Building a New Downtown Library
Friday, June 26, 2009
Has new life been breathed into the proposal to build a new downtown library? Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified school board agreed to put $20 million toward a proposal to build a school-library combo downtown.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I'm Gloria Penner. I'm joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we'll look at the momentum that's building for the downtown library. The editors with me today are Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org, Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, and Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Let me welcome you individually. Andrew, how are you?
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): I'm doing great. Always good to see you, Gloria.
PENNER: Very good. And, Tony, I said the city's vote for 'don't ask, don't tell,' it's for repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' Good to see you, Tony.
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): It's good to be here.
PENNER: And, Ricky, I'm glad you could come back.
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning.
PENNER: All right, our number, if you'd like to call us for this conversation is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, never say die, that could be the motto for downtown library supporters. That on-again, off-again project seems to have some new life breathed into it. So, Andrew, on Tuesday the city school board voted to move ahead to the next step in locating a charter high school in the proposed—and controversial—downtown library. On Wednesday, a city council committee voted to move the issue to the full council next month. So how important were those two votes?
DONOHUE: They were very important. We have had a real swift change in the momentum of this project. It's been a fascinating thing to watch. If you remember, this is something that's been in the works for more than a decade. The city council passed the plan in 2002 and it's been stalled because they haven't been able to raise any money, and everything sort of changed in the fall. The school district, if you remember, passed a $2.1 billion facilities bond. Library supporters couldn't get enough money to build this library, and they looked at that and they saw $20 million earmarked for an elementary school downtown so they said, well, this is great, let's build an elementary school on the sixth and seventh floor of the library. Well, it turns out you can't build an elementary school that high up in a building for safety reasons.
DONOHUE: So they said, well, how about a high school then? You can build a high school there. So everybody gets behind this high school idea of let's get $20 million from the bond and put it into the downtown library. Well, it turns out you can't build a high school that high because you need to do all sorts of earthquake prevention construction and everything else, which is going to make the project even more expensive. So they looked and tried to figure out what kind of school they actually could build there and it turns out you can build a charter school. So it's been a real weird contortion. It sort of gives credence to the criticism that library boosters are really just looking for any way to build this building and it doesn't really matter how they do it.
PENNER: And we've got to back up a little bit.
PENNER: So you're saying that kids who go to a charter school don't have to be as safe as kids who go to a public school?
DONOHUE: Yeah. Yeah, basically, yes. I mean, the whole deal with the whole sort of idea behind charter schools is that they're free from a lot of the bureaucracy of school districts.
PENNER: And of earthquakes.
DONOHUE: Now it turns out that part of that bureaucracy is the safety of children from earthquakes.
PENNER: Okay, well, I guess the basic question is—and I'll ask you first, Andrew, and then I might just ask our listeners—how needed is a charter school in downtown San Diego in the East Village? A high school?
DONOHUE: That is a key question that I don't think anybody's answered to any sort of satisfactory level. There was a lot of support and a lot of movement for a long time and even studies showing that you needed an elementary school downtown. There was a lot of people that actually supported this bond on the idea that this $20 million was going to an elementary school downtown. There'd never been any sort of display of need for a high school or for a charter school down there. It's really interesting, you know, normally charter schools spring up from a community who wants – that wants to compete with the school district and it moves into an old school building. And so you have a sort of an unprecedented move here in a school district actually deciding to build a charter school on its own to compete, essentially, with itself.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Do you believe that the idea of a charter high school in downtown San Diego, in a proposed library building, is an artifice or really needed? Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727. What do you think, Ricky? You've been covering government affairs now for San Diego for a long time. I mean, is this just another kind of political mechanism to try to get that building built?
YOUNG: I suppo – I mean, yes. They're doing everything they can to get it built. The supporters of this believe very firmly in it. What's interesting to me is how this and the civic center proposal, you know, to build the new city hall downtown both seemed just completely stalled last year during an election year and this year both seem to have caught fire and are moving forward. You know, maybe – maybe people sense some reticence among voters to move forward with grand ideas like this, particularly during these economic times. But perhaps without the immediate feeling of an election coming on, it's a time to check these things out and see what kind of creative ideas they can come up with to move them forward.
PENNER: Well, here are some things that the supporters say about it, to give equal time on that side. They say it's needed to warehouse and showcase the stacks of archived materials and books that the current facility can't fit anymore, and it's needed to provide a public meeting space and internet access to residents and it will be an architectural marvel of which the city and its residents will be proud for years to come. Tony Perry, reflect on all that.
