Ottawa·Analysis

Why is a condo tower — not a new main library — going up beside Pimisi Station?

A consultant's report released this week about how the property for the proposed central library should be developed is a stark reminder of the short-sighted plan not to build our new central library directly on the Confederation Line.

Report asking for input on central library district is last chance to get location right

Planning consultant Fotenn was hired to prepare a preliminary plan intensification plan for the area around the new central library. (Fotenn)

There is plenty wrong with a report released this week about how the property for the proposed central library — and the land around it — should be developed.

Experienced planning consultant Fotenn wrote the report last May, asking to consider a conceptual plan for six buildings ranging in height from four to 25 storeys at 557-584 Wellington St. and 55 Albert St., land just west of Bronson Avenue.

The city owns 557 Wellington St., where it wants to build a new central library. The National Capital Commission owns the other two properties.

That the city and NCC want to consult on this preliminary plan makes sense, but a number of other things don't.

In one map of the surrounding area, the Mechanicsville neighbourhood is missing, having been usurped by LeBreton Flats.

The National Gallery is misnamed two different ways in two separate places. 

New street design ignored

And, most egregiously, the report doesn't take into account how the city plans to reconfigure Albert and Slater streets west of Bronson once the Confederation line opens and the buses come off those roads.

The city even had an open house late last year on its new design for the roads in that area — a design that doesn't make it into the planning report on which the public is supposed to comment.

Somerset ward Coun. Catherine McKenney is not impressed.

"We're very far along in a process to redesign Albert and Slater streets that run in front of the library project," said McKenney, who represents the area.

"I was surprised to see that wasn't reflected in the information that's gone out to circulation asking for comment from residents."

Condo site would make perfect library location

But there's an even bigger issue about the redevelopment plans for this area, and this one's not Fotenn's fault.

The report is a stark reminder of the short-sighted plan not to build our new central library directly on the new light-rail system. 

The NCC's property at 584 Wellington Street is by the corner of Albert and Booth streets, right on the site of Confederation Line's Pimisi Station.

Last year, the location scored a close second in the long list of potential locations being studied by the Ottawa Public Library staff and its consultants for a new central branch.

Exactly how the NCC property lost is still a bit of a mystery. 

It was by far the most accessible site by transit, whereas the city's location is about 300 metres uphill from Pimisi station.

During last year's public meetings on the project, accessibility advocates and people with mobility issues warned that trek would be a problem.

"Where the library is slated to go today, from door to door — I walk that every single day — it's a hike," said McKenney.

"It's on a slope and it's not right on LRT."

Coun. Catherine McKenney still believes the central library would be more accessible if it were located at Pimisi Station. (CBC News)

A consultant's report estimated putting the library at the NCC site would cost $8.8 million more than the city-owned site, but it's not clear how that was calculated.

If building on the site had been estimated to cost less than $8 million compared to the city-owned site, the NCC land would have scored more points, potentially allowing it to win out because it was only three points behind. 

But the city's officials never entered into any serious discussions with the NCC about the possible use of that land as a new central library.

The NCC and the city are constantly swapping and selling land.

In fact, the city bought the current library location at 557 Wellington Street from the NCC for $1 in 1991 in exchange for "in-kind works."

So while the NCC's land on the Confederation Line is undoubtedly more valuable than the city's property — no one is arguing for a direct swap of two pieces of land — it's hard to believe that some sort of deal couldn't be worked out between the two.

But instead of building an important public landmark on a world-class light rail system, our big city-building vision is to build a condo tower there.

Last chance to get library location right

Our city planning doesn't have to be this visionless.

Calgary is building its library right on top of its LRT, embedding the station right into the new central branch that is expected to open in November.

There's no reason we can't do something similar. 

The city is hoping to partner with Library and Archives Canada on what they expect will be a $165-million library, one of the only new city-building projects proposed since the LRT.

The money from the federal government is expected to be announced in the Feb. 27 federal budget.

The NCC site at the corner of Booth and Albert streets scored a close second in the evaluation of sites for a new central library. (Joanne Chianello/CBC )

It's a unique partnership between the city and the federal government. Shouldn't it also be as environmentally sustainable, transit-oriented and accessible as possible?

Or are those privileges we are now only reserving for condominium owners?

McKenney always said that if the new central library wasn't built downtown, if it had to go on LeBreton Flats, that it should be located at Pimisi station.

The councillor thinks she's already lost that argument.

But there's still time. There are no shovels in the ground, no pretty architectural renderings. Heck, we don't even have the money.

So let's not settle. Let's use this not-quite perfect consultant's report asking for input into the design of the central library district as an opportunity to demand the perfect location for this vital project.

Because it's our last chance to get this right.

now