi-residential use, either apartments or a hotel or some combination thereof," he says. "I expect it's not going to be a lot different than it is today. Except it'll be in much better condition."

The sale itself is still months off. Margolian's firm, DTZ Barnicke, won't even set a price for the building until September. By the time Fenwick finally changes hands, my apartment's next set of tenants may already be moving out.

Where they'll move after that is another question entirely. Dal's Crosby says the university is "looking into overall residence space needs" for the 2009-10 school year---but won't make any decisions before Fenwick is officially on the market.

Meanwhile, the university's other 2,100 "traditional" dorm rooms are in high demand. In 2007, Dalhousie's residence vacancy rate was almost nonexistent. And when Fenwick finally goes, the university will lose almost all of its 476 non-traditional bedrooms, as well as its international student space. Though the university promises it will accommodate Fenwick's tenants once the building is sold, it's unlikely the high rise's married and mature students would be entirely satisfied with life in a Shirreff Hall dorm.

Luckily for those still living in the tower, this isn't 1970. Frank Wendt, a planner for the HRM, says the city's rental market can handle another influx of student renters even without Fenwick.

"There are about 50,000 rental units in the region," he says, "And people are moving in and out all the time." Another 400 renters won't send Halifax into a housing crisis. But, as Wendt points out, Halifax's south end has the second lowest vacancy rate in the city (only Mainland North's---Clayton Park, Fairview, Rockingham and Bayers Lake---is lower). Renters used to easy access to downtown bars and their campuses may have to learn to love commuting.

"Whether would affect smaller pockets like south end Halifax, I don't know," Wendt says. "I don't know whether there are 400 spaces available."

It's all question marks. Just what you'd expect from Fenwick Towers.

Back in unit 2106, I took one final look at the leaky windows and the dust varnished into the floor. I flipped off the fuses, and waved goodbye to the Dartmouth skyline.

For the first time all year, the elevator ride to the main floor went all too quickly.

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