PERRY: Well, Andrew says this has been bouncing around for a decade. I will see his decade and add another decade. I remember some two decades ago when the talk was let's build something akin to the Sydney Opera House there on Lane Field and it died aborning of conflicts between the mayor and the head of the Port District. You have to ask yourself, is this a project that is particularly ill-suited for the San Diego political system, a political system that is extremely risk adverse, propelled by a sort of libertarian-themed media that explores the costs of things but never the value of them, and then you have the secrecy. We don't know who these sugar daddies are and I haven't seen anyone really step forward and talk about the value of this in the modern world. Those items that you mentioned seem, to be candid, pretty thin, that we need it as a place to archive things and a meeting place. Well, we have lots of meeting places. So without a real spokesman to step forward and say, yeah, there's risk here, this is real risky but we need it, I think this one is just not going to fly.
DONOHUE: Well, it's also a hard thing to justify when we can't even keep our branch libraries alive. I mean, they're threatening to completely close entire neighborhood libraries at a time when that seems to be a much more realistic form of distributing books and information in the community. And, you know, to build an entire massive edifice just to house a collection of books that ends up getting distributed to these closed libraries is a little bit – it may – it's just not the best use of that land. It's probably not the best use of our money either. And I think one of the problems that a lot of people are having is that there isn't an honest discussion going on right now. There is some sort of – there's been a belief from the start that somehow you could build this thing without having to spend any city money and you could somehow staff it without having to spend any city money so…
PENNER: Is that possible?
DONOHUE: It's not, but that argument is continuing to be put forth by people. I remember, you know, a long time ago Jim Madaffer, one of the big supporters, said we have a consultant that says you can staff – we can staff the same – this library for the same costs of the last library. So I called the consultant and I ran that by him, I said, could you do this? The consultant said, yes, but you'd work your entire staff to death.
PENNER: Oh, okay, so you might not have your staff living very long but they – they could do it. Go ahead, Ricky.
YOUNG: It's – And the other thing is, yes, they do say, you know, no public money for this, you'll hear them say that and yet at the same time there's $80 million of downtown redevelopment dollars, which is city money, that's pledged to it. There's a $20 million state grant. There's now the new money from the school district. So…
PENNER: Is that public money, all of that?
YOUNG: All of that is public money.
PENNER: So that's…
DONOHUE: And the value of the land.
PENNER: That's public land.
YOUNG: But I would like to say, you know, there's a lot of negativity toward the library and I think it's not just about providing internet access and sticking some books in there. It can be, and there are places in the world, unlike, as Tony's characterized, in San Diego, where a major civic building like this kind of brings people together. I was in – I lived in Denver when they opened a new downtown library and it was really quite a thing and the town rallied round and they loved it. And I've heard similar things about Seattle and, you know, so it does bring something to the community to have a major downtown library as opposed to that thing down there now.
PERRY: And I think we ought to remember, too, that a couple of the things that really set San Diego apart and we all treasure: Mission Bay Park, Balboa Park, Horton Plaza, all built with great risk involved in shaky economic times. I read the stories about the library and all the hand-wringing about, well, what if this, what if that, and I say if these folks had been around and running government, we wouldn't have the things that give us our identity today.
PENNER: Another point of view. Let's hear now from Pam in City Heights and see what she has to say. Pam, you're on with the editors.
PAM (Caller, City Heights): Well, good morning.
PENNER: Good morning.
PAM: I have two points. Good morning. Two points. First of all, a high school in a library is a rather, a charter school especially, is a rather interesting idea to me because I can envision a curriculum designed about media access and different media from print and electronic, very important skills for our students of the future. But I also wondered, thinking of (audio dropout) downtown library, is across the street from what used to be the main post office. Clearly, a building that looks to me like it was a WPA building, an absolute jewel. Is there any chance that federal reinvestment funds could be used for a library?
PENNER: Okay, let's find out about that.
YOUNG: You know…
PENNER: You think the feds will come down, Ricky?
YOUNG: Well, what was interesting to me was when the regional planning agency, SANDAG, put out its list of money it wanted from the federal stimulus, the library was not on there and we asked the city why. And it was this answer: No more public funds for the library. So apparently the city leaders, at least, did not want to ask for the money.
PENNER: Oh, it – not federal public funds…
PENNER: …but local public funds, okay.
YOUNG: No, but – no, even about the federal money, that was their explanation for why they did not put in for stimulus funds for the library.
