Having a central library where the planners announced Thursday they want to put it, at the northwest corner of Bronson Avenue and Albert Street, isn’t a tragedy — a central library should be central, sure, but that spot is, and will be even more so once LeBreton Flats fills in. The particular piece of land the library staff have chosen comes with some challenges, such as being distinctly uphill from the nearest transit station, but centralness isn’t one of them.
What it doesn’t do so well, though, is serve the Ottawans who use the current main library at Laurier Avenue and Metcalfe Street as their local branch. Libraries are places to get and return books — and places for meetings and lectures and homework, English and French classes, baby groups and free Internet access. For refuge from the cold in winter and heat in summer. Places you can go and be among people and nobody asks you why you aren’t buying anything. Libraries are community centres disguised as book repositories.
This one will also be an exhibition space for Library and Archives Canada and, we hope, a minor tourist destination.
Moving the downtown branch nearly a kilometre west will be good for northwest Centretown, great for Dalhousie and eventually LeBreton Flats. But the new site is nearly as far from Elgin and Gladstone as the Rideau Street branch in Sandy Hill or the Sunnyside branch in Old Ottawa South. After the move, Centrepointe will be better covered by libraries than Centretown.
Library chief executive Danielle McDonald found herself caught between Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney (a library board trustee) and Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder (a former chair of the library board) on this as she took questions in the presentation revealing the plans.
McKenney has a solid argument to make about the loss of a library in some of the neighbourhoods she represents. A kilometre is far if you’re on foot. The difference between a walk and a walk-and-a-transit-ride is meaningful. But if what you hear is McKenney complaining that anything west of Bronson isn’t downtown, it sounds absurd. The distance between the sites is, what, a two-minute drive?
“Is this central library for everybody in this city? Or is this a downtown branch?” Harder demanded, tired of McKenney’s questions about the logistics of reaching the proposed site.
It’s both, McDonald told her: “This is a central library. It does serve as a downtown branch.”
The central library will cost the city about $100 million, as much as the library system’s whole plan for new library branches and expansions everywhere else between now and 2023. Those include a new building in Riverside South (which has no library yet) and either new branches or significant expansions of existing ones in Barrhaven and Orléans.
This is a forecast the library board approved just in September. It leaves out the prospect of a new central library, the details having been too hazy to base any projections on, so all the central-library spending is extra. Even without it the forecast includes warnings that the library will have trouble paying for it all with its current funding.
The still-sketchy financial plan for the new library includes selling the old one, though the planners offered up a worst-case scenario based on the premise that the city can’t get anything for the land. That’s implausible but it’s wise to run the numbers conservatively.
If we need to borrow all that money, it means annual payments of $5.5 million, in the planners’ estimates. Add increased annual operating costs of $1.8 million, because the new central library will be bigger and more ambitious in its offerings because that’s the point, and we’re talking about $7.3 million a year in new costs. About 15 per cent of the library’s 2017 budget of $47.2 million.
Maybe the city could sell the current main library on the condition a small branch be included in redevelopment plans, though that would mean getting less for the property and committing to ongoing operating expenses. Not contemplated in the planning as it stands.
River Coun. Riley Brockington was worried enough about the money to ask McDonald whether there’s any prospect of closing branches to cover central-library costs. No, McDonald replied, we’re not planning any branch closures.
Only the one.
Source: Ottawa Citizen