Throwing Caution to the Wind

Locally, the debate over Kitchener’s Centre Block continues. The City has deferred a decision on heritage status for the Mayfair Hotel and other plans for the block for about a month, either to obtain more public input, or to allow the issue to cool off a bit, or both. Certainly tempers have been raised, and city council may not have appreciated the national attention its decision to demolish the historic Forsythe factory has raised.

Certainly the opposition has managed to get itself noticed at City Hall. A recent article in The Record suggests that Mayor Carl Zehr is backing off his plan to use a relocated central library as an anchor for this project thanks to local opposition he finds “ironic”, because “In all surveys, the library tops the list of city services with the most public support”.

If this quote is accurate, I think he misunderstands the nature of this opposition. Kitchener residents have long supported funding for our local libraries, but we also want to ensure that our tax dollars are spent well, and a lot of us have doubts whether constructing a new central library represents the wisest use of those dollars, either in terms of improving library services, or in terms of assisting in the redevelopment of the downtown.

If it helps, I wish to reassure city council that I at least — and I think a number of residents in the city — appreciate the hard work of city councillors and city staff in redeveloping Kitchener’s downtown core, and the successes that they have had in the past few years. I still remember how bad the downtown core was when I came to this city in 1991, and the transformation that has occurred since has been remarkable. But if you don’t mind my repeating myself: this transformation took years of hard work to put into effect; you’re not going to fix the centre block quickly — at least, not in a way that benefits downtown core for years to come.

I am not convinced that a new central library will be the draw you expect it to be for the developers of the centre block. I am not convinced that a new building represents a substantial improvement to either the downtown or to the services the old library provides. You are essentially just moving the old library four blocks, and creating a new space in the core that needs filling instead of establishing a new amenity downtown. All of the other improvements to the downtown core have filled in derelict spaces with new amenities, so the central library proposal represents a startling departure from the tried-and-true strategy.

I also believe that Kitchener’s library services can be improved throughout the city for far less than the cost of the construction of a new building. It would benefit more residents if the branches out in the suburbs could access materials from branches across the city, rather than having to trek downtown to a new and bigger building holding the bulk of the collection. An improved delivery system and an electronic collection could turn all of the branches of Kitchener’s library system into a decentralized library for the benefit of all.

It doesn’t help that the sense of urgency behind the proponents of the Centre Block revitalization lends a sense that they just might give away the farm in order to get shovels into the ground. I am not opposed to a public-private partnership to redevelop the block, and I am not even opposed to the idea of giving away the city-owned land to the developer, if that developer comes up with a good idea for redevelopment. But allowing the developer to control the final design of the central library is a serious mistake, as any librarian will tell you. That’s giving away too much, and it leads one to wonder what else city residents and taxpayers would have to give up under such a deal.

Ideally, I would like something new added to the downtown through the Centre Block’s redevelopment. Something like the proposed Waterloo County Historical Museum, for instance. But ultimately what I want is caution and forethought, and a sense that whatever money Kitchener taxpayers end up spending to revitalize the Centre Block is money well spent.

For that reason, the message I wish to send to Kitchener city councillors is that there’s no shame in taking your time on this. If a redevelopment deal on the Centre Block isn’t reached before the municipal elections this November, it won’t be a tragedy. What will be a tragedy is if we’re stuck with a bad deal and a bad design for decades to come.

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