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Plan to Build Library-School Approved

Audio

Aired 7/10/09

The plan to build a new downtown library has been revived. Earlier this week, the San Diego City Council approved a plan to build a new library-school combination facility. The San Diego Unified School District has agreed to provide $20 million for the project in exchange for using two floors of the building for a new charter high school.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Although the State of California is in a financial disaster, the City of San Diego must be feeling rather flush. The city council this week pushed a proposed downtown library to the next level even though it will cost, I figure, close to $200 million. I mean, the 2005 estimate of $185 million has had to have increased over the last four years and probably will increase more by the time, and if, a library is built. So, Scott, how much has the City already spent on the library and how much more will it have to spend if the project goes through?

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, Voiceofsandiego.org): Well, you know, it's been up to, I think, the figure was $17 million so far. You know, it's leveled the ground, it's got the – it's gotten rid of the old police facility that was there. You know, the project is projected at a hundred and eighty thou – or, million dollars. You know, they say that none of this will come from the City's general fund, which funds fire protection and police and all that, but the fact is, is that $80 million will come from downtown redevelopment money. And downtown redevelopment money can be used for all sorts of infrastructure needs. All sorts of facilities and buildings could be spent on that (sic), so the argument that this isn't using City funds for this project is rather absurd. $20 million is supposed to come from the State because apparently the state has it's own feeling of flush money so – so we've got that.

PENNER: Is that the State we were just talking about?

LEWIS: That's the State we were just talking about.

KENT DAVY (editor, North County Times): It's one of the propositions…

LEWIS: It's one of the – yes.

DAVY: …it's one of the libraries.

LEWIS: So $20 million from that. And the rest is supposed to come from the generosity of local San Diegans. This is the most of any local – or, of any major library project around the country. We're asking our citizens to step more than – up more than any others have. They've only raised $27 million. They say that they are planning on raising $80 million and they've actually said that $10 million of that is dedicated towards the operations of the new library. They're trying to blunt critics like me who say that the new library won't be very cost effective to run. Look, the fact is, is that at the same time the mayor is proposing – or has proposed, you know, closing libraries around the city. He's, you know – the infrastructure needs around the city are countless and getting more numerous. And yet they feel like this is the proper time to build this magnificent new library.

PENNER: You know, Vicente, it's interesting because Scott used the word magnificent and in reading some of the comments from our city council members during this discussion, they talked about, well, Councilman Todd Gloria talked about dreaming big. And Councilmember Marti Emerald agreed that embracing bold projects is important. That seems to be kind of pervasive with elected officials, that they want to do something big and grand so that when they leave at least they will have been responsible for something monumental. Is this universal? Did you have that also in Tijuana?

VICENTE CALDERON (editor, tijuanapress.com): Definitely. Definitely. That shows you the lack of touch with the reality with their constituencies that you will see in Mexico and Guatemala or Honduras or wherever else in the world. I think it's a very noble idea to be thinking that it's very important for a city like San Diego or any other city to have a project, a library like this, but I don't think it's in synch with the reality that we are living. And I will say it probably will keep the spirits up and will talk good about the profile or the personality of a city like San Diego but I don't think this is the right time to do it.

PENNER: Let me just ask our listeners about that because that's a provocative statement. I mean, how important is it to you, especially considering how information services are changing now. I know a lot of people now that are reading their books on Kindle and I know a lot of people who go to the computer and they don't really pick up a book book. Is a library an important adjunct or centerpiece for the city of San Diego? What is your attitude? 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. And, of course, can we afford it? All right, Scott.

LEWIS: Well, here's a good analogy. Imagine if I, as a nonprofit news organization, decided to start laying people off but then in the midst of that I decided that actually I needed to buy twelve new laptops and I bought twelve new laptops. What good are those laptops if the people operating them are, you know, being left – laid off? What good is new capital projects if you can't afford to keep the heartbeat going in the city right now? And that's what's happening. We are contracting mightily right now. And to say that, you know, we have to dream big, we have to have vision, well, I agree. But you're talking about doing a vision of – and everybody's talking about being envious of Seattle, being envious of Salt Lake City, being envious of these places that built these magnificent…

PENNER: Don't forget Sydney, Australia.

