Three questions about the central library's proposed site

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Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum, Ottawa Citizen

The prospect of a new central public library in our city is an exciting one. Successful central libraries offer citizens a one-stop shop of diverse civic and cultural life. Across the country, new libraries have breathed additional life into downtown cores, from Vancouver to Halifax. In that context, the recommendation to move Ottawa’s new Central Library from the downtown core to the edge of LeBreton Flats raises important questions that Ottawa residents need to consider before the Ottawa Library Board convenes at the end of January. Here are three questions worth asking.

First, how was the feedback from the extensive public consultation reflected in the recommendation? The three highest-ranked criteria during the online public consultations on location were that the site be easy to access: for people with physical disabilities, by foot and by bus. On the face, it is not clear how a site separated from downtown by an escarpment, further removed from the residents who live or work in Centretown, and located more than two km from the crossroads of the city’s bus routes at the Rideau Centre reflects these priorities. Although the recommended site is close to an LRT station – a necessary condition for any future site – library-user surveys indicate that  81 per cent of current users arrive by foot.

Second, how would the recommended site serve the three identified target demographic groups: local residents, other residents of Ottawa, and visitors? Demographic analysis suggests that even assuming LeBreton Flats is fully developed, in 20 years it will still have less than half the population of Centretown. For other Ottawa residents, any location on the LRT would provide transit access. For the almost 120,000 downtown workers who make up one-quarter of the visits to today’s Central Library, the proposed site would be harder to access. The most visited sites in Ottawa are clustered close to the Hill and include Parliament, the ByWard Market and the Rideau Centre.

Third, how would the recommended site serve vulnerable populations?  A central library is a place where resources – from internet use to information on community services – can be accessed by all. Close proximity to light-rail transit is critical, but may not be sufficient to ensure some groups can easily get there – the under-housed, the newly arrived, those looking for work – for whom a return transit fare is not an insignificant outlay. The recommended site needs to be judged in part on how those who rely on the many downtown social service providers can benefit.  

For those who have been following the process, the recommendation did not come as a surprise. Those administering the site-selection process have never hidden from view that the chosen site was favoured from the start. Before the public consultations or the evaluation exercise began, the selected site at 557 Wellington St. was referred to as the “preferred site” and the conclusion was offered that “a site in the vicinity of LeBreton Flats, near the Pimisi LRT station, would be a good location for the Central Library.” While this predisposition shouldn’t rule out the proposed site, it does suggest the assumptions leading to its recommendation need to be rigorously examined.   

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a major civic building for the benefit of existing and future residents. We owe it to all of them to make sure we get it right. As the recent discussion of a future site for the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital demonstrated, an evaluation needs to accord with the views and priorities of the users. It is time for residents and their elected representatives to ensure that the ultimate location chosen for a new central library is the one that best advances the public interest.

Catherine McKenney is councillor for Somerset Ward; Tobi Nussbaum is Rideau-Rockcliffe councillor. They, with Ottawa councillors David Chernushenko, Mathieu Fleury and Jeff Leiper, will host a public meeting to discuss the recommended location of the proposed Central Public Library on Jan. 18, 2017, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at City Hall.