Tag Archives: Downtown library

The Sting, Guelph style

Posted August 13, 2012

First maestro, a little Scott Joplin ragtime, please.

The news that the city was seriously considering a new downtown library came from the chief librarian Kitty Pope.

At the time, she announced the cost would be $63 million plus another $10 million to outfit the new digs. Not only that, but she estimated completion by 2017. Further it was revealed that a Hamilton architectural consultant and a New York City design consultant had been hired to produce preliminary design elements of the proposed 93,000 square foot project to be built on the Baker Street parking lot.

Ms. Pope became the straw person in this exercise. Friends of Farbridge (FOB), Ken Hammill and his wife are promoting the downtown library project.

Then Council declared in its latest capital forecast that the downtown library was put aside for ten years.

In typical Farbridge fashion, the city has hired out-of-town experts to develop a comprehensive business plan for the project. It has now evolved into a public-private enterprise, complete with hi-rise condo atop the library, retail space, and underground parking to replace lost spaces on the parking lot.

See where we are going with this. First, is there no one on staff that can develop a business plan? Second, when did the library get pushed up the capital forecast schedule by eight years?

Taxpayers must be scratching their heads trying to understand what has happened here. If the city’s debt exceeds its own guidelines, why are they even thinking about this project?

There is no quarrel about the need for an upgraded downtown library, but one with 93,000 square feet costing $73 million plus?

It was quoted by a city official that when the capital forecast was approved last fall, “the door was left open for consideration of a new library.” Why bother to have a capital forecast if the intention is not to conform to it?

Now we have to look at two other capital projects that council has proposed. The South end recreational facility pegged at $37 million, and the proposed riverside park at Wellington and Gordon streets to cost an estimated $16 million.

Where do they fit in this apparent renewed effort to plunk another $73 million downtown?

If Mayor Farbridge is anything, she is a determined woman.

Her vision of a vibrant and exciting downtown to be enjoyed by families, and a centre of Guelph culture, is fraught with her desire to leave office as the mayor who revitalized downtown Guelph … at any cost.

No amount of taxpayer subsidized hi-rise downtown condominiums or splash pools or libraries or pussyfooting with the University hierarchy can change the booze magnet for the young that exists downtown.

In six years, the Mayor and her majority of council have failed to address this in a comprehensive manner. No action plan exists because of a lack of political will. It’s plain council doesn’t want to address it because of the liquor clublobby, (33 bars operating at last count) and the ties to the University.

In fact, the same problems exist with student housing in single-family neighbourhoods where houses have been converted to accommodate mini-apartment units.

Council did look at the scores of complaints of residents, regarding the growing influx of student housing in their neighbourhoods.

The decision was made that the issue was too hot to handle and staff advised that stopping the practice would result in action by the Ontario civil Rights Board. This council has the tools to protect the single-family neighbourhoods. Stop issuing building permits for these conversions and enforce the bylaws for renovations that have been done without a permit.

The question is should Guelph taxpayers finance a new downtown $73 million Library to provide service to those wanting to use computers?  The modern library has evolved and the decline of book borrowing due to Internet access and other cultural changes has made a huge library unnecessary.

No thanks. We’ve already experienced the Mayor’s Taj Mahal syndrome with the $50 million overbuilt compost plant and collection system.

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A solution to the demise of the new downtown library

More than five years ago, I protested the Council decision to rebuild the derelict Loretto Convent and turn it into a civic museum. The cost was originally pegged at $12.7 million that was subsidized by some $6 million in federal and provincial government grants.

Today, the cost of restoring this building have soared with the city now admitting that more than $15 million has been spent with the final tally yet to be determined.

When the Farbridge dominated council was elected in 2006, it pledged to build a new downtown library. It did not happen and the prospect of a new taxpayer-funded downtown library has become a hauntingly hollow promise.

With the city exceeding its debt limit and revenues barely meeting spending, there is little room for maneuvering to meet the growing demand for a new library that could cost more than $53 million at last estimate.

And what kind of library is needed downtown? After studying what has been happening in libraries across Canada and the U.S., it is apparent that the library is no longer a place for just books.  They have become community centres for social interaction and civic engagement.

Gone are the days of silence and stern librarians demanding fines for late returns. Instead libraries are encouraging events such as cooking demonstrations by local chefs, volunteer seniors helping children in the library, entrepreneurial databases for businesses and job seekers. The list goes on, as the library becomes not only a resource centre but also a community-gathering place for those seeking information and services.

It would be interesting to compare public attendance figures at the current downtown library with the newly opened civic museum.

Four years ago I wrote a column in the Mercury calling on Council to concentrate its resources by building the new downtown library, making it a community culture centre encompassing the civic museum, library, meeting places and city resource centre.

That suggestion was met with dead silence.

There are several major problems associated with proceeding with a new library.

The lack of city cash resources is a major stumbling block. Then there is the question of replacing the lost parking spaces on the Baker Street site. Not the least is the majority of council who are not in favour of private participation when developing the project.

Here is how it may be done. First, both city and private developers must develop a plan. The golden rule is that the private developer makes a profit to the point that his financing obligations are completed.

At this point the city and developer would share operating costs of the building. Parking fees, condo fees and retail leasing fees would be pooled to reduce costs to each party.

The city’s start-up contribution would be the land and funding facilities under its control and management.

The developer would receive the right to charge for parking in the new underground garage, constructing the designed building roughing in the city activity areas, and receiving permits to build condominium units to a height that allows a minimum of 100 units.

I know. I know. The height of some 28 to 30 storeys will scare the bejesus out of most community activists.

But what is the trade-off? It will be a beautiful, functional building visited daily by citizens and bring residents to the heart of downtown. Wasn’t that part of the Mayor’s promise to turn downtown into a vibrant and exciting area for all citizens?

There are a number of excellent developers and builders right here in Guelph who could be interested in the right deal. The catch, my friends is the attitude of the majority of city Council. If they are wrestling with current downtown proposals to create multi-storey housing downtown, what would be the fate of this proposal?

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