New central library on edge of LeBreton Flats gets green light from library board

The Ottawa Public Library Board has voted in favour of building a new central library on Wellington Street between Bronson Avenue and Booth Street.

Most speakers at meeting against site at 557 Wellington St., but board members vote in favour

This city-owned property bounded by Albert Street, Commissioner Street and the Confederation light rail line was the Ottawa Public Library staff's recommended site for a new central public library. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

A new central library is one step closer to being built on the eastern edge of LeBreton Flats after the Ottawa Public Library Board voted Tuesday evening in favour of locating the facility on city-owned land at 557 Wellington St. 

The board voted 8-to-1 in favour of the site after a packed meeting that lasted more than four hours, with Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney the sole trustee to vote against the location.

Many of McKenney's Centretown constituents, as well as activist group Bookmark the Core, have been critical of 557 Wellington St. as a library location, arguing it is too far from the traditional centre of the city, and that its location on the escarpment makes it more difficult to get to for people with mobility issues.

While the councillor acknowledged that people in the western part of the ward — in Little Italy, Chinatown and the LeBreton area — favoured the city-owned site, she still voted against the proposal.

"I have to vote with my conscience tonight and I do not believe this is the best we can do," she said.

Poll showed support for site

Before 21 public delegations made their deputations, library staff made a lengthy presentation that included survey results by a poll conducted by Nanos Research earlier this month.

Of the 1,000 residents randomly surveyed, 88 per cent of respondents were in favour of the plan to share a proposed 216,000-square-foot library with the federal Library and Archives Canada (LAC), with 133,000 square feet going to the city library branch. (The poll is considered accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

The super-library would cost $168 million to build — although that's a very rough estimate — with the city paying $99 million and the federal government contributing $69 million. That preliminary price tag doesn't include the costs of any parking facility.

More importantly, the survey showed that 72 per cent of respondents preferred the city-owned site, which runs west from the intersection of Albert and Commissioner streets and south of the Confederation light rail line. The site is about 50 metres west of Bronson Avenue and about 250 metres east of the Pimisi LRT station, currently under construction.

The poll pointed out that this site represented the "lowest cost to taxpayers," according to a presentation from pollster Nik Nanos.

The support for the city site wasn't equal across the city, with higher support in the suburbs and rural area.

Still, even in the central area where there has been vocal opposition to the LeBreton Flats location, 61 per cent of respondents were in favour of 557 Wellington St.

Most speakers against plan

More than two-thirds of the 21 public delegations spoke against siting the central library at LeBreton Flats, echoing many of the arguments made at a public meeting held by downtown councillors in mid-January.

Ed Pollitt, a former planner with the federal public works department, said "the proposed site is distant from the core," a comment shared by all those who spoke against 557 Wellington St.

Another common criticism is that, while there may be plans in the works for LeBreton, they are not a done deal.

"LeBreton Flats will not see density for decades to come," said Jevone Nicholas, with Bookmark the Core. "Libraries don't exist as catalysts for future development."

And finally, many argued that moving the main library to the LeBreton area would be a hardship for the many low-income people, including seniors, living in the core who currently walk to the current downtown branch.

Peter Thorn pointed out that some who now walk to the library would have to pay about $7 round-trip when the new central branch is built.

"For many of us, this [$7] is not excessive, but for seniors or the working poor, it's a disadvantage," he told board members.

Most of the opponents suggested a site at Albert and Lyon streets, which was the amalgamation of three properties — one owned by the city, the other two privately held. City staff estimated this site would cost $33 million more than 557 Wellington St., although McKenney questioned that assessment.

But Mayor Jim Watson, who attended the entire board meeting, said in a closing statement that there are thousands of residents in the western part of the downtown, Little Italy, Chinatown and the LeBreton area who will be closer to a library once the new central branch is built. And he pointed out that more density is coming to the area from LeBreton and Zibi developments.

The city has discussed a new central library on and off for 20 years, Watson pointed out. But it's only now that "the stars are aligning," said Watson, as the mayor, council and the federal government all support a new central library.

Next steps

Council is set to debate and vote on the location at its Feb. 8 meeting. If the central library location is approved, as expected, the federal government will then finalize its decision to partner with the city in the super-library. That decision, likely announced by spring, is also likely to be positive.

The library board will begin to discuss the details of a parking facility, which calls for a minimum of 170 spaces, in March. And council is expected to hear about the financing plans for the library — including options for selling off the land at Laurier Avenue and Metcalfe Street, where the current main branch is located — in June.

On a more creative note, library and city staff will start the design process. Watson said Tuesday he's "not opposed" to an international design competition, which he said will be the "exciting" part of the process.

That design competition would likely have to be completed before the end of the year if the contract and ground-breaking are to take place in mid-2018 as planned. Construction is expected to start in 2020, with a central library opening date of 2022.