‘Preferred location’ raises ire of library enthusiasts (Emma Jackson, Ottawa East News)

STAFF SAY 557 WELLINGTON ‘JUST A PLACEHOLDER,’ NO SITE CHOSEN FOR NEW CENTRAL LIBRARY

Location, location, location: that was the theme of the Ottawa Public Library board’s meeting on June 9, which gave staff a mandate to officially start planning a new central branch.

The library board has approved the staff recommendation to build a new central library rather than renovate the 120 Metcalfe St. location, which consultants said is too small for a modern main branch. The board also approved $800,000 for 2015 to ramp up planning for the project, which is expected to break ground in 2018.

About 30 residents came out to the meeting to witness the momentous step, which is the first true approval in the path to a new central library. City council still has to confirm the project as one of 63 strategic initiatives on July 8, after which staff can begin to further nail down cost details, partnership opportunities and location options.

It was the issue of location that got most speakers riled up at the board meeting. Many were adamant the board’s “preferred location” at 557 Wellington St. is a poor choice for such an important civic landmark.

Residents – and some councillors, including Tobi Nussbaum, Catherine McKenney and Marianne Wilkinson – argued the site just east of LeBreton Flats is too far out of the downtown core and doesn’t take advantage of the benefits of a more centralized location, such as serving downtown employees and tourists. One resident said it’s incredibly inaccessible, being “on the wrong side of a steep escarpment.”

But, according to library staff, it’s all just a big misunderstanding: what staff meant by “preferred location” is actually a “public sector comparator” – a benchmark for future proposals.

“A public sector comparator allows governments to figure out if a partnership proposal is more cost effective,” said library chief executive Danielle McDonald. “This has yet to be determined.”

The door is still open to any and all sites in the central area, which stretches from Bayview Road to King Edward Avenue – including privately-owned sites that could be developed in partnership with a private builder, McDonald said.

While the city-owned site has not been officially selected, it will nevertheless be subjected to “additional environmental assessments, further detailed costings, looking at any legal restrictions,” McDonald said, so that accurate comparisons can be made down the road.

Most of those decisions won’t be made for at least another year, and will include public consultations beforehand, staff said.

That was a big concern for resident Mary Cavanagh, who argued the library did little to consult with residents before bringing the report forward.

In March, nearly 200 people took part in a visioning exercise at city hall, and another 1,000 provided input online. Staff also reached out to users at the Main branch itself to get ideas of what people want to see in a new central library.

While those actions led to a comprehensive program framework – which seemed to be well received by everyone in attendance – they failed to address other important factors like location, Cavanagh said.

“Those efforts represent far too little process for such big decisions as are being taken tonight,” said Cavanagh, who is an information studies professor at the University of Ottawa. “Effective public engagement cannot survive on one-time events and occasional focus groups.”

McDonald assured residents that more public consultation is planned for the future, when staff is ready to choose a location. 

Source: Ottawa East News