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Vancouver makes last attempt to combine social housing with new library development

The Heatley Block in the Strathcona neighbourhood,Vancouver. August 5, 2008.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

City officials are reaching out to housing groups in a last-ditch effort to add a social housing component to a planned new public library for the Strathcona neighbourhood in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The campaign is the latest development in the long-running efforts to build a full-service library in Strathcona, one of the city's oldest residential neighbourhoods.

In an administrative report last month, city librarian Paul Whitney recommended that Vancouver authorize the library board to proceed with the planning of a standalone library in the 700-block of East Hastings Street, saying "no economically viable opportunities have been identified that would reduce the city's cost for this project."

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But at a council meeting on Oct. 7, that motion was amended to give city staff time to pursue housing options that would not jeopardize development timelines.

Those discussions are taking place now and it's hoped that the city will decide this month on its next step, Mr. Whitney said. The estimated cost for a new library is in the range of $15-million.

The city had planned to build a library on the site of the Heatley Block, in the 600-block of Hastings Street, but dropped those plans after community backlash against the loss of a neighbourhood heritage building.

The current site was announced in February.

Community debate over a new library has been heated. Housing groups insist that social housing should be part of any city project. Other groups say that a new library is critical for community health and that construction of a it should not hinge on financing for social housing. The neighbourhood is currently served by branches at the Carnegie Community Centre and at a local school. It is the only neighbourhood in the city without a full-service library. Children in Strathcona routinely rank near the bottom of provincial early-development scores.

A new library would be expected to serve competing interests of groups representing Chinese senior citizens, families and the homeless and mentally ill of the area.

As the debate over whether social housing should be part of the project continues, the neighbourhood suffers, said Dale McClanaghan, a principal with consulting group Dale McClanaghan & Associates, whose firm did some research for the library.

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"Many people feel it's important to have social housing there, but there are the little kids in Strathcona who need a library," Mr. McClanaghan said. "And they've been waiting for a very long time."

A sizable chunk of provincial housing funds has been committed to a number of city-owned sites that are already under construction, and it's not known whether provincial funds would be available for the library site.

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