On Feb. 8, 2017, City Council voted to move forward with a plan to build a new central public library at 557 Wellington, in LeBreton Flats. Here are the remarks I delivered during the Council meeting.
I was going to use my five minutes this morning to ask questions about the process that got us here to better understand what I see as some of the shortcomings and gaps in that process. For instance, to better understand how a site selection process can be deemed fair when the recommended site was referred to by library staff as the “preferred site” well over a year before there was a site selection process in place. Or why the recommended site is deemed to be worth less than half the market value of a site 200 metres away, closer to the core, which recently sold for twice the value despite being less than half the size of the recommended site. Or why the public polling questions, based on these hard-to-comprehend real estate appraisals, were worded a little bit like asking a child whether it would like one marshmallow or two. But I realized that asking those questions would not change the outcome and my five minutes might be better spent boiling down what this debate is actually about in substance.
The debate about the library has been a debate about the site. And the debate about the site, is really a proxy for a contest between two ideas or visions for our city: a vision of downtown consolidation or invigoration, versus a vision of downtown diffusion.
The consolidators believe the library site should do a number of things. It should be located to maximize its proximity to the three user groups identified by the library staff: all residents of Ottawa, local residents for whom the central library is their branch, and visitors. The second thing the consolidators believe the library should do is strengthen the dynamism and livability of our downtown core. The consolidators would point to the opportunities to create geographic synergy with our major cultural, political and administrative institutions. They focus on easy access not just to the LRT, which was absolutely imperative, but also the majority of cross-town bus routes that will continue to operate post-LRT. Some consolidators worry about how vulnerable groups living in our mixed and dense core will be able to access this critical public resource.
The diffusers believe the library can serve the role of an important anchor for a new dynamic node on the edge of LeBreton Flats. They believe the LRT will overcome the access issues. They believe that the 100,000 downtown office workers from all parts of our city will not be deterred from using the new library by the escarpment or by the extra distance from their places of work. They point to the value of vistas and viewsheds and the opportunity to buttress and support major private investments that are being made at Zibi, Albert Street and the vicinity.
We’re very lucky. Both groups – the consolidators and the diffusers – care deeply about our city. Both groups are excited about the prospect of a new central library. We should be heartened by the incredible civic activism we have seen on this file because while this is indeed a contest between two visions of the city, and the two visions are advanced with passion and conviction, it is a contest over a public asset that no matter where it goes will be an important addition to our civic landscape. It is clear that this building will be a hit – the question is which of the two visions would result in extra bases or even allow us to swing for the fences.
I am a consolidator. And while I believe my position is supported by the demographic evidence and projections of future growth, by the experiential evidence of other cities and by the evidence of what the public has told us they want, I desperately hope I am wrong. And while I believe the process was flawed, and the evaluation criteria and scoring weighted towards a site that supported diffusion, that belief will not prevent me from supporting this project moving forward.
Note: Although I indicated my support for moving forward on the central library project, I abstained from voting on the recommendation at Council today, which included the proposed site, given my stated concerns with the site selection process.