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Don’t let it go: Centretown is about to lose the central library

By Apartment613 on November 28, 2016

Post by Sarah Anson-Cartwright, founding chair of Bookmark the Core, a citizens’ group that wants the new central library to be located in downtown Ottawa. For more on Bookmark the Core, visit their website, or follow them on TwitterThis is a guest editorial and opinions are their own.

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone”
Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”

For the past two years, whenever the subject of a new central library has come up, the Mayor has mentioned LeBreton Flats.

So when a recommended site is revealed in mid-December, we should be under no illusions: Centretown will lose the central library.

Does the decision have to go this way? Can we do anything to get it on the right track?

Here I will start with the central library phenomenon in cities across the continent and the world. The most public, welcoming and social of all public institutions, the central library has become the city’s “living room.” As a gathering place and source of knowledge and information – for kids, for youth, for grown-ups, newcomers, and seniors – it’s no wonder virtually every major city in North America has retained or rebuilt its central library in its downtown core.

Last May, an anonymous post on Apt613 thoughtfully and thoroughly articulated why the “Ottawa Public Library must continue to serve the downtown community of the present, not a geographically-shifted downtown community that may or may not come to exist.” All the best reasons why a central library must stay in the true downtown core are in this piece. I will not say more, but do urge you to read it along with two fact-based pieces by Councillors McKenney and Nussbaum.

Politics, politics, politics

The Mayor’s political calculus is that he was elected to make decisions. Witness Lansdowne, where nothing happened for 20 years, he says. He’s all for consultations, he says, but it depends on the people in the room and (repeat) he was elected to make decisions.

In his 2014 campaign platform, he promised a new central library. He also promised to keep tax increases below the rate inflation or roughly 2%.

One of the ways to keep tax increases modest is to see increasing sources of revenue – namely a larger tax base through development.

Now, LeBreton Flats is an important redevelopment and long overdue. While it’s under the auspices of the National Capital Commission, both final project bids last winter just happened to include proposed central libraries. At the public open house, the NCC’s CEO was asked if the libraries would be evaluated as part of the bids, and he had to concede that they would not, because the central library is a municipal project with its own process.

So we all got to see what a central library might look like on LeBreton Flats. This was no coincidence by the way; one of the architects told me the Mayor spoke with him and suggested a location for the architect to consider on LeBreton Flats.

Flash forward to this fall, when the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) Board voted down a motion to reveal the short-list of sites under consideration. Instead, the public will learn of the single recommended site when it is revealed, along with other project recommendations by staff, on December 15. The public can attend and speak at the OPL Board on January 31, but the Board and the staff do not answer questions from the public. The Board’s decision will go to City Council who will make final decisions on February 8.

This is the tail-end of an opaque and secretive process that has not served the public interest, in my view. The Mayor believes it has been an “exhaustive public consultation.” But hosting roundtable discussions, without ever allowing a proper discussion of actual sites, has been an exercise in frustration for many engaged citizens.

Public interest, anyone?

Now back to the Mayor’s political calculus. He believes a central library somewhere on the LRT means it will be accessible. He says the downtown is moving west, yet the evidence refutes that. The most visited place in downtown is the Rideau Centre (with over 20 million visits annually). It will be decades before LeBreton Flats will have sufficient population to argue for even a branch library. Meantime, the most densely populated area of town will lose one.

Yes, the Mayor received a mandate from voters. But we did not give him carte blanche to move forward on a mandate without proper public input and consultation at key points.

Social infrastructure is critical to the health of our communities. The location of a major public investment must hinge on how well it will serve the public and realize its public mandate. In a community like Centretown, where public schools, community and health centres are bursting at the seams, this kind of social infrastructure is invaluable.

Ottawa-Centre’s Member of Parliament, Catherine McKenna, pledged during her campaign to seek federal funding for the central library. One may expect she will care about the basis for the location decision – was it evidence-based and the result of an open and transparent public process in the public interest? Those are the hallmarks of the federal government’s approach, in contrast to the City’s.

Task at hand: Action required

What can we do at this point? First, take heart that 16 community associations across Ottawa have endorsed the idea that the central library should be located in the downtown core.

Second, more importantly, raise your voice. Start typing emails and posting or tweeting on social media (hashtag: #ottcentrallibrary).

Write letters directly and ideally before December 15 to the Mayor (his email is: Jim.Watson@Ottawa.ca) and to Ms. McKenna, especially if she’s your MP (her email is: Catherine.McKenna@parl.gc.ca). If you’re in Ottawa-Centre, it would also help to write to your MPP, Yasir Naqvi (his email is: ynaqvi.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org).

If Ottawa wants the new central library to really serve and succeed as a branch for local residents, a civic centre for all citizens and as an attraction for visitors – and not be an under-used white elephant – then its location matters to all of us.

What do you think? Should the Main Library remain in Centretown, or are there opportunities elsewhere we should be taking advantage of? Comment below with your thoughts.