The Latest on the Library

Have you read latest CBRM Central Library study? Anyone outside CBRM reading about the private developer who has been given control over the project would probably write it off as fiction, but we know better, don’t we?

The study in question is the service, programs and operational plan commissioned from TCI Management Consultants, Beth Ross & Associates and (of course) Trifos Design Consultants for $65,140 and presented to council last Tuesday by Greg Young of TCI.

To jog my memory, I went back to my February 2020 coverage of the general committee meeting during which council debated developing a request for proposals (RFP) for this study.

Bill Murphy, CBRM’s director of parks, recreation, buildings & facilities presented the proposed RFP to council — replacing the CBRM’s erstwhile point man on the library project, John Phalen, who’d abandoned the position of economic development and special projects manager to return to public works a year earlier. Murphy described the information to be gathered in the study as “the building blocks of requirements before we talk about what the building is going to look like,” which, as I noted at the time, was:

…quite funny when you consider that Harbour Royale Development Ltd, the private developer that has been allowed to include the public library in its waterfront development, and architect Spiro Trifos have spent two years showing us pictures of “what the building is going to look like.”

Artist's rendering, new CBRL Central Library, Sydney waterfront.

Artist’s rendering, new CBRL Central Library, Sydney waterfront.

Council had hoped the study might be done in time to “inform 2020 budget discussions,” but Murphy shot that down with pinpoint accuracy:

I can assure council it will not be done.

He was right — although the RFP did go out the next month, the study was not submitted to council until November 2020 and council didn’t consider it until January 2021.

I want to quote from the RFP because it serves as a reminder of just how odd the CBRM’s approach to the new central library has been. The potted version of the project history included in the RFP states that after a 2016 feasibility study recommended a 37,000-square-foot facility, the CBRM called for an (unrelated) expression of interest in redeveloping the Sydney waterfront and:

…in the fall of 2017, approval in principle was given a proposal by real estate developer, Harbour Royale Development Limited for the redevelopment of the Sydney waterfront that included a New Central Library.

And just like that, the public library became part of a private developer’s project, which meant a private developer was permitted to choose the location for the new library, rather than the municipality going through all the bother of considering, you know, more than one possible site. (Halifax Regional Municipality considered six before settling on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street for its new central library.)



Nevertheless, this latest report assures us it is “location agnostic,” and that what it has to say about space and layout will apply no matter where the library is built. If you’re wondering what location agnosticism looks like, consider this passage from the report titled, “Views on Location.” After noting that the people they interviewed had focused primarily on the need to build a new library, with location a secondary issue, the authors said there was “roughly an even split” between those favoring the waterfront location and those favoring a downtown Sydney location. TCI summed up support for the waterfront location this way:

Those favouring a waterfront location include Cape Breton Partnership, Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce, MPs Jaime Battiste and Mike Kelloway. They noted particularly the ability of a waterfront location to provide an exceptional site with views of the seascape that would be unrivaled in Canada. It would potentially be a wonderful architectural building that the community would take pride in. It would have the potential to attract further economic development to the waterfront and downtown area. It would function to serve the local community as well as visitors. The waterfront location also has sufficient space to allow the exterior of the building to be used in a variety of ways including a venue for outdoor programming. First Nations stakeholders were enthusiastic about the waterfront location for historical and cultural reasons as well as a place to host events and outdoor programming. They noted the proposed oval design suggested the shape of a Mi’kmaq drum which has cultural and spiritual significance. As noted, the waterfront location lends itself well to possibly including a tourism information centre as part of the library.

Authors, CBRL library report 2020

TCI then summed up the views held by the other 50% of respondents, none of whom warranted identification by name or organization:

Those concerned with the waterfront location cited accessibility for parents with young children, seniors, severe weather/wind issues, climate change, the associated possibility of sea rise and potential for increased capital costs relative to a downtown location.

Do you think the fix may be in for the waterfront site? Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that Trifos — who wrote the “2021 Architectural and Facility Planning Report” for the proposed new library, helped produce the 2016 “Sydney Public Library Feasibility Study” and advised TCI on this latest study — is also associated directly with Harbour Royale Development Ltd’s plans for the waterfront? That he drafted the “proposed library concept plan” that placed the library there?



