New and increased price tag approved for Ottawa super library

The finance and economic development committee unanimously supported an extra $65 million for the City of Ottawa portion of a new central library after bids came in far higher than original estimates.

City committee unanimously voted to approve an extra $65M in costs to build new main library

The new joint facility between the Ottawa Public Library and Library and Archives Canada will be a net zero building and include an auditorium, seen here, as well as children's area, exhibition space, geneology lab, demonstration kitchen, recording studio, black box studio, and Indigenous gathering places. (City of Ottawa)

Ottawa's finance and economic development committee unanimously agreed to allocate an extra $65 million for the city portion of a new central library after bids came in far higher than original estimates.

A city report released last week, and reviewed by councillors on Tuesday, revealed how tight pandemic supply chains and construction inflation led to a much higher budget to build the new central branch, a partnership with Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told the committee city building projects are "costly and they're not always easy," adding the increased budget was not due to cost overruns, but factors city staff and professionals would not have predicted when they crafted the original estimates.

PCL Construction Ltd. submitted the lowest bid on Sept. 9, which would leave the City of Ottawa on the hook for nearly 60 per cent more than the $104 million estimate from June 2018.

The facility is now projected to open in the summer of 2026 at a total cost of $334 million, up from $193 million, which includes the portion paid for by the federal government and a parking garage.

City staff, LAC make their case

At committee on Tuesday, city staff and the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Leslie Weir, spoke to how the facility could draw tourists, as well as 1.5 million visitors overall each year, with its architecture and a collection that includes John McCrae's handwritten original of the poem In Flanders Fields and the first edition L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables.

It would also be an important piece to bridge the downtown with future LeBreton Flats development, they said. 

Anita Tenasco, director of education for the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community, has taken part in the design, and said the facility's art and gathering spaces will also increase understanding of Canada's Indigenous peoples.

"We so need this at this time," she said.

Anita Tenasco, education director for Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, speaks in front of the excavated site for Ottawa's new central library at the unveiling of its name in August 2021. (Kate Porter/CBC)

There are also plans for both libraries' current buildings. The City of Ottawa has sold its Main branch on Metcalfe Street and that lease will expire in 2026, while the LAC building on Wellington Street beside the Supreme Court is set to become part of the judicial precinct.

The City considered halting the project, but it has already spent $20 million, in addition to the $10 million from LAC, on excavation, site remediation and design.

Councillor questions

Councillors did drill city staff with questions about debt costs, finding efficiencies and fundraising.

Coun. Tim Tierney, a former library board chair, asked if the 2016 estimate for the city's portion — revised from $99 million to $104 million in 2018 — had built in enough contingency to deal with escalating prices.

City staff explained they allowed for a 10-per-cent increase, reflecting the market at the time, but could never have anticipated construction inflation to be revised to 65 per cent because of the pandemic's continent-wide supply chain issues. Special materials and highly skilled labour needed for the library are a "double whammy," added Steve Willis, the city's general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development.

Coun. Diane Deans said she worried councillors often find themselves rushing to make important decisions. The bid is only valid for 60 days after Sept. 9, staff explained. 

"We acknowledge council is put in a difficult position to make a commitment to continue with this project, but we see no path where this becomes a cheaper project by waiting," said Willis.

As for the debt increase caused by the library project, deputy city treasurer Isabel Jasmin explained servicing would be extended over 40 years instead of 20. 

"Overall it's costing us less by extending it out when you look at the time value of money," she said.

The Ottawa Public Library board was set to meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday and one of its members, Coun. Riley Brockington, expressed frustration the library's $16 million in reserves were being allocated before the board had a chance to debate tradeoffs and competing priorities.

Once the updated funding is approved by council on Oct. 27, city staff already have the authority to execute a contract with PCL.

The Treasury Board has already approved the increased costs for the federal part of the project.


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