CBRM Council: Entrusting a Public Library to a Private Developer

John Phalen, manager of economic development and major projects for the CBRM, went to council on Tuesday morning with a request for clarity on the municipality’s planned contribution to a new central library.

His sudden need for clarity was driven not by the need for a new central library (although that’s very real, as anyone who sits on the library committee, or works at the aging McConnell Library in Sydney, or has tried to read there on a hot summer day can tell you).

No, it was driven by the requirements of Harbour Royale Development Ltd, the private group led by Martin Chernin that plans to develop the Sydney waterfront from the Marine Terminal to the Holiday Inn — with a publicly funded library smack dab in the middle of everything.


Phalen’s letter to Council was attached to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, as was an email from Nova Scotia Heritage Minister Leo Glavine to Pat Bates of the library committee:



I tried to watch the livestream of the council meeting on Tuesday morning but fell victim to the poor broadband internet service offered in my current neck of the woods. The feed kept freezing intermittently and then froze once and for all, just as Council reached agenda item 8.2 — Sydney Harbour Development — Public Regional Library.

I imagined Phalen’s letter raising more questions than it answered and my supposition was confirmed this morning when I watched the video of the debate. (My own first question — how can the “proponents” have “discussions with provincial and federal funding?”– was answered as Phalen read the letter aloud to council. The discussions are with our provincial and federal funding “partners,” the proponents are not talking directly to the money. But somebody should have had a librarian proof his copy before submitting it to Council…)

But why are the “proponents” — private developers — responsible for negotiating with the province and feds for public money to pay for a public building?

And what does this paragraph mean, in non-weasel terms? Because, hand on heart, I don’t understand it:

At present we can foresee a contribution of land and capital. Land could possibly be as much as an estimated three million and three million is possibly earmarked for CBRM Capital funding pending budget discussion and Council approval, and secured funding from the other levels of government. This would make possible a potential six  million contribution for CBRM. A market analysis is now required to verify the land value for the project.

Remove all the “potentials” and “estimateds” and “possibles” from that paragraph and what’s left is about as solid as the fractured bedrock the whole development is expected to rest on. (Metaphor and reality are far too close for comfort with this project.)


Possible funding

But here’s the truly baffling part of Phalen’s proposal — having admitted he doesn’t know how much the land is worth or how much money will be budgeted for the library or how much funding can be secured from other levels of government, and without citing any overall cost for the library, Phalen puts the value of the CBRM’s contribution at $6 million and says:

Staff wants to proceed with the project planning for this component based on this possible funding envelope.

I guess we can only be grateful “staff” didn’t hit on a “possible funding envelope” of $26 million or $53 million or $11 gazillion. Once you’ve reconciled yourself to the idea of an imaginary funding envelope, it must be hard to resist stuffing it full of imaginary dollars.

John Phalen presenting to CBRM Council, 7 August 2018. (Source: Council video)

John Phalen presenting to CBRM Council, 7 August 2018. (Source: Council video)

But how can you “proceed” on the assumption that the land will be worth $3 million when the “next step” you are proposing is a “market analysis” to determine the value of the land?

And why are you only now considering having the waterfront property appraised? Shouldn’t you have nailed down the value of the land before you called for proposals to develop it? How can you arrange the land swap proposed by Chernin if you don’t know how much the land to be swapped is worth?

I might be a little more sanguine about all this if we weren’t currently watching another “major project” — the second cruise ship berth — fall further behind schedule and face reductions in scope due to higher-than-expected construction bids.

But even had I been able to set aside my worries about  the second berth, Tuesday’s discussion would have done nothing to calm my jangled nerves.


Point of order

As is so often the case in this burg, Council clearly knows nothing about the project while Mayor Cecil Clarke seems to know all — and was a little too ready to weigh into the discussion with what he knows.

Clarke has a way of joining Council debates without any regard for the “parliamentary” rules he claims to hold so dear. Here’s what Robert’s Rules for Dummies (Second Edition) has to say about the role of the presiding officer in a debate:

Your job is to facilitate the members making all the points on an issue. If you feel strongly about an issue, hope your political allies can handle advancing your goals from the floor. You must not give them any edge or advantage. The appearance of impartiality is the key to presiding over debate. Nobody expects you to be impartial; chances are good that you were elected because you have a program you hope to advance. But when you’re presiding, stick to the job at hand.

If you absolutely must engage in the debate, you’re obligated to turn the chair over to a chairman pro tem and step down from the chair until the motion is disposed of.

Clarke never steps down from the chair before joining in the debate and in the library discussion was busy adding his two-cents’ worth from the chair. And with Clarke, two cents buys you a lot of verbiage.



In response to District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger’s complaint that there were too many unanswered questions about this project, Clarke said:

The other piece that comes up and I guess I would say this Councilor, I would say this for clarification [Clarke always characterizes he interjections into debates as ‘clarifications’–ed]. It’s been stated we’ve been told that there’s money out there federally and we’re just waiting for an application. And the other matter in terms of discussions I’ve had previously have been in the 15 to 18 million dollar range with MLA Mombourquette, Minister Mombourquette and MP Eyking. Those were the discussions, now those would be well over a year ago now in terms of what’s so there’s the issue — very good point you’ve raised — there’s the issue of what’s the capital build of a building and your very key point of what’s the operating cost because that’s a big factor in terms of what we would bear.