LEWIS: And Sydney. Building these magnificent facilities. Well, they did that using proper, sound financial techniques. They paid for them. This idea that we can afford things and not have to pay for them, not have to go into debt, not have to do anything to do it, is just ridiculous. And, you know, why – And then finally, if we're doing this out of envy of other cities, why don't we do something – why don't we get our city back in shape? We cut the fat and increase the revenue if we can and really get us back in shape and then build something that they're envious of rather than trying to strap together some quilt of a library, shove a school in there that costs more to build than any other school in the city, and then – and just get by so that in 40 years, we can look back and say we built a building because we wanted people to have information.

PENNER: Okay, so before we turn to our many callers on this one, I want to get your perspective, Kent Davy. You live in north county. Certainly, many of the cities up in north county have done massive projects and some of them have been projects such as libraries or city halls or the kinds of things that are being contemplated in San Diego. How have they fared?

DAVY: Well, it depends on which ones you want to look at. Vista's in the middle of building a new city hall. It has a fair number of critics that say, nah, it's too much. Escondido's building a new police department. Costs there have spiraled at much more than the seven percent cost inflation of the figures talked about in the – about this downtown library. The Palomar Hospital District is building a new hospital. The costs there have gone up at a fairly extraordinary level since the bond issue several years ago passed to support that. All of this, I think, points to the notion that the city leaders, in talking about this downtown library, are probably way, way under-estimating how much money they're ultimately going to spend on this thing unless it delivers a whole lot less than a majestic building.

LEWIS: You…

PENNER: Scott.

LEWIS: The City did something really alarming the other day. Like I said, $80 million of this funding was supposed to come from people who donated money. The city needs to prove that that money's going to be there to the state before the state gives us the money.

PENNER: The mayor said it's there.

LEWIS: Well, the mayor says it's there. The mayor not only said that, he said that he guarantees it's there. Now this has been a worry for me for a long time, that they wouldn't raise enough money for this through the philanthropic donations and so they would just do everything they could to get the shovel in the ground so the thing starts building and then at the point when they come up and say, well, it didn't – you know, we didn't raise enough money, I guess the city's going to have to finish this off. I think that's what they're preparing for.

PENNER: Are you saying the mayor's guarantee means that we are on the hook for it.

LEWIS: Well, that's – What's a guarantee if not that? He says it's not a legal guarantee so I guess that means that if somebody sued, it wouldn't be – What is – So your word isn't your word? What is your word, Mayor? And this is the problem, is if we're going to build a library, we need to have sound financial planning for it. You need to have the money. You need to borrow and have a revenue stream to pay it off. You need to have all kinds of things to do it. To just pretend like it doesn’t cost money or to try to bamboozle people into thinking it doesn't cost money is an absurd insult to the collective intelligence of the community. And we just simply have to deal with the fact that buildings cost money and if we want to do something special, we have to have a ship that is righted, that is floating, that is working well, and we do not have that right now.

PENNER: Well, that's why we have the Editors Roundtable, so we can get passionate opinions such as the opinion just expressed by Scott Lewis. And I want to get your opinion, dear caller and listener, and we're going to get that right after we come back from a break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner. We're talking about the proposed library in downtown San Diego and we'd love to hear from you on it. Our number is 1-888-895-5727.

# # #

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable on KPBS. I'm Gloria Penner here with Kent Davy, Scott Lewis and Vicente Calderon, and you. We're talking about a proposed downtown library. We're going to start right out with your phone calls and we have Jay on the line. Jay, my screen identifies you, Executive Director of Public Library Fund?

JAY (Executive Director, San Diego Public Library Foundation): Hi, Gloria. Thanks for taking my call.

PENNER: Sure.

JAY: I'm the Executive Director of the San Diego Public Library Foundation.

PENNER: Foundation, okay. Let's hear from you, Jay.

JAY: Great. We're the ones that are raising funds for the new central as well as the other 35 libraries across the system. And I just wanted to comment on a few things that you and the editors said. You know, first off, libraries are more popular than ever today. It's been well documented. KPBS and the other media sources and the New York Times, our circulation and our attendance keep increasing every year so libraries are very relevant. We're the largest provider of free cultural programming in San Diego and we're seeing increases at all our facilities.

PENNER: Okay.

JAY: The second thing I wanted to comment on is, you know, a lot of projects in San Diego have taken great vision and have been very controversial, as recent as Petco Park. But, also, Mission Bay was very controversial. Our beautiful county building was built during the Depression. You know, it takes leadership and vision to make great projects happen.

PENNER: Okay.

