Library in Limbo


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San Diego’s main library is a sorry sight. Built in 1954, it has long been in need of upgrading or replacement. For the past 25 years, help has been promised. Says downtown restaurateur Tom Fat: “Only the airport has been debated longer.”

The library is three floors of antiquated furnishings and crowded stacks. Below ground are two more floors containing miles of shelving filled with books not readily available—when a visitor asks for a certain volume, a librarian must send a runner to fetch it. The request is slipped onto a small elevator—more like a dumbwaiter—and sent to a desk below. There a dispatcher sends a runner to search the tunnel-like vaults. The process takes up to 10 minutes per book. Similar requests for help number more than 600,000 a year, or about 1,800 each day, putting considerable pressure on an already overworked staff.

Storage is so tight, the 44-year-old library is forced to refuse contributions of valuable collections because there is no place to put them. Extra storage off-premises is rented at considerable cost because it must be climate-controlled to minimize damage to books. The staff works in crowded, stuffy spaces with little natural light, and it’s hard to keep good people. The main library is located in a less-than-desirable part of downtown (on E Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue), and visitors are regularly confronted by panhandlers.

The new library is planned for a prime site downtown, across Kettner Boulevard from the Santa Fe Railroad Station, just north of One America Plaza. It is proposed as an eight-story modern building with a trellised dome sending dappled light into a giant reading room with a view of the bay. Designed at 300,000 square feet, it is double the size of the current library, and plans include a coffee shop, an art gallery and a 250-seat auditorium.

During the past five years, new main libraries have sprung up in a host of other western cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Vancouver, Phoenix and Denver. The only two major cities in California without a new library are San Diego and San Jose—and San Jose is working toward sharing one with the local university. Says Cathy Page, who was head librarian in San Francisco while that city’s new library was being built: “I’ve been a librarian more than 25 years, and the talk has always been, ‘When is San Diego going to get a new library?’”

For a while it looked as if we might actually be on track. An international competition had been held for an architectural plan, an architect picked, a site purchased, plans drawn up and submitted for public scrutiny, financing identified—the majority from Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT), plus 15 percent from the Centre City Development Corporation and 15 percent from private donors. No increase in taxes on the local citizenry.

And then something happened. Actually, four things happened to sidetrack the library: public outcry over the city’s contract with the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium; the push for a downtown Padres baseball park; a proposal to double the size of the convention center; and the splintering of library supporters into proponents of branches versus main.

For three hours at the February 3 meeting of the San Diego City Council, citizens who had already waited hours to have their say urged the council to approve the city manager’s recommendation to go ahead with the central library.

“Do the right thing,” urged a voter from Barrio Logan. “It will cut down on crime. And without reading, you can’t get by.”

“All great cities have a great main library,” said another. “There is no better way to invest for our children in an information age.”

“If we build another stadium and have no library, you will be training your young people to sell popcorn in the stands,” came an embittered voice from the back.

Others had reservations. Said one: “What if it’s downtown and I never use it? What if computers take over and I never read another book?”

But an overwhelming majority was clearly pro–main library. “You have been asked, begged, urged,” said another. “We need it, and you know it.”

Then, as if not a word had been heard, the city council proceeded to argue the plan into limbo. An endorsement by Deputy Mayor Byron Wear—the lone councilmember to openly support the library from the beginning—went unheeded. A motion by Councilwoman Christine Kehoe to proceed with building the library was summarily defeated (Wear, Kehoe, Mathis and Mayor Susan Golding for; McCarty, Stallings, Stevens, Warden and Vargas against). A vote was taken to postpone any decision until further scrutiny in June.

Library supporters were flabbergasted. Rob Quigley, architect for the new library, was dumbfounded.

“I have been working on this project for more than a year,” he says. “I went before the council twice, with enthusiastic go-aheads. I gave it my undivided attention because this is the project of my lifetime. To design such an important building ... in my own city ... I can’t think of a project where the design has been approved, a site selected, and then suddenly there is no support. If they are reluctant to make a decision by virtue of suspected threats—well, that’s giving in to political terrorism.”