But let’s get down to brass tacks.

The latest study calls for a bigger library than the one recommended in the 2016 feasibility study — 45,122 square feet instead of 37,330 square feet.

One of the reasons for this increase is the need for the library, as a public building, to comply with Bill 59, the Accessibility Act introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature in November 2016 — that is, nine months after the 2016 feasibility study was submitted to CBRM. (The Act came into force in September 2017.)

That accessibility in terms of shelf height and spacing wasn’t considered when calculating the initial library dimensions kind of tells you why we needed accessibility legislation doesn’t it?

Library shelving diagram


Capital costs

There was more “location agnosticism” on display in the “preliminary estimate” of constructions costs, which were calculated for a facility “at the currently-proposed waterfront location.” The authors then add:

A greenfield site development (assuming one could be found) might result in an overall cost savings of between 10% and 15%.

Obviously, the chances of finding a “greenfield” site within the boundaries of a 200-year-old city is a joke, unless we build the library on the site earmarked for the container port. But it should be noted that money could be saved by not building on the waterfront:

Construction on the Sydney waterfront will also be more expensive…because it will be a new, iconic, transformative civic landmark, with high visibility, uniquely designed to achieve LEED certification. Challenges will potentially include land assembly, complex engineering, construction and project management. The waterfront location will also require site remediation and preparation work, and extensive pile construction and footings to support its substructure.

This is what we’re witnessing right now with the new Marconi Campus, where the first months of work have been dedicated to driving 800 metal piles into the bedrock just to make construction possible on what is basically an infilled section of the harbor.

The report also notes that costs of building in Sydney are “historically” 15% to 30% higher than in Halifax:

The reasons for this include distance from markets, the distance to engage speciality trades, and the need in Sydney to respect its long-standing tradition of working within the unionized construction environment.

I like the framing of this, as though unions are some quaint, old-timey Cape Breton quirk.

The authors also warn that their estimates do not account for “any escalation as a result of Covid” and do not allow for inflation between now and when construction commences.

With all of these caveats, TCI estimates construction costs for a new library on the waterfront between $34.3 and $35.5 million. And yes, that’s a lot of money — but I put it in perspective by thinking of what we’ll get for our $35 million, considering we spent $38 million dredging the harbor (and eight years later, still can’t reap the benefits from it because we’ve yet to install new navigational aids) and $20 million on the second berth, which is essentially a concrete catwalk.


Operating costs

You’ve probably heard that the new central library will cost the CBRM $244,000 more a year to operate than the McConnell Library does.

What you may not have heard is that the McConnell — which is both the Sydney branch of the CBRL and the headquarters for the entire regional library system — costs only $83,025 per year to operate. Moreover, $74,300 of that is offset in the form of rent paid by the CBRL to the CBRM for the space used to accommodate the regional HQ.

Which means it costs the CBRM $8,725 a year to operate the McConnell Library.

Unless you proposed putting the new central library in a phone booth, operation costs were going to be higher. This doesn’t include staffing costs, which are paid by CBRL, but the McConnell employs the equivalent of 9.16 full-time staff in the library and this includes HQ staff who take branch shifts. The TCI report shows staff levels are low compared to “all standards,” as are the McConnell’s volume of materials, user seats and computers. (Note: ARUPLO, in the table below, refers to the Administrators of Rural and Urban Public Libraries of Ontario.)

CBRL McConnell library compared to various standards

Also worth mentioning: at 45,000 square feet, the new building would be roughly the same size as the Civic Centre (or “City Hall” as TCI calls it), which is 40,000 square feet and costs $640,289 to operate annually. The library, although bigger, will cost roughly half as much thanks to more efficient design.

Besides which, you’ll be glad to hear, I’ve already found the funds to cover the higher operating costs of the new library.

All we have to do is reduce our over-sized police force. In fact, all we have to do is lose the 19 officers added to the force by Premier Rodney MacDonald’s 2007 “Boots to the Streets” program. Then we can redirect the $1.9 million the province pays for those officers to other purposes, including the library.