JAY: And the last thing I just wanted to say is, you know, there has been – a lot of people have come forward and shown their support for this project with their pocketbooks.

LEWIS: Who?

JAY: We've raised thirty-seven and a half million dollars, including money for operating, and let's put this thing out to bid. I mean, we can talk all we want about how much it might cost but until we actually know, we won't know.

PENNER: Okay, hang on there, Jay, because Scott has a question for you. First of all, yes, I acknowledge the popularity of libraries. I think we all do, and somebody in my family is actually a librarian, so I know that to be true. And, second, yeah, you know, there have been magnificent projects that have occurred even during the Great Depression through WPA projects. And now three – Your third point was that people are already putting out money for this library. Scott has a question.

LEWIS: Who? I mean, they keep saying all these people have put up all this money but they refuse to disclose who. Even when the state said tell us who these people are or your funding is in risk, they refused, and they're keeping all that information secret.

PENNER: Jay?

JAY: Well, you know, we have donors that are – want to be private but they've come forward with pledge agreements and, you know, we've shared that information with elected officials and, you know, also offered to share it with the state. Everybody else is, you know, happy with moving the project forward. You know, many times people are talking about only raise this or only raise that. There's been no discussion about the history of this project. You know, the original – the City was originally supposed to bond. When it couldn't do that, it – these committed volunteers didn't just walk away from this project, they said this is too important. We're going to go out there and we're going to – you know, we're going to work hard and talk to people about committing money for this project. As Scott mentioned earlier, there – outside of New York, there's no other library program that's raised this kind of money for, you know, for a capital building. People really want to see this happen.

PENNER: Okay, well, I thank you very much for calling in, Jay, and thanks for your clarification. Let's take one more call. Sorry we can't get to all the calls but let's hear from Peg in San Diego. Hi, Peg, you're on with the editors.

PEG (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

PENNER: Yes.

PEG: I am a San Diego resident and I use a library system quite regularly but what I do is, I go on my own home computer, I find the book I want, and I find any branch that happens to have that book. It doesn't matter which one. And I have it sent to my local library. To me, that is a magnificent way to use our library system that doesn't require a major building. In today's day and age, I don't think we need a new building like that especially in San Diego where we need a lot of other services.

PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much, Peg. And as I said, lots of calls but we aren't going to be able to get to them. But I'd like to hear a response from Vicente to Peg.

CALDERON: I think that's an excellent example in how can we need to change the way we use all the tools available. With the digital era, it will bring more options. And we are not – I don't think anybody's against the idea of a library or expanding the knowledge base of a city like San Diego. The thing is, I'm worried that they want to spend so much money on something like this when other – or when a lot of that money could probably be used to subsidize or to compensate for the lack of funding from the state, for example, in the area of education, for example, will give you more readers that will go to the libraries or use these other alternatives.

PENNER: Scott.

LEWIS: And their concern about libraries is belied by the fact that they're closing or proposing to close them. Cutting back – have you checked the hours at the Mission Valley library? Have you checked the hours at other libraries? It's like you have to have a calculator to figure out when you're going to be able to make it. The fact is, is that their concern for the libraries stops when it comes to branch libraries and it grows when it comes to monuments that'll recognize it. Now, let's just talk one quick thing about the popularity of our libraries. They always talk about that. People are going to libraries in droves, that's right, so they can get on the internet and so that they can access these cultural programs that he talked about. If we want to provide internet for people, if we want to provide facilities for cultural programs, we can do something much grander and much bolder that can be the envy of the other cities rather than build a building. If you wanted to get people access to the internet, why would you start by building a building? But…

PENNER: Final comment, Kent.

LEWIS: But…

DAVY: All this ignores the facts that $80 million is coming out of redevelopment and that redevelopment money cannot be used for operations. It can't go back for the schools.

LEWIS: It could be used for infrastructure.

DAVY: It has – it has to be used for infrastructure…

LEWIS: It…

DAVY: …or capital projects, that's what infrastructure is, within the redevelopment district.

PENNER: Okay.

LEWIS: And it could be used for the new school, it could be used for all kinds of infrastructure projects. It could be used to pay back the city's loan to the redevelopment agency. It could be used for an infinite number of projects that the city is in dire need of, especially when our sewage and infrastructure and public transit and all that is falling apart.

PENNER: Okay, well I thank you and I – We would continue with this except that we have another really hot topic that we are ready to discuss. Thank you, gentlemen. And thank you, callers.

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