Public Private PressureMon Oct 3, 2005 Miss Vicky
I checked out the special meeting of the public library board last night. The only agenda item was a presentation by developers DCR Phoenix about their offer to build a new central library at Bayview and Scott.
DCR Phoenix has had this land for a while. It's a triangular slice of land on the other side of the OTrain tracks from Tom Brown arena. They had been going through the process of applying for a rezoning so they could build condos and townhouses there - a fairly dense development for the 3.7 acre site.
So the proposed P3 library project took a few folks by surprise. Of course, they're not just proposing a library. It will have 140 condo units above it, and the developers propose a speculative second phase on the site of the Tom Brown arena - a space they refer to as "underutilized" (Tell that to the community groups, skaters, hockey and soccer teams and dog-walkers that enjoy the arena and surrounding fields and greenspace... but I digress).
I learned a lot at the meeting. But I'm left with a lot of questions, too. And the spidey sense continues to tingle, I'm afraid to say.
I was happy to hear that the less-than-inspiring design is merely a conceptual drawing to demonstrate that the site can accommodate the kind of structure they propose - so people can get a sense of the mass, etc. So I suppose I can leave aside my concerns about the ugliness of the proposed structure... for now.
Let's talk about the offer. They are proposing to build a $150 million library, which would be connected to a 140 unit condo development. The library would be 271,000 square feet, a huge improvement on the current space on Laurier. The structure would include an LRT station, pedestrian walkways and bike paths connecting the library to the network of existing paths. The proposed library is 6 stories; the condo unit would be 20 stories. There would be 200 parking spaces for the library and parking for the condos as well.
The developers are offering to design, build, furnish and finance the library in exchange for a long-term lease-to-buy agreement with the City and a substantial fee for managing the property for that 25-35 year period. They are also, presumably, hoping to cash in on Phase II (developing the Tom Brown site into an office/recreational mix) should the city decide to pursue that option.
A proposed restaurant in the building plus the parking would offer some ongoing revenue for the city, but even the preliminary budgeting supplied by the developers recognized that the project would require a substantial amount of taxpayers' money for the next few decades. They also suggest, quite shamelessly I might add, that Naming/Signage rights might help bring in some revenue to offset the costs (I'll leave it to my Faithful Legion to suggest appropriate corporate sponsors).
What bothers me most about this project is the timeline the developers have set. They were pretty clear last night that they want the city to provide approval in principal by December, so the design phase can begin in January. They anticipate zoning approval and the approval of the final P3 agreement by August 2006.
That's light speed in municipal planning time, as I understand it.
Brian Bourns, the presenter for last night's meetings, was a tad flippant when asked whether the timeline was flexible. He basically said they were ready to proceed with their original condo development if the city couldn't make up its mind by January. Take it or leave it, I guess, was the suggestion. Of course, he was a little disingenuous about the status of the original condo project - he made it sound like they were ready to break ground at any time - fortunately, Linda Hoad was able to add some clarity to the situation when the floor was finally opened for comments from the public. Her comments were quite the revelation for some of the trustees, who followed up with questions of their own.
Another interesting moment came when a representative from the Moffat Farm Citizens' Coalition offered advice to the Board members: make sure your agreement is clearly laid out, i's dotted and t's crossed, before you sign an agreement, as this developer does not always meet their commitments (at this point he got cut off by the chair, who presumably had some signal from the developers' lawyer sitting across from him. This didn't stop one of the trustees from expressing their thanks for the advice, however).
From the sounds of the questions coming from various trustees and the public, I'm getting the sense that the library board is in the very early stages of determining what kind of central libary the city needs. It seems way too early to be saying yes or no to a specific proposal, especially one that is such a huge investment of funds. And it's not just the library that needs to be considered - we also need a new space for archives, and perhaps a joint project would be appropriate. We need to look at what other cities have done - Montreal just got a new library, and strangely the developer didn't cite it at all when they offered some comparisons in their presentation last night. Also, there is a nascent community design planning project for the Bayview/Somerset area that really needs to be given some time to do its work before we figure out how that area should be developed.