But the genius part is this: even if the province won’t continue to give us the $1.9 million if we refuse to use it for cops, we’re still golden, because that funding has been frozen for years and the CBRM has been making up the shortfall which, in 2018-19 alone, totaled $520,000 –there’s your library and then some!

You’re welcome.


Funding formula

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall has been beating the drum about the problematic provincial funding for libraries since 2019, when, as chair of the library board, she traveled to Truro for a sneak peek at a new provincial funding formula. She returned to report to council that the new formula considered CBRM a rural area and that, as the TCI report explains:

The provincial funding formula for regional libraries outside of Halifax is: 71% provincial, 26% municipal, 3% library board. Halifax is 26% provincial, 71% municipal, 3% library board.

The funding is allocated on a hybrid model of a base amount for core staffing, operating, and collections costs and per-capita components for each non-Halifax library system, without regard to number of branches, or complexity of a large urban library (Sydney) resulting in the Cape Breton Regional Library system receiving a smaller increase than any other library system in the Province.

TCI advises us to make a great big noisy fuss about this to the provincial government. Oh, okay, it doesn’t — I’m just having some fun because I’m starting to bore myself — TCI says the CBRL should:

… proactively approach the province with a view to engaging in a dialogue that could eventually result in a fairer and more liberal funding model.

And while waiting for changes to the funding formula, the report suggests “engaging a professional fundraiser” to “help catalyze potential local and regional funding sources for this major new initiative” and, once construction of the new central library is underway, looking for ways of “ensuring maximum efficiency and effectiveness of the system across the entire region.”

I’m thinking District 8 Councilor James Edwards, president of the Glace Bay Minor Hockey Association, might be able to give the CBRM some tips on fundraising.

But talk of “maximizing efficiency and effectiveness” always makes me nervous — and I’m not alone. A report based on anonymous interviews with staff at the McConnell explained that while they were enthusiastic about the prospect of a new facility, they had some concerns, including that “a big investment in a central library” would be “the first step to withdrawing support from the smaller branches because of the expense and overhead costs.”



Like the 2016 Feasibility Study, the TCI study professes a touching belief in the existence of “partners” willing to help us fund our new central library, before acknowledging that “nobody at this point is in any position to make any firm commitments.”

The list of potential partners who’ve sent their regrets includes Cape Breton University, which has been “severely hit” financially by the pandemic and “is not able to commit to a funding partnership at this time.” (CBU has also, although the study doesn’t mention it, launched its own building project — an $80 million “Discovery and Innovation Centre” — for which it is attempting to tap the same government funding and public support the municipality is courting for the library.)

Artist's rendition CBU Discovery and Innovation Centre

Artist’s rendition CBU Discovery and Innovation Centre

One of the possibilities for partnership with CBU involves moving the Beaton Institute to the central library, although such a move “would likely need to be funded solely by the library,” which I don’t think meets the definition of “partnership” but passons. This option, besides creating a “critical mass of local resources for researchers in a very central and accessible location,” would mark a return to its origins for the Beaton, which used to be housed in the Logue building on George Street, where it was known as the “Cape Bretoniana.”

The authors suggest the new library might be designed in such a way that, should the funding eventually materialize, a 10,000-square-foot “Phase 2” could be added to house the Beaton — but here’s an interesting consideration:

This may be more feasible in a location that has more flexibility than the current proposed waterfront site.

First Nations are, we’re told, enthusiastic about the new library project but there is “no immediate funding source available to provide capital” for it. (Representatives from Eskasoni FN didn’t even respond to an invitation to participate in TCI’s “stakeholder” interviews.)

This is probably not going to be a popular opinion, but I find there is something deeply cynical in the attempts to position the new library as “an iconic manifestation of cultural reconciliation arising from the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations,” as TCI suggests we do elsewhere in the report (and which Chief Terry Paul is apparently down with).  I have no problem with incorporating FN design elements and programming into the new building, but surely addressing Eskasoni’s soaring child and family poverty rate would be a more valuable (and credible) manifestation of cultural reconciliation?