"My concern is that politicians have lost their nerve. Let us proceed with the library. Let Henderson bring his case. This is a city without willpower."
Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Comtemporary Art, San Diego
Quigley may have hit upon the key. Were the ghosts of anti–convention center/ballpark/stadium activists Bruce Henderson and Richard Rider in the hall that night, threatening yet another lawsuit? And will they be present every time the city council debates any major new project? Suppose the city allocates $100 million for a new library and is sued? Clearly there is that risk—which is why the mayor decided she wanted to put the library on the ballot, to short-circuit the possibility of a lawsuit.

The wrangling that evening came not from other competitors for money (the ballpark or the convention center) but from library proponents themselves. Or rather, from a vocal faction who insisted that no work be started on a main library until the branches get the support they need.

That group was perhaps smarting from the mayor’s withholding of support in 1996 when Proposition A, to improve branch libraries, came up on the ballot—and failed by a narrow margin. That initiative required a two-thirds vote because it involved a quarter-cent sales tax increase; it garnered only 59 percent. A similar initiative—what is being called “Son of Prop A”—is planned for March 1999. It seeks $413 million to upgrade the branches. None of this money will go to the central library.

It was clear from the beginning of the council meeting that proceeding with the central library plan was problematical. Grudges were aired. Petty maneuvering entertained but also distracted the audience. Citizens wandered away, shaking their heads.

Councilmembers turned their chairs to caucus with aides, not listening to each other. There was casual disrespect for the presiding officer (the mayor), who simply rolled her eyes and conferred with her aides.

“It was the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Library Commission Chairman Mike Madigan, leader-apparent of the central library proponents. “I never thought of myself as the captain of the Titanic.”

A San Diego Union-Tribune editorial put it this way: “Led by Councilwoman Judy McCarty, branch library supporters have succeeded in banishing the new central library to political Siberia. In one of the most dismaying, myopic actions taken by the city council in years, it voted to halt work on the $103.5 million downtown library and instead put the issue before voters—needlessly—at some unspecified future election, perhaps in 2000. The practical consequence of this action was to kill the project.”

While conceding that the council meeting was “the most embarrassing I’ve ever sat through,” McCarty sees the issue another way. “You have to have the courage of your convictions, don’t you? This council has unanimously supported this project every step of the way, until now. And that [change] is because the city manager wrote a report in October that was unreal.

“Council learned its lesson with the stadium. We don’t vote in the dark anymore. We got into trouble on the stadium because we trusted people. Now we want to see the numbers.”

The $103 million cost apparently doesn’t include the plaza or a distribution center (for circulating books around the county). “I will no longer support incredible reports of the city manager,” McCarty continues. “I’ve just had it with the city; I’m not going to be polite anymore. I want real figures, and I’ll dig till I get them. And I will ask hard questions. This is not a vendetta between me and the mayor. This council would love to support the main library... But we have to believe in it. We want to see the numbers.”

The deputy city manager is now charged with returning in June with an accurate assessment of all costs, both for construction and for operations.

Recovering from his disappointment over what he calls “an emotional and contentious council meeting,” Madigan now predicts that everything will turn out fine. “The city’s going to get a new library,” he says. “But it’s in a holding pattern. The political process is slow, painful and onerous. Don’t forget, I’ve been there.” (Madigan was an aide to former Mayor Pete Wilson for five years.)

Meantime, the convention center expansion goes on the June ballot, and (in all probability) a ballpark will be on November’s. The branch library initiative may be decided in a special election held in March 1999. That puts a central library ballot someplace out in the far-distant future. (Politicians don’t like to put more than one expensive project before the voters at any one election.)

Will baseball beat out books? Does the lure of a bigger convention center titillate the business community? Is the library so esoteric nobody will go to bat for it?

“We are not political people,” says Alberta Wagner, president of the Friends of the San Diego Public Library. “We really care about our city, but we’re not the political, manipulative type. We are a citizens group, and as such we have no money to lobby with. Whatever money we have goes to buy books. We can’t raise money for a political campaign.”

A special commission to the mayor reported in late February that perhaps it’s not necessary for the library to go on the ballot because no private benefit is involved. Yes, the library will benefit all of us—but unlike the ballpark or the convention center, no business group stands to benefit.

In that case, the city council could vote on the central library tomorrow. It’s a faint hope, but to the proponents of the library, it’s definitely there.

“There is adequate money in the room-tax fund [TOT] to fund both the main and the branch libraries, if the council wants to make that a priority,” says Bruce Herring, deputy city manager and the man with the numbers. “The good news is the room tax has grown, and will grow even more with the new hotels. And the best part is that it’s paid by tourists.”

