One of the last hurdles on the track to a new central library in Ottawa was finally cleared Tuesday morning: the money.

The city’s finance and economic development committee voted in favour of a plan that would see the municipality pony up $104 million for its share of the project.

I feel we’re finally at the point where we could say we’re going to have a central library.– Danielle McDonald, OPL CEO

The city will finance the plan by selling the current downtown library for $20 million in a sole-sourced deal, borrowing $80 million, using development charges and dipping into the library’s reserve funds.

“This is one of those great historic moments,” said Mayor Jim Watson, who had made a new central library one of his 2014 election promises.

Taking longer, costing more

City council originally approved the city-owned land at 557 Wellington St., on the eastern edge of LeBreton Flats, as the site of a new central library back in February 2017. The plan was for a 216,000-square-foot complex that the Ottawa Public Library would share with Library and Archives Canada.

The financing was supposed to approved last year, with a groundbreaking in mid-2018 and a completion date of 2023. 

Federal approval for the project was originally expected in mid-2017, but it wasn’t until the federal budget in February of this year that the government earmarked $73 million in funds for the library partnership. The cost is now pegged at $174.8 million, from the previous $168-million estimate.

And the completion date has now been moved back a year, to 2024. If the design contract is awarded by the end of this year as expected, it will take six years from contract to completion — the same amount of time it’s taken to build the Confederation Line.

City staff propose selling the current main branch of the Ottawa Public Library in a no-bid contract for $20 million. (CBC/Kate Porter)

​Selling downtown library

The city has a complicated arrangement for the land where the current downtown library is located at Metcalfe Street and Laurier Avenue. Through a private-public partnership penned in 1973, the city signed a long-term lease with Slate Properties for the Sir Richard Scott Building that is attached to the library. Slate also controls the air rights over the three-story library building, and the parking garage below.

Ownership of the entire property would revert back to the city in 2034. 

City staff said it looked at all the options, including waiting until 2034 to sell the property.

The finance committee agreed to sell the library to Slate, which will pay the city $10 million this year and another $10 million when the library actually moves out, expected to happen in 2024 — though it has until 2026 in case of construction delays.

If the sale goes through, the city will lose the $486,000 a year it’s currently getting from Slate for the air rights and the parking garage, but it also won’t have to pay the $399,600 it currently pays to Slate for office space in the fourth and fifth floor of the building.

The city is also planning to build a 200-space underground parking garage on the site, which it would solely own and operate. The $18-million cost would covered by $3.7 million from a city fund related to parking, and the rest would be covered by debt. However, that debt is expected to be paid off through parking fees, over 15 to 20 years, according to city staff.

‘It’s just overwhelming’

Full council still has to approve the funding, and is set to vote on it at its meeting next week. But once that formality is completed, the “fun” part of the library project can finally begin, said Ottawa Public Library CEO Danielle McDonald.

“I feel we’re finally at the point where we could say we’re going to have a central library,” said McDonald, following the approval by the library board of the finance plan on Monday. 

Once council approves the financing, “that, to me, will mean that we’ve really come farther than I ever thought we would. It’s just overwhelming, quite frankly. It’s been 10 years that I’ve been on it.”

The city expects to award the design contract for the new library by the end of the year. In April, it announced a short list of five renowned architecture firms interested, and qualified, to bid on the project.

Although there will not be a design competition before the winning bid is announced, the city is promising extensive public consultations will go into the planning and look of the building. Plans for public consultation is even a category in the request for proposals, which a score attached — an unusual requirement, according to city staff.

“We looked at the best examples of what’s out there,” said Coun. Tim Tierney, who chairs the library board. He pointed to the Halifax example, where the design process came after the contract was awarded.

“If you’re having a design competition, you’re just picking a picture,” McDonald said. “How do you know there’s functionality behind that? How do you know what’s built into it? But building it together, and determining what’s important in there, and being part of that process, and shaping the design through public input, that is what we have here.”

Public consultation on the project is expected to begin in 2019 and construction in 2021.

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