City seeks proposals for library-anchored downtown development

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross


There’s been lots of interest and ideas bubbling up in response to a recent call for ambitious downtown projects involving a new central library, the city’s mayor said Tuesday.

“It’s actually kind of exciting,” Drew Dilkens said of the early response to the city’s Library Central Branch Catalyst Project. The idea is that instead of the city going on its own and building a $39-million-plus standalone library, it could dangle the library out as a carrot to spur a much larger development project that would include the library as a tenant. According to Dilkens, there’s been a big mix of ideas from investors. The due date to make submissions is Nov. 27, with the expectation that council could be starting to choose among the best applicants in the first quarter of next year.

Even the most modest project the mayor has heard about would be really interesting and good for the downtown core, he said.

Based on the high-quality submissions the city received  when it asked for expressions of interest on the former Grace Hospital site (Ohio-based Fairmount Properties was chosen in July to develop a “mixed-use international village” with hundreds of housing units), “we really feel the time is right” to seek a creative project involving the central library, said Dilkens.

“There’s a lot of interest and lots of ideas and I look forward to seeing those developers putting pen to paper and figuring out what makes sense and make a great submission to the City of Windsor for our consideration.”

He said the successful project could combine the library with residential units, a hotel, commercial space, retail, restaurant, cultural space, commercial, or mixed uses involving classrooms for students at St. Clair College or University of Windsor, which both have downtown campuses but no downtown library.

“The idea is to make this a very vibrant space and have all sorts of people gather there.”

After selling and vacating its 101,000-square-foot Ouellette Avenue central branch last year, the library moved into the former Canada Post sorting operation (22,000 square feet) at the back of the Paul Martin Building. The city had purchased the Paul Martin Building from the feds for $10, with the promise it would serve a municipal use — in this case as a public library — until at least 2022. The future of the building remains in question, though Dilkens expects at least one of the Library Central Branch Catalyst Project proposals will involve redevelopment of the building with the library as one of the tenants.

The city is looking for at least a $15 million investment and a 30 per cent increase in municipal assessment from the project, with the expectation it will spur additional investment in the surrounding area. City solicitor Shelby Askin Hager said the city wants the central branch to be designed and located in such a way as “to acknowledge it’s an important piece of civic life and an important part of the vibrancy of the downtown core.” It also wants one or more complementary uses to increase the catalyst effect, and architecture that enhances the public realm and supports the people who live, work and visit downtown. The request from the city also talks about the importance of increasing the residential units downtown and reusing vacant buildings.

The Windsor Public Library board endorsed a functional plan for its new central library in 2018. The new library must have 50,000 to 75,000 square feet of space, room for 150,000 to 200,000 books, accommodate people with disabilities, and be located within the downtown’s cultural hub — an area north of Wyandotte Street, east of Janette Avenue, west of Windsor Avenue and south of Riverside Drive.

Library CEO Kitty Pope said the library’s requirements are included in the catalyst project’s criteria. She said the temporary central branch has proven quite popular, even with the lack of St. Clair students downtown due to the pandemic. Because of social distancing requirements, the branch can only accept half its normal capacity. By mid to late morning, every chair is filled.

“It’s not the people who are coming to stay for the day, it’s the people here for an hour or so, on the computer, reading a newspaper or picking up resources,” said Pope, who remarked that while use of the city’s libraries has rebounded, during the pandemic it has shifted away from physical visits and towards digital uses. But the central branch has seen a return to more traditional library usage, she said. “We are thrilled, I’ve got to tell you.”

When the library moved into the current location, a stay of three to five years was envisioned.

One of the benefits behind the new library being part of a larger development is the city wouldn’t have to foot the big bill of a new building — estimated two years ago at almost $38 million — instead paying rent as part of a bigger project that improves the downtown. But the mayor added that the numbers still have to work.

“This isn’t using the library at any cost to get a development,” he said. “It’s about seeing whether this library stream of revenue is attractive enough to make something exciting happen in the downtown area.”