On the Waterfront Part I

I have been trying to determine how, exactly, we decided to locate the new CBRM central library on the Sydney waterfront and as best I can figure, it happened like this:


Architectural & Facility Planning

In June 2011, the Cape Breton Regional Library (CBRL) Board initiated a study to “review facilities and services at the James McConnell Memorial Library to determine future requirements for a library facility to serve downtown Sydney at the present site.”

Opened in 1960, the McConnell Library was named for the eighth mayor of Sydney, who served between 1924 and 1931. The original building was designed by C.D. Davison & Company of Halifax (the same firm that designed the Sydney Band Shell in 1961 and which is now known as Davison Seamone Rickard Adams Architecture Inc or DSRA).

James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

James McConnell Memorial Library, Sydney. (Source: DSRA)

A 1986 addition was designed by the architectural firm of Sims and Gavel (which also designed the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and the Cove Guest Home in Sydney).

Today, the McConnell serves as both a local library for a “catchment” area that includes roughly 40,000 people and as the headquarters for the Cape Breton Regional Library (CBRL) system.

The feasibility study was undertaken by Trifos Design Consultants of Sydney and Wolfville-based dmA Planning and Management Services, who first produced an Architectural and Facility Planning Report (with Trifos handling the architectural report and dmA, which counts libraries among its specialties, handling the facility planning.) Their report was delivered to the Library board in January 2012. It’s worth quoting what it had to say about the existing facilities, because it provides a stark illustration of why we’re talking about a new library:

The entry system, vestibule, and arrival foyer are in good physical condition, however, the spatial organization is congested and confined. Although strategically positioned in the centre of the public space, the circulation desk is in an awkward position, affording little privacy and feeling claustrophobic.

The staff room, behind the circulation desk, has no windows and is not ventilated and has a washroom opening directly into the staff room.

This upper storey is characterized by its lack of quiet study area, lack of staff office space and workroom areas, lack of display space, insufficient public internet access points, and inadequate plumbing fixturing for the public. Environmental comfort is an issue due to lack of air conditioning and humidity control.

James McConnell, the eighth mayor of the city of Sydney, who served from 1924 to 1931. (Photograph courtesy of the Beaton Institute digital archives https://beatoninstitute.com/)

James McConnell, the eighth mayor of the city of Sydney, who served from 1924 to 1931. (Photograph courtesy of the Beaton Institute digital archives)

The dmA section of the report then considers what “the library of the future” will look like, which is always, to some extent, a mug’s game, especially when your considerations are so focused on technology. Reading the report (and some of the references it cites, like a 2009 study for the American Library Association called Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library,) is like a walk down technology’s memory lane: remember iPods? And Netflix? Not the pure streaming service, but the DVD-rentals-by-mail service?

Remember how doomed physical books seemed to be in 2011? (As recently as 2016, the BBC was reporting ebook sales had plateaued at 20% of all book sales and commentators were raising any number of concerns about the effects of reading on screens — less information retained, disrupted sleep, etc.)

The American Library Association report seemed blithely unaware of the threat of what we’re now calling “surveillance capitalism,” extolling the advantages (and inevitability) of all digital, all the time searching. (Reminding me of my joking but totally serious assertion that the reason I prefer librarians to Google is that if I ask a librarian a question about motorcycles, she doesn’t follow me around for the next three weeks trying to sell me one.)

But that said, the 2012 report came to grips with the evolving role of the physical library in this century in a way I hadn’t properly recognized before — drawing on, among other things, Project for Public Spaces ideas about “How to Make Your Library Great” (as did the people who designed the undeniably great Antigonish library, The People’s Place).

And having explored all the new roles and responsibilities of 21st century libraries, the authors of the 2012 report judged that the existing James McConnell Memorial Library met “very few” of the new design criteria. Moreover, they said it would cost an estimated $11.2 million to bring the McConnell to the point where it did meet more of those criteria (and that figure didn’t include the costs of relocating library operations during the renovations).

And finally, it concluded that renovating the McConnell made no sense:

[D]ue to the extent of renovation efforts required to mitigate existing building deficiencies, the cost of an addition to the existing building would most likely be as much as three-quarters of the cost of a new building constructed a greenfield site.

Consensus among most of the stakeholders was that further investigation be conducted into the feasibility of constructing a new facility on an alternate site.



