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In Calgary, a $245-million new central library is planned for the city’s East Village. (Calgary Municipal Land Corp./MIR)
In Calgary, a $245-million new central library is planned for the city’s East Village. (Calgary Municipal Land Corp./MIR)

Financing

Libraries lend a hand to development Add to ...

In a city often focused on history, it is a glistening monument to the future: Halifax’s new central library, set to open on Spring Garden Road by the end of the year, is no ode to the paper books of libraries past.

It’s designed to be a gathering place, a learning space and an innovation centre. What will happen inside the building, though, may have less of an impact on the city than what happens around it. The Halifax Regional Municipality is consciously using the $57.6-million library to attract development along Spring Garden’s bustling retail corridor.

The costs of the branch are covered, in part, by the sale of three adjacent parking lots to private developers, who in turn are building new mid-rise, mixed-use projects in the area, bringing much-needed density to the city’s core.

The library is crucial infrastructure needed to bring Halifax into the 21st century, says Wadih Fares, who, on top of developing two of those parking lots, just announced a $100,000 donation to the branch. Mr. Fares sees it as a stimulus for downtown growth, likening it to the first spark in a fireplace: “It will ignite the whole fire.”

Consumers are moving to e-books in droves, but the death of the conventional library may be greatly exaggerated. The dissemination of information no longer requires a printing press, but it remains a core component of democracy. Cities across Canada are building new libraries with a focus on broader learning and community building – and they’re being financed in ways that complement and encourage nearby development. Those branches are paying their cities back in spades, bringing in greater density and community engagement.

In Halifax, Mr. Fares’s donation will help pay for a community space within the library, which was built by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen with local partner Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell. Mr. Fares, who emigrated from Lebanon to Halifax in the 1980s, wants people to live and play downtown in the city that has supported his life and career. “The more community places you have, the more modern, 21st-century buildings that go up, it attracts people to that area,” he says.

Paula Saulnier, interim chief executive officer of Halifax Public Libraries, says “any city that invests in their libraries makes a commitment to learning, to culture and democracy.” That, in turn, brings people: “We’re going to see this as a catalyst to encourage people to live and work in the downtown.”

Two of the nearby parking lots have been sold, bringing in nearly $14-million to cover municipal costs of the project, with up to $10-million expected from the third, says Peter Stickings, the HRM’s manager of corporate real estate.

New libraries are increasingly being seen as community focal points. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called a new central branch an “important community asset” when campaigning for re-election in October. A planned branch on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street, meanwhile, is part of a joint project with YWCA Metro Vancouver that will include affordable housing for low-income single mothers and their children.

In Calgary, a $245-million new central library has been announced for the city’s East Village, which is undergoing a multi-decade, 49-acre brownfield redevelopment project to transform it from neglected neighbourhood to family-friendly community. By the time the East Village is fully developed, more than 11,000 people are expected to call it home. The curved, glass downtown library, perched on top of a light-rail transit line, is set to open in 2018.

“We consider the library an educational anchor to the development” of the East Village, says Susan Veres, vice-president of marketing for the Calgary Municipal Land Corp. (CMLC), which was created by the city in 2007 to redevelop the neighbourhood.

When the East Village site was chosen for the new library, the CMLC committed $70-million to the project from its community revitalization levy, a pot of money the corporation sets aside for infrastructure improvements. Rather than add a development levy to existing property taxes, CMLC struck a 20-year tax-incremental financing deal with the city to funnel income from new development into specific projects to improve the community, adding amenities to encourage further development.

So far the fund has invested $345-million into public improvements in the East Village, Ms. Veres says. Though much of the land is already scooped up by developers, “I think [the new library will] affect people choosing to live here,” she says. “The neighbourhood had a bad personality, and now that personality is changing favourably.”

“I’m really proud that the library is the linchpin for all that,” says Bill Ptacek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library. The Calgary system is aiming to double its membership in the near future as it makes its library cards free and beefs up its programs. The strategy includes, as reading goes electronic, getting rid of some of those pesky physical books. “We’re trying to take up less space in our community library to make more space for people.”

Calgary isn’t the only city where a whole new downtown community is popping up. The former railway lands along Toronto’s waterfront have turned into a sprawling community of condo towers that, until this year, was without a library. When planning the community, the city decided to apply a per-unit levy to developers building in the area to fund public services like a school, community centre and library.

The levies are charged to developers as soon as they apply for building permits. The original indexed library levy, set in 1994, was set at $277 per unit, but rose to $400 by 2008. This funded half – $4.6-million – of the cost of the new Fort York branch, which opened in May.

This wasn’t the only bonus the branch scored from private development. The developer Context, whose Library District condos are adjacent to the library, donated $500,000 for the branch’s public art installation, a collaboration between visual artist Charles Pachter based on Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

“I think it’s been a really successful way, from the city’s perspective, to deliver a complete neighbourhood,” says Toronto planner Lynda Macdonald, who oversees that community. “We think the new library is fabulous and the community loves it.”

Anne Bailey, Toronto’s acting city librarian, says the new branch is an important step for the growing community. “Through the glass and openness of the facility, it declares to the neighbourhood that it’s here, it’s open and it’s available for everyone.”

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