In an 8-5 decision, city council has approved the $62 million new central library, part of the redesigned Baker District project.
“I’m pretty happy we’re able to finally move forward on this,” Scott Butler, chair of the Guelph Public Library board, said after a special meeting of council Wednesday. “This is going to positively transform this community.”
Voting in support of the new 88,000 square-foot central library as presented were councillors Phil Allt, Leanne Caron, Cathy Downer, Rodrigo Goller, James Gordon, June Hofland, Dominique O’Rourke and Mike Salisbury.
The main argument in favour centered around the current 29,000-square-foot central library, built in the 60s, being inadequate to meet today’s needs let alone the demands of future growth, as well as it not being compliant with accessibility regulations. They also view Baker District as offering an economic boost to the downtown.
“We’re helping our city, our downtown to prosper,” commented Allt. “We need to be city-buiding. … Let’s build it and let’s be proud of it.”
“There’s a clear majority of people who want this library,” added Hofland, referring to dozens of delegates at Monday and Wednesday meetings on the issue, as well as hundreds of pieces of correspondence received.
Mayor Cam Guthrie was joined by councillors Bob Bell, Christine Billings, Dan Gibson and Mark MacKinnon in voting against the project as presented. The main counter argument put forward is that the library is too large and expensive, with service enhancements built into it the up to $62 million cost, especially in the current economic climate.
“It will be a hit for people who really can’t afford it,” said MacKinnon, referring to people put into financial straits as a result of the pandemic. “I don’t think it’s justified.”
“I’m all for a new library, I just don’t want a $62 million library with a 20-year levy,” offered Guthrie.
The new central library project will result in a phased-in tax levy of up to 0.39 per cent for a 21-year period starting in 2021 in order to cover $19.7 million in otherwise unfunded costs. The tax increase will be phased in over three years.
There will also be an estimated almost $3 million dollar increase in operating expenses.
Nearly half of the new central library, $28.1 million, will be paid for through the tax infrastructure renewal reserve fund and the sale of the existing library, with another $14.1 million covered by development charges and the tax growth reserve fund.
Butler told council that between the library board and the Friends of Guelph Public Library, they have $1.7 million to contribute to the new central library.
“We are not insensitive to the cost,” he said, noting the political nature of discussions around the new library have made it difficult to put together a fundraising plan up to this point. “The library board is prepared to do what it takes.”
The Baker District proposal, with a total city price tag of between $84.3 million and $89.3 million including the library, involves the redevelopment of the Baker Street parking lot and nearby city-owned properties in partnership with Windmill Development Group.
It includes a new four-storey, 88,000-square-foot central library in a standalone building at the south end of the site, as well as two 15-storey buildings with a mix of commercial and institutional space, along with 300 residential units, though there could be more residential units if an institutional partner isn’t found.
Construction of the new central library is slated to begin in 2022.
“We need to build a library for the future and not the past,” said Downer. “I look forward to a fully accessible, inclusive library.”
Among the council-approved motions on Wednesday was a request of the library board to investigate all funding options, including upper-tier government grants, to bring down the anticipated city tax increase.
The Baker District plan also includes four public spaces connected by a series of pedestrian paths allowing flow from north to south and Baker Street to Wyndham Street North through a variety of routes. Public spaces are to include tiered plantings and seating opportunities among the landscaped design.
It’s to include two levels of underground parking, with 170 public spots. The current Baker Street parking lot has about 275 spaces.
The issue of parking came up several times during council’s Wednesday meeting, as it had during Monday’s committee of the whole discussions. Marty Williams, chair of the Downtown Guelph Business Association, urged council not to “diminish Guelph” by approving the parking reduction.
“Go down three levels if necessary,” he said of underground parking, suggesting the lack of public spaces will result in “serious economic harm” to existing businesses and “doom” new uses in the district. “We’re not even maintaining what we have. … That’s very frightening.”
Council directed city staff to “maximize” the number of public parking spaces in the south block and pursue sharing agreements for parking in the north block. Approval of any sharing agreements are to be considered in the 2022 budget process.
With Wednesday’s approval, city staff were directed to work with Windmill to revise the Urban Design Master Plan and update the library design for a stand-alone building. Formal council endorsement of the master plan would be considered at a future meeting.
Council also approved $16.1 million to be included in the 2021 budget for site servicing, environmental/archeological remediation and the outdoor public spaces.
Further, the Guelph Public Library Board was requested to report to council with a “detailed operating and capital forecast” based on finalized detailed design, with an estimated tax-supported operating cost of up to $3.5 million for public components of the Baker District built into the 2021-2024 operating budget and forecast.
Lastly, council approved a motion to include up to $1.5 million of capital budget funding to go toward planning, site design and professional fees in order for the project to move forward with next steps. That money was previously dedicated to purchase properties on Wyndham Street North to be included in the project, but have since been removed.
Several changes have been made to the Baker District plan since it was approved by council last year. Key among them is to remove the library from the base of the northern 15-storey building and put it into a standalone facility, previously planned to house an institutional partner and located in the centre of the development, as well as the elimination of a road running through the site.
As a result, the plan has been reduced in price from $67.1 million for the library and between $106.9 million and $116.9 million for the municipal portions of Baker District.
The City of Guelph applied for a joint provincial and federal funding stream up to $36.6 million toward the then-estimated $67 million price tag for the new library, but was not selected.