But what we don’t know with the developers, as was indicated, they’ve indicated discussions with Membertou First Nation in terms of interest, potentially, for capital or design elements that would not be part of [a] regular standalone building. Where would those dollars come from?

So, we’re not gonna have any sense of where we would be and because we don’t have the current budget but I think a lot of it is, is what does, in terms of direction, what does John Phalen do on our behalf? [John Phelan does whatever Mayor Clarke tells him to do–ed] Because if he goes and takes on an appraisal, at least he knows the appraisal’s at least coming back to those questions, because you’re correct, there are no answers to the questions you’ve asked and they’re very good questions. So, it’s uh, I think for the point of view of John, now that we’ve given a green light, they were looking to the municipality for some base line in what we’re going to do with our property. But an appraisal would be required, which means spending some money within the administration to do that assessment.

If he’s saying that a year ago he was talking to the federal and provincial governments about an $18-20 million library, provincial and federal funding for which would be forthcoming once the municipality agreed to provide its share, then why didn’t he come back to Council a year ago with this proposal to put up $6 million, $3 million (potentially) in land?

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and senior staff. Council meeting 7 August 2018 (Source: Council video)

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and senior staff. Council meeting 7 August 2018 (Source: Council video)

Why has it taken him all this time to decide “the municipality has to be the lead” on the library project? He’s been mayor since 2012, we’ve been talking about the need for a new library since before he took office.

And if the municipality is actually taking the lead, why are we involved with private developers? Couldn’t the CBRM deal directly with the province, the feds and even Membertou First Nation about the library? Isn’t that what it means to “be the lead?” Do I really have to be the one to point out that what’s best for a private developer is not always best for a community?

Council was understandably hesitant about approving whatever it was they were being asked to approve on Tuesday (although ultimately, having been assured they weren’t really approving much of anything, they approved Phalen’s request unanimously). District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin noted that in her “two short years” on Council she’d more than once witnessed a situation where a decision approved “in principle” suddenly seemed to be binding. She wanted to be sure the public understood that agreeing to support the library “in principle” and giving the green light to the land appraisal doesn’t mean we are “100%” going to build a library.

Bruckschwaiger actually found it necessary to ask if the municipality would ultimately own the library and good thing he did because the best CAO Marie Walsh could offer was:

I would suspect at the end of the day we would own this building.


But I think the most telling moment in the whole discussion came when Clarke explained Phalen’s “dilemma” to councilors:

How do we advance something without having some council awareness of this?

How indeed. Pity the poor bureaucrat who just wants to help private developers secure public funding for a public library and can’t do it without letting the muncipality’s democratically elected representatives in on the plan.


The People’s Place

Why oh why can’t we be the sort of community that identifies the need for a new library and then — wonder of wonders — builds one?

Halifax did it (and we helped fund it).

The People's Place Library, Antigonish, (Source: Great Places in Canada http://greatplacesincanada.ca/gpic_places/antigonish-town-county-library-the-peoples-place-library/)

The People’s Place Library, Antigonish, (Source: Great Places in Canada http://greatplacesincanada.ca/gpic_places/antigonish-town-county-library-the-peoples-place-library/)

Antigonish did it (and we helped fund it). In fact, Antigonish didn’t just build a new library, it built The People’s Place Library, which was declared one of the Great Places in Canada in 2014.

It isn’t an architectural marvel like the Halifax library — it’s a converted Co-op grocery store — but by all reports, it was converted exceedingly well:

The library was developed and designed using a community-initiated place making process, developed by Project for Public Spaces (PPS) out of New York City (Pearce et al, 2012). Serving as more of a community centre than a traditional library, the building represents an adaptive reuse of a former grocery store site in the heart of the downtown, incorporating numerous “green” building technologies and featuring the work of a number of local craftspeople and artists.

In an interview published on the Efficiency Nova Scotia website to celebrate the building’s many green features, Eric Stackhouse, chief librarian of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, said Projects for Public Spaces “recently put the library 25th on its list of 100 top spaces in North America.”

Intrigued, I visited the Projects for Public Spaces website to find out more about this “placemaking:”

Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

That PPS considers the Antigonish library to be an example of successful placemaking is clear: the organization includes a glowing review of the project on its site. And the library was designed by an Antigonish architect, Dale Archibald of Archibald and Jones Architects, which means the knowhow and experience and expertise necessary for such a project is within two hours’ drive of Sydney. Why aren’t we talking to these people? Why are we talking to a developer who specializes in banks?

Why does everything about our approach to this project feel like it should be filed under “Backwards?”

Featured image: Council vote on John Phalen’s request to proceed to next steps on the library file and fund an appraisal of the CBRM’s waterfront property. (Source: CBRM Council video)