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Librarian and Archivist of Canada Leslie Weir, seen here in Ottawa on Feb. 13, 2020, says the Ottawa Public Library facility scheduled to break ground next year will 'be like the agora of the west side of Ottawa.'Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Leslie Weir expects the new Ottawa Public Library and Archives Canada Joint Facility will offer inhabitants of the country’s capital much more than just books and historical documents when it opens in 2024.

The $192.9-million project, situated at 555 Albert St., is expected to become a central part of a broad redevelopment of the area.

“It’ll be like the agora of the west side of Ottawa,” says Ms. Weir, who was named Librarian and Archivist of Canada last year after 15 years as librarian at the University of Ottawa. “It’s going to expand the downtown.”

The 200,000-square-foot, which breaks ground early next year, isn’t planned to be anything like the staid libraries of yesteryear. For one thing, it’s the product of an unprecedented collaboration between the City of Ottawa and Library and Archives Canada, principals say.

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The design of the building's wavelike roof takes inspiration from the Ottawa River.Diamond Schmitt/Handout

Both organizations were considering constructing separate buildings, but in 2016 decided to combine them into a single megaproject. Public engagement then became a major component of the plan, with 7,000 people across the country consulted on virtually every detail over the course of the next four years.

The city is contributing $104.2-million toward the library’s construction, plus $18.1-million for a 200-spot parking garage, while the federal government is adding $70.6-million for conception and building.

The design, unveiled in January, features a swooping, wave-like roof that takes inspiration from the nearby Ottawa River. With a stone and wood exterior and surrounding green space, it’s intended to stand out in both design and function.

Aside from housing books and a genealogy collection, the library will also feature collaborative workshop areas, an auditorium, a town hall gathering space, play areas for children and food and coffee retailers.

The site, meanwhile, is situated near bike paths and Ottawa’s newly constructed LRT line. Library and Archives Canada expects a huge usage increase because of the easy accessibility, to 1.7-million annual visitors from 30,000 at its current main location at 395 Wellington St.

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The library will feature collaborative workshop areas, an auditorium, and a town hall gathering space.Diamond Schmitt/Handout

That spike will reflect the traditional library’s transformation into a cultural centre.

“Over the past few decades, they’ve become the cathedrals of our age,” says Donald Schmitt, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects, which co-designed with KWC Architects.

“They’ve really become a crossroads for the community. … [The Ottawa library] bridges the traditional city and the city in the future.”

The new “super library” will potentially break ground at the same time as the proposed LeBreton Flats development, just blocks away.

That project, whose overall master plan was approved by the National Capital Commission in January, aims to create four new quadrants in the area, including a cultural and entertainment-focused Aqueduct District, a mixed-use “high street” section in the Albert District, a residential Flats District and a Park District.

Over all, the development is expected to take 20 to 30 years to complete, with the NCC aiming to add 418,000 square metres of residential space, 116,000 square metres of office space and 21,000 square metres of retail space. A final vote on the plan will be held in the fall, with an aim to have shovels in the ground by early 2021.

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The library is meant to stand out for both its form and its function.Diamond Schmitt/Handout

Taken together, the two projects represent a possible revitalization and expansion of a largely underdeveloped part of Ottawa.

“It ties in with the vision that Ottawa is coming out of its shell and is starting to show some personality,” says Shawn Hamilton, senior vice-president and managing director of Commercial Real Estate Services Canada.

“It just shows what the scale of the development could be. It’s a large piece of land with a lot of potential.”

As a librarian, Ms. Weir is excited about the central role that the library and archives facility is expected to play in bringing out that potential.

On recent trips to Halifax and Calgary, she was struck by how key new libraries had become to their respective cities. They’re not unlike schools, she says, which attract families and thus spark activity.

“When a new central library is built in an area that is up and coming, it does tend to trigger a lot more development in that area,” she says. “You couldn’t miss the building going on around those central library facilities [in Halifax and Calgary].”

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