Ottawa mayor says it’s “good bet” city, federal government will reach deal on new library

By Micaal Ahmed

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says “it’s a good bet” the city and the federal government will strike a deal to collaborate on a new $168-million Central Library on the eastern edge of LeBreton Flats.

But Watson added the proposed partnership between the Ottawa Public Library and Library and Archives Canada will have to be finalized in the coming weeks or the city will go it alone.

“If we’re not successful then we have to regrettably bid adieu to our friends at Library and Archives Canada,” Watson told iPolitics/Centretown News in an interview. “We would have to move forward with our project, which would obviously not include some of the elements that would be included with Library and Archives Canada.”

“That would be regrettable, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to get moving.”

Watson has indicated the municipal-federal partnership to build what some have called a “super library” for the national capital will come down to whether the Trudeau Liberals approve the LAC’s $69-million share of the project in the upcoming federal budget.

Catherine McKenna, the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre and federal environment minister, remains a vocal backer of the project — one indication that Watson’s “good bet” could be on the mark.

“This partnership, supported by the City of Ottawa, would be a critical contribution in transforming Ottawa into a world-class capital,” McKenna said. “This type of partnership would be an exciting opportunity for the federal government to invest in an innovative and modern space for Library and Archives Canada while showcasing Canadian history.”

After considerable controversy over the proposed location, city council approved plans last February for the new Central Library at a vacant, city-owned site at 557 Wellington St., near the intersection of Bronson and Albert streets.

Somerset Councillor Catherine McKenney cast the only vote against the LeBreton Flats site, arguing a location closer to the centre of downtown would better serve local residents who visit the library’s current headquarters and main branch at the corner of Metcalfe and Laurier streets.

“The move out of the core will also leave the most densely populated portion of our City without a library branch. I believe this is a missed opportunity, especially as we see cities like Calgary and Halifax investing in their urban centres with new, award winning libraries,” the councillor added.

“I strongly believe that Centretown must have a branch library that is easily accessible by walking, cycling, transit, and for those with mobility issues,” she said. “For most of the 25,000 residents who live east of Bronson and west of the Canal, the recommended site does not meet this requirement.”

“The proposed site also does not take into consideration the 100,000 people who work downtown and the 24 million people who visit the downtown core yearly.”

Since last year’s decision to go ahead with the 557 Wellington site, there have been discussions between city and federal officials, and a formal request has been made through Library and Archives Canada to cement the partnership with a $69-million federal budget allocation.

The planned 216,000-sq.-ft. facility would include an 83,000-sq.-ft. LAC space for exhibitions and other public outreach activities. Planners have estimated that the new library would attract up to 5,000 people per day, compared with about 2,000 daily visitors at the current downtown branch.

Guy Berthiaume, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, was unavailable to comment on the issue – while the media relations department for LAC declined a request for an interview saying there was nothing new to add since no commitments would be finalized until the new budget.

Watson, on the other hand, said the partnership would be the first of its kind in Canada.

“It creates a one-stop shopping (environment) for individuals who are seeking information about things like genealogy,” he said. “And, things like the exhibition gallery and museum-quality space, auditorium — those things are better off in a building like our library as opposed to really what is a working building at Library and Archives Canada.”

He added: “Things that would require people searching through records and so on, would be better suited at our building as opposed to Library and Archives Canada, and they can better use that space for pure archival work.”

There have also been discussions with Kathleen Wynne’s provincial government, which has expressed an interest in the project, but Watson said that potential involvement has not been confirmed.

Until now the city has received about 30 preliminary applications from architects around the world as part of the qualification process, expressing interest in leading the design of the project.

City and library staff are also working to get the necessary project approvals, said Marco Manconi, the city’s manager of design and construction for the project.

“As many City and Library processes and approvals are dependent on confirmation of federal government participation, the implementation plan for the Central Library project has not yet been finalized,” Manconi stated in an email.

Watson said he is expecting a positive result on the federal front.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm and support for the project, for the simple reason that people see our current library as being wholly inadequate, and see the opportunity — really the only opportunity in the country — where the federal government and the municipal government can collaborate. Because we’re the nation’s capital, and just down the street from where we’re supposed to build our new library is the existing Library and Archives building,” he said.

“So, it’s a good bet,” he added. “It saves both organizations money and allows the Library and Archives folks to get back to their fundamental goal in terms of preserving and protecting our nation’s history.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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