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Library board seeks private partner for new or upgraded Main branch

A decision by the Ottawa Public Library Board means a much-needed makeover for the Main branch downtown or even a new building altogether is closer to becoming a reality.

At its meeting on Monday night, the board unanimously endorsed a motion by Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder, who also chairs the board, which would essentially test the waters to see if there is any private sector interest to partner up on the project.

"Can you imagine if it was a condo tower, for example? They really can't sell condos on the bottom two floors on a cement street, but imagine if that was all glass library."

Though the suggestion was approved on Monday night, Harder insisted it’s already generating buzz.

"I have had calls since the report went live on Friday from people who are interested in helping us find those opportunities."

She said Bayview Yards or LeBreton Flats could be possibilities, but many more details are needed first.

An outside design firm presented three options on how to improve the location, which currently offers about 97,000 square feet of usable space. A $40 million plan would increase that to 109,000 square feet of space, but would only offer minor changes. A $50 million option would see a total of 115,000 square feet of space and achieve improved accessibility and some other major renovations. A $70 million plan would help create a total of 131,000 square feet of usable space by essentially stripping down the building to its shell and re-building it with a glass facade.

But the library board passed on all of those for now, insisting the city just doesn't have the funds.

While Halifax and Calgary are building state of the art, modern and buzz worthy main branches, the drab exterior on Ottawa's main facility is the least of its problems.

"It's not accessible. It has an escalator that breaks down and only goes one way. It doesn't even have fire sprinklers in the entire building," Harder said.

Other problems include dark spaces and spotty Wi-Fi service.

But despite those issues, it remains the busiest of all of the 33 branches. More than 16,000 people visit the location every week.

Councillor Tim Tierney said the 40-year old building isn't aging well and this could be the option that kick starts the project.

"Conveniently, 1974, that's my birth year. That's a long time ago...I think we have to really put some thought around that, otherwise the building is just going to crumble."

The city was close to buying a new piece of land along Albert Street, but negotiations broke down with the owner in 2010.

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