There are numerous parallels between the MacKenzie Street main branch library build and the Junction East Cultural Hub library/art gallery debate currently taking place in Greater Sudbury.
The most relevant parallel right now relates to the project’s reduced square footage, spurring a lingering concern that history might repeat itself and the new library will be built too small.
“We shouldn't undersize our infrastructure requirements today by discounting our growth needs,” Greater Sudbury Public Library CEO Brian Harding told Sudbury.com.
The library’s goal, he said, is “to ensure that the community over that 100-year horizon is getting the space that it needs. It's getting the services that it needs, but it's also getting the most cost-effective solution over that time, and I think that's a lesson learned.”
The MacKenzie Street main branch library was initially proposed in the 1940s at 28,185 square feet, but approximately 11,191 square feet of space was cut from the project by the time its grand opening was celebrated in 1952.
Rising costs were blamed for its reduced scope, which didn’t meet the needs of the day. It wasn’t until a decade later that a $149,000 expansion brought the library to its current square footage of approximately 32,000.
In February, Mayor Paul Lefebvre introduced a successful motion for city staff to look at options to reduce the cost and scope of the Junction East Cultural Hub project, which is slated to replace the MacKenzie Street main branch library.
The Junction East project is currently proposed at 104,000 square feet. This includes a gross square footage for functional library space of approximately 42,000 square feet. The proposed building would also include space for the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the Sudbury Multicultural and Folk Arts Association.
Lefebvre’s February motion requested that city administrators look at alternative projects to reduce its $98.5-million budget to $65 million, and by his estimation shrink its footprint down to 65,000 square feet.
If the size reduction were divided evenly between its proponents, the library’s gross functional space would drop from 42,000 square feet to 26,250 square feet.
“We know that the mayor has a vision to increase the population of Greater Sudbury (to 200,000 by 2050), and you know that is going to come with certain infrastructural requirements,” Harding said, adding that expanding the “social infrastructure” of libraries should be factored in.
That said, he clarified that the library board’s job is to advocate on behalf of users, and that city council has a much broader role to play in the municipality.
Their job, he said, is “incredibly complex, because it's not just the library, they have so many different stakeholders, they have so many different interest groups that they need to support and their job is to weigh all of those different needs from across their community and achieve an appropriate balance.
“The new central library project today, just as it was in the 1950s, is a complex decision for council to make.”
Digging through old Sudbury Daily Star articles with the help of historian librarian Kristen Bertrand, Sudbury.com singled out several other parallels between the 1952 build and the ongoing debate regarding a new main branch library in downtown Sudbury.
The 1952 build ballooned in cost and changed location more than once before finally getting built several years after it was first proposed. The same applies to Junction East, minus the bit about it finally getting built, which has yet to take place.
Before the MacKenzie Street library
The city’s first library opened in 1912, and consisted of a single room on Elm Street, though it wasn’t public, with members required to pay a fee.
In 1917, the library moved to the second floor of a post office building, at which time its membership was made free to town residents.
By 1925, the library expanded to an adjacent room to accommodate a growing membership, and in 1932 shifted operations to the CPR telegraph building at 49 Elgin St., which is now the McEwen School of Architecture.
A decade later, it shifted to rented space on Cedar Street in 1942, soon after which talk of a permanent, purpose-built library building began.
The long road to approving the MacKenzie Street library
Talks of a new, permanent library building started taking place in the early ’40s, around the time the city’s library opened in rented space on Cedar Street in 1942.
In October 1945, the Sudbury Star reported a lengthy discussion of the Sudbury Public Library Board had taken place on the subject.
At the time, approximately 12,000 square feet of space was recommended in the new building, with an additional 3,000 set aside for other library operations.
“I would suggest that the new building should be more than just a book-loaning institution,” building committee member George Thomson said in the story.
Another library leader said they will “aim at the expansion for other cultural aspects in our new building.”
In December 1945, the estimated cost of the new library was estimated at $150,000, though Thomson said he was of the impression it would be $50,000.
“We have received a good deal of encouragement from the municipality in the project we are going to undertake,” library chair H.H. Regimbal is quoted as saying.
In October 1947, local library officials met with their counterparts from the London Public Library to go over proposed plans, which would see a two-storey building plus a basement, constructed at Memorial Park facing Minto Street.
By March 26, 1949, the library’s leadership told the Sudbury Star that the existing library was overcrowded, and that there wasn’t enough room for the children’s section.
Although the library board wanted the central building located closer to the heart of downtown, city council unanimously backed a resolution in July 1949 for them to stick to a property on MacKenzie Street, which the library board already owned.
“If they would stop arguing and get to work on building a library, we would have a proper building before their lease on the present quarters runs out,” Alderman Whissell said.
In a survey of residents conducted by the newspaper that month, it was determined that people cared more about the building’s cost than its location.
“Taxes are high enough now and there is no indication that they will be coming down soon,” resident J.D. MacPhail said. “In the end, the ratepayers will have to foot the bill for the library site.”
In September 1949, the Sudbury Star reported that the “nine-year search for a site for a new public library” was almost complete, with two locations narrowed in on: The MacKenzie Street location and a mystery downtown location favoured by the library board, later clarified to be at the corner of Larch and Young streets.
A Sudbury Daily Star editorial in November 1949 advocated for the Larch Street site, arguing it was more centrally located.
“To those who think that Sudbury will grow no larger, the amount of land available on MacKenzie Street would seem adequate,” according to the editorial. “However, the city is still growing and a short-sighted policy at this stage can easily lead to the necessity of a new library building a few years hence.”
A December 1949 plebiscite asked whether voters favoured a $300,000 debenture to build a new library, and whether they preferred MacKenzie Street or Larch Street location.