There is a possibility of a “funding partnership” with Destination Cape Breton, which would move its Sydney Visitor Center from the Big Fiddle, where it is now located, to the library. The center apparently pays the Port of Sydney $50,000 annually for “staff support” and I can’t imagine the Port would be pleased to lose this funding, but it’s a possibility.

Generally, though, the outlook for partnerships is bleak and TCI writes:

Accordingly, the development scenario outlined in this Report assumes that the library ‘goes it alone’ and develops the facility that it needs for its own purposes.

Which, really, is not a bad way for a library project to proceed — it worked in Antigonish and Truro and Halifax, after all.



There’s a very funny section of this report dedicated to constructing a rationale for asking the developer, Martin Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Limited (HRDL), to contribute to the capital costs of the library. I think it is worth quoting in full because it is the first time I’ve ever seen the reasons why Chernin helped himself to the library for his waterfront development stated so baldly.

TCI suggests HRDL might be convinced to contribute funds to the project given that:

  • as a highly desirable community asset, the presence of a library within reasonable proximity will add to the desirability and value of residential units

(You don’t say?)

  • the additional value to the developer of having the library as part of the development would therefore be that the residential component of the development would sell quickly and at higher value than otherwise

(Really, you don’t say?)

  • the additional value to the developer would thus be the ‘premium’ value that the library would add to each unit times the number of units in the development.

Don’t worry though. Just because HRDL isn’t contributing to the capital costs of the building that will serve its interests so well doesn’t mean it hasn’t contributed in other ways — for instance, it  helped bungle the initial applications for federal and provincial funding and you really can’t put a price on that.

Harbour Royale Development Ltd's Sydney waterfront plan.

Harbour Royale Development Ltd’s Sydney waterfront plan. Note casino located in expanded Holiday Inn.



Some of TCI’s ideas for the new library seem to have been stolen from the retail sector:

As the library serves everybody in the community, it needs to have user-friendly design and user-friendly policies, such as a mix of self-serve and assisted services, e.g. self-checkout, and a welcoming vestibule. This also frees up staff to do other things. Sydney currently has three people working at the circulation desk. Alternatively roaming staff could offer assistance with an iPad by approaching patrons, rather than passively waiting for customers to approach the circulation desk to ask for help…For the new library, self-checkout will give independent borrowers flexibility…

Install self-checkouts to “free staff” to wander around with iPads (nice product placement, btw), accosting people to offer them help? Why? To make being in a real library more like being online, where you’re tracked and monitored and offered unsolicited assistance? I like browsing the shelves in peace, it’s one of the small joys of going to the library. When I need help, I don’t find it difficult to go to the desk and ask for it — and I like talking to the librarian at the check-out desk, once I’ve made my selections — so I’m really not sure what problem this is solving.

And once again, I seem to have tapped into a concern shared by library staff, who like their “traditional central desk that serves as a meeting place and reference point for patrons and staff” and worry that it will be done away with  “as has been done in other newly-built libraries.”



There’s much talk of “weeding” the CBRL’s physical collection. As the report states:

Libraries are evolving from preservers of the written word to engaging their communities in creative activities.

And this is where, as someone who does research at the McConnell, I get a little nervous. Because the main criterion to be used in “weeding’ seems to be how often an item has circulated in recent years, which makes me fear that that odd little book, written in the 1950s, that touches on precisely the subject you are researching is unlikely to make the cut.

And again, I find this is a concern McConnell staff also raised, worrying that if “more space were allocated for study and meeting and programs” there might be less room “for the print materials currently housed at McConnell.”


End notes

Overall, I think the authors of the report have a pretty good handle on what we need in a new central library — and if they seem a little too carried away with the notion of it as an “iconic” structural marvel and tourist attraction on the waterfront (and they do), I’ll put it down to them being advised by a leading proponent of the structural marvel camp. (Although, and I’m just throwing this out there, Halifax didn’t get its award-winning library by handing the contract to the guy who works with the developer who managed to get control over the project — Halifax held a design contest and received entries from architects all over the world.)

But in terms of the facilities a new library should have and the services it should offer, I don’t have much to quibble with here:

CBRM central library recommendations, TCI report

In fact, I think you can file my feelings about the new library with those of the McConnell staff, under “enthusiasm tempered with some concerns.”