Saanich plans to spend $2.1 million to help turn an empty library into office space.
A report recommends council approve the funding to upgrade the old Emily Carr library in the 3500 block of Blanshard Street. Saanich municipal hall and its annex would also undergo some minor renovations. Estimated completion date of the renovations would be the fourth quarter of 2019 and total annual operating costs for the renovated building would be $90,000.
The facility’s future has been uncertain ostensibly since December 2013, when it closed its doors, and its collection of some 30,000 books moved across Blanshard Street to the new Emily Carr library part of the Uptown complex. Subsequent users of the building (with an annual operating bill of $24,000) have included Santas Anonymous and Saanich staff as of June 2018.
The recommendation marks a major turning point in the history of the building, because it confirms and consolidates the presence of municipal staff in the building, thereby eliminating — at least for now — other options for its use.
Former mayor Richard Atwell earlier this summer surprised the public when he asked council to consider turning the building as a potential housing site for residents of tent city that had existed for several months at Regina Park.
While Atwell’s proposal failed to win a majority, the subject remained a source of controversy during the municipal election campaign, when Atwell and then-councillor, now Mayor Fred Haynes clashed over its use.
Atwell accused Haynes of flip-flopping, while Haynes accused Atwell of failing to alert council and staff to the issue.
Atwell had also pitched the site as a location for modular supportive housing, a proposal Haynes questioned.
The building, located in Saanich’s retail and commercial centre and the location for future housing, services and economic activity, would be unsuitable, said Haynes before the municipal election.
“Tying this location up for temporary modular housing would be irresponsible,” he said at the time.
Saanich’s decision to use the building for its own purposes marks a return to previous plans, as Saanich had initially planned to use the two-storey structure as additional office space for Saanich Police. But cost estimated deemed these plans financially unsustainable, and competed against other options.
Speaking to Saanich News in September 2017, before the emergence of the homeless camp in Regina, Atwell said the best outcome would be for the building to be part of larger mixed-residential development. The area, including the nearby Munro Centre which includes the Saanich News is zoned C-5 Civic Core and allows maximum height of 37 metres.
Atwell, however, made these comments before a review found the building suitable for renovations.
If council approves the recommendation, Saanich’s engineering services will move to the facility, after a review had determined that this move would be “best aligned and least disruptive option.” According to the report, it would consolidate all engineering functions in one location, free up space for the expansion and seismic upgrades at Municipal Hall, and ease the current parking crunch at nunicipal hall.
Funding for the improvements would come from Saanich’s Capital Works Reserve Fund, with some of the $2.1 million flowing towards minor renovations at municipal hall.