Voter turnout for the library cost question was 32 per cent, with 5,828 people responding to offer a narrow 145-vote advantage favouring the expenditure. Voters selected MacKenzie Street with 3,441 votes against 2,387 for Larch Street.
Despite having adjacent land donated for the library building, its cost ended up reaching something close to $500,000, according to a December 1952 article.
The ‘books versus potholes’ debate in the ’90s
The MacKenzie Street library received a handful of renovations and expansions after it celebrated its grand opening in 1952, but the push for a new building made headlines again in 1994.
At the time, a development at the corner of Paris and Elm streets was proposed, where the downtown transit terminal, LCBO and TIm Hortons are currently located. The Paris Park location was the former site of a Canadian Tire store, and a multi-storey complex with offices, condominiums and a new main branch library was proposed.
The city would have spent $8.3 million of Canada/Ontario Infrastructure Works Program funding on the project, which was projected to bring in an additional private investment of $10 million.
At the time, the city proposed several other infrastructure projects in its place, including road rehabilitation, hence a “books versus potholes” debate. Sudbury city council of the day was divided 5-5 on the matter.
Various other proposals were bandied about throughout the decade, with four reports commissioned between 1990 and 1996 costing $191,525 and yielding no construction.
Billed by the Star as “one of the longest and most acrimonious debates at Sudbury city council” ended with city council agreeing to spend $2.1 million on renovations to the MacKenzie branch, and pulled $1.8 million from the library’s building renovation fund.
Some members of city council were upset that a proposal to shift the library to the City Centre Mall, now Elm Place, was rejected, with Coun. Ted Callaghan declaring, “I will support spending the bare minimum to hold that building together.”
The Junction East Cultural Hub
A 2016 push by city council to back “transformational” projects saw a new main branch library join other major projects, such as a new main arena and Place des Arts.
Synergy Centre was initially proposed, which later became the downtown-based Junction East and Junction West projects. In June 2018, it was estimated the art gallery/library project (Junction East) would cost $42 million (later updated to $46.5 million), while the convention centre project (Junction West) would cost $65.5 million.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Vista Hospitality dusted off an idea from the ’90s and proposed a new main branch library be built in the Rainbow Centre (formerly City Centre Mall, now Elm Place).
In subsequent years, the Junction projects stalled, and then picked up steam in the past year.
In June 2022, city council suspended Junction West and greenlit a $98.5-million Junction East Cultural Hub project.
The Junction East Cultural Hub was very different from what was initially proposed.
It shifted the project from its original Sudbury Community Arena site to next to the Sudbury Theatre Centre building between Paris Street and Shaughnessy Street, and jumped in size by 11,300 square feet to its newly proposed $104,000 square feet.
Although a new main branch of the Sudbury Public Library would be the building's main tenant, it would also house the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the Sudbury Multicultural and Folk Arts Association.
Since that time, a civic election took place, with the newly elected group casting the project’s future into uncertainty.
In February, Mayor Paul Lefebvre introduced a successful motion to have the city investigate a smaller build costing $65 million, which would bring its cost down to roughly within the $68 million in debt already secured for the Junction projects ($3.66 million has already been spent to date).
Lefebvre said the new build would reduce it to approximately 65,000 square feet, and suggested that existing infrastructure might be reconfigured. The mayor also clarified that he remains committed to a library project being downtown.
Proposed locations are already floating around, with Greg Oldenburg, owner of the former Northern Breweries building on Lorne Street, issuing a press release saying that the building could become the new home of the project.
The old brewery has been long-proposed as a site for condominiums called Brewer Lofts.
Historical parallels abound with new library build
The parallels between the 1952 MacKenzie library building and the Junction East Cultural Hub project are numerous, in addition to their similar square footage debates.
The 1952 build ballooned in cost from $150,000 to $300,000 by the time a plebiscite was held, after which it jumped to a figure closer to $500,000. An additional $149,000 expansion bumped its square footage up a decade later.
A new central library project to replace the MacKenzie Street building was initially proposed at $8.3 million in the ’90s, and jumped to $42 million with the initial Junction East project several years ago, later updated to $46.5 million and then doubling to $98.5 million with the Junction East Cultural Hub. That is, prior to Lefebvre’s February motion to scale it down to $65 million.
Meanwhile, both projects also changed locations along their multi-year planning journeys.
The MacKenzie Street project shifted from Memorial Park, to MacKenzie Street, to a Larch Street site and eventually back to MacKenzie Street.
The current library location debate began with the corner of Paris and Elm Streets in the '90s, with subsequent locations highlighted at the City Centre Mall (later Rainbow Centre, now Elm Place), a site by the Sudbury Community Arena, a site on the parking lot of the Sudbury Theatre Centre, and now an undetermined downtown location.
Just as local library officials met with counterparts from the London Public Library to go over proposed building plans in the ’40s, Harding said the city’s current batch of librarians have continued meeting with peers in other municipalities for the past decade.
“The nature of the public library community is very tight knit,” Harding said. “It absolutely makes sense for us to collaborate with each other, to establish best practices and to ensure that if someone has already learned some really, really great lessons about building a new central library in their community. We can certainly learn from them.”
Lesson learned: Build a library for the future
“Deferring costs doesn't always result in reduced costs,” Harding said.
“The dilemma that we have now is that our current facility was too small in the ’50s when it was built; that was recognized right away, and it has been too small ever since then.”
Building a facility that meets the needs of the community is “just really critical,” he said.
“We've been very cautious to say that we just can't underestimate this, so that we're not putting ourselves back in the same position,” where “in another 10, or 20 or 30 years, we're again looking for a place.”
Talk around a new central library project should centre around a project for the next 100 years, he said. “It's getting the services (the city) needs, but it's also getting the most cost-effective solution over that time. And I think that's a lesson learned.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.