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Lucy and the Football: The Guelph Library Edition

This week on Market Squared we looked at why after the first step forward, the new main branch of the Guelph Public Library takes an inevitable step back
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20190715 library ts
Concept drawing of the new main library.

“For never was a story of more woe than this city and it’s biblio (theque).”

The amazing part about Guelph seems to be that after 20 years of unwavering and increasing support for the construction of a new main public library, we constantly fumble the ball on the two-yard line.

Now much of this column was written before it was announced Thursday afternoon that the discussion about the Baker Street Redevelopment was postponed till the fall. Apparently, the Guelph Public Library's own architect came back with a plan that was pricier than originally approved by council, which is way pricier than staff is now willing to pay.

Still, the news about shrinking the size and cost of the library gave many in Guelph a case of deja vu: Just as the City of Guelph is on the cusp of getting the new main library project to a place of eventuality, and not just fantasy, they snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

The original staff report asked council to chop off 23,000 square feet from the approved plan, and to make changes to some of the previously agreed upon aspects like a 300-seat multi-purpose room and expanded staff working space.

Predictably, this galvanized the local library lobby who have waited for years to get this far, and, perhaps, in the back of their head, expected some kind of attempt to sabotage their library dreams.

This, naturally, has led to disinformation. On social media, I’ve seen people falsely accuse council for betraying the public feedback process (this was a staff report), and accused staff of burying the report on the city website (they’re all that hard to find unless you know where to find them).

In this regard, staff did themselves no favours releasing this council agenda about 24 hours after it’s usually release day on Thursday. Instead, the report came out on a late Friday afternoon, which was also the Friday of Hillside, which meant that many of the libraries loudest advocates were likely enjoying music by the lake with limited internet access.

It’s not the first time we’ve “taken out the garbage” on Hillside weekend. A few years ago, an application to cut down more or less all the trees on the Lafarge lands in the west end came through on a Hillside Friday.

Now there may have been some legitimate reason for the delay in posting the agenda, but this doesn’t look good. And unfortunately for staff, if it looks bad, it is bad.

Now, to get to the fact of the matter, staff are putting some of the blame for the shrinking library on Bill 108. About $24 million from development charges was earmarked to pay for the construction costs of the public portions of the Baker District redevelopment. Bill 108 changed the calculation for how much cities can spend on “soft DCs” like community centres, parks, and new libraries.

Still, the staff report isn’t asking the library staff to re-evaluate, and they’re not looking for a new round of public consultation given the new financial reality.

Instead, the report references specifically the large multi-purpose room because renting that out at a lower rate might cost the city on rentals at other city-owned facilities. Sorry, but did that just occur to staff after months of planning and public consultation?

The other bugaboo is about the size of staff workspace, which is supposed to take into account the servicing a city of 165,000 people and growing, but for today, staff sees it as an extravagance.

It seems weird to think that this project, which was once talked about so loftily, is now the victim of an apparent lack of ambition. It’s a story not unfamiliar in Guelph’s library history.

The Guelph Public Library was the first to be established in Ontario under the Public Library Act of 1882. When steel magnate Andrew Carnegie made grants available to build new library buildings in 1905, Guelph got its share with $24,000.

All that changed in the 1960s when the Carnegie library was one of a number of old buildings in the city centre to be demolished in wave of post-war “modernization.” At the turn of the 21st century, it was clear that the 60's definition of modernization was outdated, and the push was on to create new main branch, a journey with so many facets and asides, it could, and likely will, fill a book some day.

In 2019, it seemed that the political argument had been won. Numerous public sessions gathered a ream of feedback, and all seemed well for Guelph’s library future.

Now, even after the fight seemed long since won, Guelph’s library lobby will have to step up again, and fight. At the same time, City staff, as well as council, must decide if a new library is really a priority for them, and if it is, then isn’t it worth doing right as has been outlined by numerous town halls, studies, engagement sessions, and business plans thus far?

And all that’s to say nothing of the fact that a 500-space underground parking structure will have to be rethought since digging through all that bedrock under Baker is prohibitively expensive. How appropriate. We’re caught between a rock and a hard case.



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