Following city council’s approval of a 75 per cent increase in the price tag for the new central library, Tracey Lindeman explores the original dream for an iconic downtown facility — and argues that the project’s current situation reveals overspending, mishandling, and a lack of vision
When Ottawa finally opens its new, $306-million central library an œuvre named Adisoke, meant as a step toward reconciliation with the region’s Algonquin and Anishinaabe communities one word will dance on the lips of all who glimpse it: adequate.
Mockups for the building, named for the Anishinaabemowin word for “storytelling,” reveal what looks like an IKEA store on steroids, a melamine monument to a broken procurement process where the lowest price is the law. Never mind a design competition, or the thought of prioritizing aesthetics over cost. This building, destined for the edge of a field along a traffic thoroughfare, seven minutes away on foot from the nearest LRT station, at the bottom of an escarpment that cuts the building off from the city, will be the off-brand version of the Calgary or Halifax libraries: an unimaginative pastiche of function over form.
Adisoke started with the best of intentions: a new central library for the city of Ottawa that would also serve as the new home for Library and Archives Canada. A first request for expressions of interest went out in 2015, in which the city announced its intentions to build an “innovative, iconic, and significant” facility. A few months later, the city put out a request for proposals for an architect to design an “inclusive and dynamic facility that enables creation and learning by providing modern library service through a new significant architectural landmark for the city of Ottawa.”
A subsequent tender was put out looking for interested architecture firms. The city said it wanted to “contribute to the ongoing transformation of Canada’s capital into a world-class city through the creation of a modern, prestigious facility.”
Adisoke was meant to be an attention grabber — a statement to the rest of the country, and the world, that its city took culture and civic education seriously. Dutch and Danish-led teams threw their hats into the ring and got shortlisted; the remainder of the candidates invited to submit a full-fledged proposal were Canadian.
But as these things often go, when Ottawa said it wanted to be surprised, what it meant was that it wanted to pick out its own gift, then have someone else wrap it so it could feign surprise. It fell back on what it was most comfortable with, the equivalent of a Christmas gift of socks and underwear: a mechanized, listless procurement process that sapped all the innovation out of the design, won by a company that already has a strong relationship with the city. The proposed cost hit $175 million, to be split 60-40 with the feds: a reasonable amount for a reasonable library.
In October 2021, the price tag rose to $306 million, a jump of 75 per cent that was easily blamed on the escalating cost of building materials. A hamstrung city council was all but forced to rubberstamp an additional $65 million for the project, plus an additional $10 million for the 200-spot underground parking garage (even though the library was always marketed as a place that would be accessible by biking, walking, and transit). The total cost of the whole thing, garage and all? $334 million.
“From the beginning, I never thought [the price] was enough money. I wondered how they could build a library for that money,” says Somerset Ward city councillor Catherine McKenney. “Now we know they couldn’t.” McKenney looks out over LeBreton Flats every day from their office window and sighs.
Adisoke will reside on the edge of LeBreton at 555 Albert St., right at the southbound turnoff for Bronson Avenue — a strange no man’s land flanked by condo buildings. It is part of the city’s enduring commitment to turn LeBreton Flats into something more than a big empty field.
In June 2015, a report released by an external consultancy firm weighed the risks and costs of renovating the existing main library versus a number of other scenarios. It ultimately concluded that the cost of a new build would be around $156 million, $9 million less than renovating the existing central branch so why not get something new? The report identified the corner of Albert and Bronson as the “preferred” location.
McKenney and many Somerset Ward constituents fought against the library’s placement but lost. “It became obvious that this site would ultimately be chosen regardless of the community consultation,” McKenney says.
At the end of 2016, another report by another consultancy agreed with the first: the corner of Albert and Bronson was the place to beat. It was close enough to the LRT, would be accessible by car, and was easy to acquire since the city already owned it. It also appealed to city leadership’s vanity: “With relatively clear view planes from the north and west, an iconic building on [this site] would serve as a gateway development clearly visible and prominent on the city skyline,” the site evaluation report noted.
Of course, the unstated benefit is that Adisoke’s location is also extremely appealing to developers. The building will be shoved into a corner of LeBreton Flats, ceding prominence and accessibility to residential and commercial development that is central to the city’s plans for the area.
The better solution, McKenney says, would have been to take a page from Calgary’s library and integrate the Pimisi LRT station right into Adisoke. And include housing, including affordable units, on top of the library, they add. “And then, make transit free from, I don’t know, U of O and Pimisi, or U of O and even Tunney’s [Pasture]. That means that essentially, the central library for anyone living in that whole area is as close as your nearest transit station,” McKenney says.
Of course, none of this is actually happening. “It’s that lack of imagination that frustrated me,” they say.
Instead, the city is hoping parking revenues will help buoy its massive overspending a strategy that invites more car traffic to the core while undermining the city’s LRT investments.
Speaking of overspending, one must ask: will $306 million be the library’s final cost? Probably not. The building’s delivery date has also been put off a number of times; at press time, it is sitting at a 2026 opening date meaning there is still opportunity to inflate costs without a glimmer of accountability. After all, council recently voted against having a judicial inquiry into the LRT debacle.
The important thing to remember, though, is that all this didn’t happen to Ottawa. Ottawa is in a situation of its own making. Like seemingly everything else the city touches — Lansdowne, Château Laurier, and the LRT come to mind — the project is rapidly losing its lustre because of overspending, mishandling, and a miserable lack of vision.
Central to all this nonsense is the man of the hour: Mayor Jim Watson. He is the so-called puppeteer of the “Watson Club,” the derisive name given to the councillors who vote with him more often than they vote against him, and the person ultimately responsible for the decline of the Ottawa core.
Watson’s unabashed suburban favouritism floated him through multiple elections, exempting him from having to bring some life and imagination to the city. He’s not running again in 2022, but the boring design for which he advocated and the bad deals he made during his tenure will remain a part of the city’s landscape for years to come.