Tank: The dream of a library in downtown Saskatoon is getting smaller, not cheaper


It remains unclear how much smaller the new downtown Saskatoon library will be after renovations are completed to meet the project budget.

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The Saskatoon Public Library Board is hosting a celebration at the Frances Morrison Central Library in a month.

Those who come will likely enjoy a smaller version of the new downtown library at the same cost of $134 million.

The library announced it plans to begin construction on the controversial new branch in October, following a ceremonial groundbreaking in late June, and with redevelopment of the site set to begin in July.

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But it remains unclear how much smaller the planned new library will be, given the changes needed to stay on budget. The changes sound extensive — and the project will be completed nearly a year later than originally planned.

The planned opening at the new location at Second Avenue and 25th Street has now been postponed until summer 2027, long after the current building is scheduled to be handed over to its new owner.

When the “final design” for the project was released in fall 2022, the four-story building, which would combine elements of an Indigenous tepee and a traditional Métis log cabin, was to be 136,000 square feet.

Size was crucial, as one of the main arguments for building a new central library was the lack of space in the 58-year-old, 7,200-square-metre Frances Morrison Library, which is also very outdated.

The original plan was for a 13,500-square-foot facility, but that was scaled back after the City Council rejected the Library Committee's $87 million loan request five years ago and then approved (barely) $67 million.

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Now the project is being scaled down again after the library board repeatedly insisted that the vision could be achieved within budget while stubbornly ignoring the obvious reality that inflation had driven up the costs of similar projects across Canada.

The board was forced to pause and rethink the project last summer after bids were well over budget.

If you take a closer look at the new library's website, you'll notice that the building will be downsized by 2,700 square feet. Library spokesman Kirk Sibbald explained in an email response that the switch to metric units was made to accommodate the construction industry.

That reduction equates to more than 29,000 square feet, or more than the size of 10 regulation tennis courts. Subtracting that from the final 2022 design would reduce the size of the new library to 107,000 square feet, not much larger than the current branch, which opened in 1966.

However, Sibbald added, “the building size increased slightly” as construction documents were finalized in the months following the release of the final design. He declined to provide details.

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“The revised design will not exceed 12,000 square meters, or 129,167 square feet,” Sibbald added. If that math somehow works out for you, you might be in for a career at NASA. That estimate is only about 8,000 square feet smaller than the original, but we're told the facility will be 29,000 square feet smaller.

And the vague wording could mean that the building could be much smaller.

This suggests that the project may have gotten completely out of control even before library officials checked with Planet Earth again and discovered some sobering economic realities.

The Central Library's website details 18 cost-saving measures, including the demolition of the basement.

A gathering circle on the outdoor plaza will be postponed, and perhaps most importantly, the project will not be built to the highest environmental certification specifications, although “the building will maintain a high level of sustainability.”

The project is still expected to meet the highest standards of accessibility.

But the lack of clarity about the redesign will only drive taxpayers to despair, whose patience has already been severely tested by this project.

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And the largely unelected library board, which includes Councilwoman Hilary Gough and Mayor Charlie Clark, continues to lack transparency when it comes to this very expensive and highly controversial undertaking.

If the library administration really wants the public to celebrate this project, they should commit to accountability. Perhaps there is a book on the subject in the library.

Phil Tank is the digital opinion editor for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

[email protected]

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