Library lovers were given a sneak peek into the progress on the Baker District Redevelopment during two public open house meetings held Wednesday at the River Run Centre.
After going through initial planning stages and consultation, the current proposal calls for a four-story new central library building, which will also include an attached 14-storey residential tower.
Current plans call for a large multi-use public square fronting on to Wyndham Street adjacent to the main entrance of the library, which is located on the northern end of the proposed site.
The design is intended to create a welcoming entrance to the north end of downtown and offer living space and outdoor meeting space, in addition to the library itself, said Helen Loftin, general manager Business Development and Enterprise with the City of Guelph.
Loftin acknowledged the project has been in the planning stages for more than a decade, but assured the people in attendance that it is now in its home stretch.
The planned 88,000 square-foot design is the perfect size for a main library in a city the size of Guelph and will meet the needs of a population up to 185,000 people, said Steven Kraft, CEO of Guelph Public Library. The current main library on Norfolk Street is 23,000 square feet in size by comparison.
When creating a wish list, library staff looked to other recent library projects in neighbouring Kitchener and Cambridge, as well as similar projects in Whitby and Vaughan.
They also looked further east at the award-winning Halifax Central Library in Nova Scotia, which opened in 2014.
“We recently made a trip to Halifax to see how it’s working there and of course the staff there love it,” said Kraft. “I am hoping we have the same results that they did when we open our new facility — their circulation exploded and the number of people coming to the library exploded as well.”
“We carefully examined how things functioned in that library and some of our decisions have been made on the successful elements that were in that building,” he said.
Preliminary layouts for the new library include public meeting rooms, a maker space, a 300-seat auditorium and outdoor balcony spaces, in addition to book sections spread throughout the four-floor design.
“The books are not disappearing, there will be lots of books for people in all kinds of formats,” said Kraft.
The design also calls for a large climate-controlled section for library archives. Kraft said the current library had to stop taking in new acquisitions some time ago due to lack of space.
“We have one room that is packed with documents at this point and haven’t been able to collect or accept any other historical material, so we will actually be able to grow an archival and local history program,” he said.
Marsha Groves is an interested Guelph resident who came to the open house to keep tabs on what direction the project is headed and to provide feedback.
“I think decisions about public spaces affect communities for generations and this is the key remaining public space in Guelph,” said Groves.
She said she is encouraged by the plans she sees for the new library, but wonders what will be included on the south end of the site. Site plans call for a possible community centre and educational space, but nothing is finalized.
In July of 2018, Windmill Development Group was selected to be the developer for the Baker District Redevelopment, with Diamond + Schmitt Architects and DTAH selected for the design.
After an approximately 30-minute presentation, people attending the meeting were taken to another area of the River Run Centre to view 3D-printed architectural models of the proposal, including one model that included much of the city’s downtown area.
“I still have no real handle on what is happening on that south half,” said Groves after the presentation and looking at the models. “We need to know where the access is for the underground parking, we need to know about the shadow cast by the residential tower, we need to know about the sight lines from the taller part of the proposal.”
James Gordon, city councillor for Ward 2, said he has been impressed with the ongoing consultation process and said it could be a model for other future projects.
One missing element so far, said Gordon, is how the project will be paid for. Planning the site without costing it out first seems backwards to him.
“As much input as we are getting about the look and what it includes — we are a little bit behind in nailing down exactly how we are paying for it and the financial aspect to it. I am getting worried about which comes first,” he said.
Loftin said the final cost is being tabulated and a project funding proposal will come to city council late in the fall. Last year, the library board approved a $50-million plan for a new branch.
If approved in the fall, Loftin said conservatively that shovels could be in the ground by 2023, with an expected two to three years for construction of the project.
“We are hopeful that we can get things moving before that, but that would currently be how we mapped out the milestones after it is all approved and the funding is in place,” she said.
One possible roadblock for the project could occur if the province enacts Bill 108, which will change the relationship between the development charges billed by municipalities and how they can be used toward building projects like libraries and recreation centres.
“The elephant in the room is how will Bill 108 affect us and how will we raise the money,” said Gordon. “The development charges were always a given, that’s how we pay for this stuff.”
Groves said she wants to see a Guelph that feels like a community downtown.
“We are teetering on the brink between cosy and abandoned — almost depending on the time of day,” said Groves.
“What a new library can do for a town is unbelievable. We have to get more than the library right we have to get the whole Baker Street development right, but I am pretty optimistic, unless the province kneecaps us,” she said.