Not everyone is so sanguine. “My concern is that the politicians have lost their nerve,” says Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and a member of the commission that judged and approved the design. “It is shortsighted, if not cowardice, not to stand up for a great library. Other cities have. And I know of no city that has invested in infrastructure—and a library is infrastructure— and regretted it.

“Quigley has come up with a brilliant design. Here you have a good architect at the prime of his creative abilities, and the momentum is lost,” Davies says. “Let us proceed with the library. Let Henderson bring his case. This is a city without willpower. It’s not sensible condemning the entire council. But the pettiness and lack of political will is astounding.”

Even the mayor seems resigned to delay. “I would love to leave a new main library,” she says, “but it’s not going to be completed during my term. Begun, yes. But with the convention center and the others ... I’m out of the business of predictions.

The convention center should be open by now. What’s happened is that the owners of the Padres have decided the library is competitive with the ballpark. I don’t see other cities making such choices. These are all components of a great city.”

"With the convention center and the others
...I'm out of the business of predictions."
Mayor Susan Golding
McCarty makes a compelling case for the branch libraries. The March 1999 initiative, if passed, would link school computers with libraries, increase staff—“Last year,” she says, “librarians couldn’t take a day off to get training on the computers because there was no backup librarian to replace them”—extend library hours to evenings and weekends, buy more current books and mend leaking roofs. (One library—in Tierrasanta—has carpeting on the ceilings, installed in 1983 to muffle sound. It’s now thought to be spilling mold spores on the people below.) One-third of the money would go immediately to improve and replace neighborhood libraries; the other two-thirds would go into a dedicated trust fund with the interest used for continuous improvements.

Thomas Day, former president of San Diego State University, agrees with McCarty’s case. “The library should be where the people are, not where you’d like the people to be. I’m for both [central and branches], if you have infinite money. If forced to choose between putting money in branches or a central library, the average citizen would choose local branches. They’re not persuaded by the smoke and mirrors coming out of city hall.”

Day is not against a new central library —even at a downtown location—but says, “Do it in a straightforward, inexpensive structure. We don’t need a Taj Majal. I can’t help thinking of the pyramids. Not too many people used the pyramids.” He believes that information at a modest central node can be accessed by computer from a student dorm, or from a branch library in Rancho Bernardo or National City. “I just can’t see somebody in Rancho Bernardo getting in the car and driving to a downtown library,” he says.

“I’m sorry if people think I’m trying to kill the main library,” says McCarty. “I’m not. And I hope this controversy doesn’t kill our branch measure. If that should happen, I’d be sick at heart.” McCarty has been working for the libraries, both branch and central, since 1989, when she tried to get a library bond measure on the ballot—unsuccessfully. Since the mayor made a central library her personal project—hers and hers alone, some say—McCarty’s focus has been the branches.

But with competing projects waiting in the wings, delays can be damaging. Supporters of the ballpark plan already are claiming the $62 million of TOT, saying it should rightfully belong to them since it was originally set aside for a sports arena that never materialized. Golding says that money is still intended for the central library—as a loan. It will be paid back.

Quigley warns that postponing the library construction will add to the cost—another $3 million by fall. It also means he has to disband his project team. The cost to the city to date has already been about $4 million, including $2 million for the site. (A bargain, as this choice downtown block is easily worth $7 million today.) Quigley says he’s building the library for less than the average cost per square foot ($210) of the libraries built in other cities in the last five years. The San Diego library is pegged at $203 per square foot; San Francisco’s was $260, San Antonio’s $180 (but it has few windows, and it’s all stucco).

The delay also puts the push for donors (15 percent of the funding) on hold. Nobody is going to contribute significant money for a library that may never be built.

Who’s to blame for lack of progress in the matter of a San Diego main library?

Many blame Mayor Golding, saying it was her star project but that in the ephemeral pursuit of a senate seat, she lost concentration. Others blame a city council running scared because of the controversial stadium deal and because half the members are facing primaries in June.

Public scorekeeping has it this way: Golding dropped the ball; McCarty shot her own team in the foot; petty maneuvering between the mayor and the council distracted everybody; the city council lost its courage. And others with stronger motivation (and more sports- or business-generated money) are pushing harder for their goals. Will a new main library break ground anytime soon? Don’t make book on it.

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