Okay, so that’s how we got to the point where the new library was to be “a new facility” constructed on “an alternate site.” But how did that “alternate site” become the waterfront? And how did the “new facility” become round?

Stick with me, all will soon become clear.

The next step in the development of our new library was for Trifos, dMA and Breton Chartered Accountants to produce a Sydney Public Library Feasibility Study, which they did in February 2016.

The report rehashes a lot of the initial study — discussing the limitations of the old library and the trends and best practices in new library development — before getting down to business, which is presenting three options for a new library.

Option 1 — a library built on a CBRM lot across from the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion:

Option 1 -- New Building: CBRM Lot Across from Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. Rendering View from Esplanade (Facing South). Source: http://www.cbrm.ns.ca/images/stories/reports/Sydney_Public_Library_Feasibility_Study_Final_Draft__resized.pdf

Option 1 — New Building: CBRM Lot Across from Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. Rendering View from Esplanade (Facing South).

Option 2 — a library further up the Esplanade (where, apparently, two suns shine, judging by the shadows cast by the passing vehicles compared to the shadows cast by the trees in front of the building). This one would share facilities with the NSCC Marconi Campus:

Option 1 -- New Building: CBRM Lot Across from Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. Rendering View from Esplanade (Facing South). Source: http://www.cbrm.ns.ca/images/stories/reports/Sydney_Public_Library_Feasibility_Study_Final_Draft__resized.pdf

Option 2 – Shared Mixed-Use Complex: Mercer Fuels/Fire-Station side, Esplanade. Source: Sydney Public Library Feasibility Study.

Or Option 3 — a library in the renovated building that held our Target store for what seems like about 10 minutes in 2015 and which has since been cut in half to accommodate a call center (and which is pictured below being menaced by the band of no-doubt illiterate giants who will ultimately destroy it):

Option 3 – Retrofit of Existing Edifice: Former Target Store, Prince Street, Sydney, NS. Rendering View from Prince Street (Facing Southwest). Source: Sydney Public Library Feasibility Study.

I wondered where these three options had come from, so back in January 2017, I asked Pat Bates, who was then head of the library committee. He told me:

1. Concerning choosing locations, two waterfront sites were recommended by the Library Committee with a lot of support from library patrons.

2. The former Zellers [former Target current call center] site was suggested by the consultants as a comparative or benchmark property.

3. Two other sites have been suggested for consideration. One is a section of the New Dawn, former Holy Angels property, an idea advanced by New Dawn.

The other is a block of land at the corner of George and Pitt Streets backing onto the Highland Arts Theatre property. This idea came from city planning staff.


Harborfront development

So, fair enough, two options came from the Library Committee with “a lot of support from library patrons” and one was a “benchmark property” chosen by the consultants.

But who decided not to include the option recommended by municipal planning staff? And was anyone really thinking about the environmental implications of building on the waterfront or were they just thinking, “A library on the waterfront would be lovely.” (Which it would be, I agree, but is it practical?)

I later emailed Spryo Trifos of Trifos Design to ask how the three locations had been chosen and he replied:

The 2016 Sydney Public Library feasibility study commissioned by CBRM was not requested nor intended to be a formal site selection survey or property site analysis per se. The purpose of the feasibility study was primarily to explore programming requirements and different building planning and cost scenarios to achieve the contemplated functional program. The three build scenarios chosen to be studied and described in the report were either (a) a new building, (b) a shared mixed-use facility or (c) a retrofit/rehabilitation scenario. Each build option offers various benefits and constraints. Indeed, numerous private and public sites exist, which could fit the program for each of the three options. The sites illustrated in the report, were unique, readily identifiable, unencumbered, commodious, and frequently referenced in public and private discussions. In our opinion, the three referenced sites succes[s]fully illustrated, the possibilities and challenges inherent with each of the three building scenario options. Proffering more sites, for each option, was neither requested nor within our project study scope, and would not have enhanced the functional programming or financial analysis portion of the study.

That’s pretty clear: the study wasn’t about choosing actual sites, it was about choosing “representative” sites for cost-evaluation purposes and it was determined that a new, standalone, 40,000 square foot building would cost an estimated $26 to $28 million, depending on site location, while a retrofitted edifice of the same size would cost approximately $18 million.

