Advocates pushing for a downtown-core location for Ottawa’s new Central Library are preparing to rally the community before city councillors make the final site selection in January.
The Centretown Citizens Community Association, Bookmark the Core and Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney have all raised concerns about the secretive process being followed by the Ottawa Public Library Board and an expert panel tasked with recommending a shortlist of sites in advance of the final decision.
McKenney, a board member, recently failed in an effort to have the shortlist made public earlier than planned, and has expressed concern that the final choice could locate the new library far from the site of the present Main branch at the corner of Metcalfe Street and Laurier Avenue.
“Residents should be able to ask questions,” McKenney said at the Oct. 11 board meeting. “How did we get to the shortlist and how was the criteria applied to the 12 sites to get to where we are today?”
A McKenney motion to make the shortlist available to the public at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting was defeated by a vote of 8-1.
Instead, the board decided the shortlist would be released onDec. 13 and pushed the final site selection back to allow about a month of public input before the location is finalized in January.
The Oct. 11 meeting saw discussion of several contentious issues regarding the planned location of the Central Library and the secrecy surrounding the site shortlist.
In July, OPL had released a map of 12 potential locations, with only five situated squarely in the downtown core, two east of the canal and five west of Bronson. Board members ranked the locations and approved the criteria for the site evaluation process during a closed meeting to protect what they called procedural fairness.
A special committee consisting of OPL staff, other City of Ottawa officials and external representatives was tasked with narrowing the initial 12 sites to a shortlist of top candidates.
The city’s fairness commissioner, Peter Woods, had reviewed McKenney’s motion and decided that it would be premature to release information about the shortlisted sites prior to the board’s December meeting. Kanata Coun. Marianne Wilkinson, a board member, backed Woods.
“Releasing the sites now with an incomplete evaluation wasn’t going to be very helpful,” she said. But McKenney argued that there were “no clear legal, or procedural reasons not to have those sites made public.”
Bookmark the Core, a group that insists the Central Library should be located east of Bronson Avenue and west of the Rideau Canal, was disappointed with the rejection of McKenney’s motion, said member Jevone Nicholas.
“We’re hoping to get people informed… about what’s (now) coming in early December, such that we can really get people’s interest, irrespective of where the location will be,” he said.
“To suggest that the experts know best and that the community shouldn’t be involved because we don’t know what our community needs or wants is undermining our role as a community,” said Tomas Whillans, vice-president of the Centretown Citizens Community Association. He said locating the Central Library in the “heart of the city” is “paramount” to the community and to the success of the new library itself.
And if the Central Library is located outside of the downtown core? Whillans said: “We will ultimately prepare for the worst… If that decision is made, we certainly want to rally.”
There has been talk, he added, about the community lobbying for a new downtown-core local branch, or for the current Main branch to continue operating, if the Central Library is built west of Bronson, perhaps as part of the LeBreton Flats redevelopment.
Losing “the cornerstone of our community” would be a serious blow, said Whillans.
Nicholas said rallying the public is now key: “We’re trying to call attention to this file — it hasn’t really caught fire yet.” Bookmark the Core has urged the city to be more transparent with the process, demanding that there be at least four open houses located at each end of the city, so that the public can see a map of all the potential sites.
Nicholas said online consultations alone are not enough to engage all citizens, and that BTC is now focused on reaching out to community members and anyone who has a stake in the decision.
For Whillans, the battle has just begun. “We are going to try and schedule either a rally or a public meeting, or some sort of a consultation for members of our community, to come out and express some thoughts on this procedure and process — perhaps right before this shortlist is released.”
Whillans noted that many residents rely on the various services that the library provides and that it would be “rather silly” to leave the bulk of Centretown’s population without convenient access.