When Trifos, John Nash of Breton Accountants and Jim Morgenstern of dmA presented the three options to residents at a well-attended gathering in the old library in October 2017 (a gathering I attended), the response to the designs was reflected in the Post headline, “People want to see other options for new Sydney library.”

The comment I remember most (and which was picked up by the Post) came from publisher Ron Caplan who said:

Everyone thinks we’re stuck with only these three options and that’s not the case. I think we’re passing up the downtown. Let’s have an entrance on Charlotte Street and one on the Esplanade. I think we have a courageous opportunity to revitalize the downtown area and the harbour front is not the downtown area.

Other attendees:

…expressed concern about placing another building on the waterfront, creating more congestion on the Esplanade and essentially wiping out any views of the harbour.

Nash responded to this last concern by saying precisely what Trifos would later tell me — that “for the purposes of the study, representative sites were chosen but no hard decisions had yet been made.”


Harbour Royale & Partners

So, again, how did we get from “no hard decisions have yet been made” to “the new library will be located on the waterfront?”

Answering that requires us to look, briefly, at another development initiative, the plan to revitalize Sydney’s waterfront contained in a 2014 report by the Dartmouth-based consulting firm Ekistics.

Council accepted Ekistics somewhat hallucinogenic vision of the waterfront (as I never tire of repeating, it includes a sand beach next to the government wharf) and in 2017, the CBRM put out a tender to find someone to make it so. The municipality received only one bid, from local developer Martin Chernin, who has been about to break ground on something on the Sydney waterfront (the plans have varied wildly) for over a decade.

Chernin’s company, Harbour Royale Development, submitted its “concept” for the waterfront in conjunction with Trifos Design and — what do you know? — that plan just happened to include one of Trifos’ designs for the new central library:


In addition to the library, Chernin’s plan includes an expanded Holiday Inn and a relocated Casino. Whether he can convince either the Westmont Hospitality Group which owns the Holiday Inn (and which Chernin misidentified in his proposal as the “Westmount Hotel Group”) or Casino Nova Scotia to play ball remains a mystery.

Almost as great a mystery as why a private developer, who is very clear he does not intend to contribute any funding to the new library, which will be a publicly owned building, has been allowed to choose both the design and location of the facility.

Because that is basically what happened: in accepting Chernin’s bid to redevelop the entire waterfront, we apparently accepted that our library will be located on that waterfront and will look like this (the library is said to resemble a Mi’kmaq drum which complements the Big Fiddle):

Artists rendering: New CBRM Central Library

Source: Facebook

I had an email exchange with Trifos on Tuesday (more of which will be contained in Part II of this article) and I mentioned that I didn’t understand why the library was in the hands of a private developer. He said:

[T]he proposed [Harbour Royale Development Ltd] development concept was initially submitted in response to a public request for proposals, a well publicized EOI [Expression of Interest], by the CBRM for the development of the Waterfront lands. HRDL submitted their response to this public RFP and were subsequently approved by CBRM Council to develop this important piece of civic infrastructure as part of their waterfront development proposal. At no time, was there any suggestion or doubt expressed, by any CBRM official, participants or interest groups during the RFP process, that the Regional Library was considered to be an inappropriate development piece for the developers responding to the RFP. On the contrary, it was seen by many to be a positive development, in moving the Library concept forward to the next stage of becoming a reality.

And maybe council and interest groups didn’t consider this “an inappropriate development piece for developers responding to the RFP” but I do. And I would point out that the new Halifax library was not constructed as part of a private developer’s vision for the downtown, nor was the Antigonish library constructed that way. Why? Because they’re public buildings built with public money and there was no need to involve a private developer.

There will be a meeting at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion tonight to discuss the design, as:

The proposed waterfront library building has evolved significantly in terms of architectural design with a noteworthy new theme now embodied in the overall building concept. The global site plan for the multi-use waterfront development has also been substantially reconfigured in an effort to reduce capital costs while maintaining a high level of public access and ensuring adequate levels of green space and parking.

I always worry when people claim they can make things better by making them cost less, but even if I accept that Chernin and Trifos are looking out for us — it’s our money they’re saving after all — and even if I accept that a private developer has taken the reins in this project and has chosen the design (which, honestly I haven’t and probably never will), I can still question the location.

But that’s the subject of my next rant article.