PENNER: Thanks for your call, Pam. Let's hear now from Rick in Mission Valley. Rick, you're on with the editors.
RICK (Caller, Mission Valley): Thank you. I've always wondered, why does it have to be downtown? I mean, can we put the – I mean, it's – Can we put it somewhere else? Isn't – since it has rather unique – it's going to be serving a unique reference facility, can't you put it somewhere else?
DONOHUE: I – I haven't heard that question before. I mean, I think if you're going to do a central library when – as sort of the center of a system that's spread out through all the different communities, that downtown is the logical choice for it.
PENNER: Andrew, actually I have heard that question before and…
PENNER: …I've heard some answers, too, including the center of San Diego is Kearny Mesa. That's right in the middle.
PERRY: Yeah, it is an affectation that downtown San Diego is the center of San Diego. It is the governmental center and government does things that the private industry would never do. Horton Plaza would never have been built without the redevelopment agency. The ballpark, of course, we can talk about. There is a certain affectation to putting things in downtown, that we must save the downtown. On the other hand, if government doesn't step in, I remember what downtown looked like in about 1975; it looked like Berlin, 1945. And if you want your downtown to be something, government's going to have to act.
YOUNG: There's another very practical reason, which, as I mentioned, there's downtown redevelopment money that would go for it, and if you built it in Kearny Mesa, you'd lose $80 million towards your project.
PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much for your phone call, Rick. And we're going to take more of your calls when we come back. We are talking about the proposed downtown library. There are many reasons why people are in love with the idea and there are also many reasons why people have some doubts about it. And that's what we're exploring this morning. You are welcome to join our conversation when we return. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, and this is the Editors Roundtable.
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PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner, and we're talking about the proposed downtown library. Should it be built? How much will it cost? Where will the money come from? And do we really need it? So those are the questions we're posing at the roundtable today and we're taking your calls with your opinions. Giving us opinions at the table are Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times, and from voiceofsandiego.org, Andrew Donohue, and Ricky Young from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Before I go to the phone calls, I do have a question. It's been noted, Andrew, that high school kids are kind of sloppy sometimes. They leave things around in hallways. They make out in dark corners. They are noisy. They're high school kids, for God's sake. So, I mean, when you think about that, how does this fit in with the ambience of a library, the serious tone, the quiet, intellectual pursuits, all the reasons you go to a library.
DONOHUE: As somebody who works next to a high school, I will say they don't make out in dark corners, they make out in very – very visible, light-filled corners.
PENNER: Well, I'm talking about half a century ago.
DONOHUE: I think that's also a legitimate question. I mean, are – we sort of place the idea of, you know, learning in a school and in a library, you know, hand in hand. But there's also quite a bit of bustle and activity and, like you said, litter and maybe a little bit of fornication around a high school…
DONOHUE: …as well, so…
PENNER: You said that, I didn't.
DONOHUE: So I think that's a – I think that's a very legitimate question and, you know, more to the point, there's a lot of people, like we talked about before, that are really up in arms, the fact that they thought they were getting an elementary school and now all of their money is going towards a charter high school that I don't think anybody's really rallied behind.
PENNER: Well, a lot of peple want to talk about this so let's hear first from Bill in Chula Vista. Hi, Bill, you have a nice library there in Chula Vista.
BILL (Caller, Chula Vista): Yes, we do.
PENNER: Yeah. Go ahead.
BILL: As a child, I grew up in San Diego and have been to that old one many times. But I keep hearing all this talk about city hall's going to move and we needed a library. Why not combine the two thoughts? If city hall moves, why couldn't the old city hall, along with Golden Hall and the rest of the complex there, become a cultural center including the library?
PENNER: Okay, good question. Ricky Young.
YOUNG: This is an idea that's been coming up for several months. Carl DeMaio and the city council brought it up late last year. Donna Frye's been bringing it up lately. But it – those are the two people who are most often on the losing end of 7-1 votes on the city council so those – the idea has not necessarily caught on. And I think there's a natural tendency for people pushing both of these projects, you know, maybe not consciously but almost in a turf-building way to remain territorial and want to keep the projects separate.
PENNER: Okay, thank you. And thank you, Bill. Linda in South Park is with us now. Hi, Linda, you're on with the editors.
LINDA (Caller, South Park): Good morning.
PENNER: Good morning.
LINDA: I would like to correct what I think is a misconception. Listening to your show, I heard someone talking about, oh, it sounds to me – this is – this is my point. I work for the library system and I know that while everything looks lovely and the aisles are fairly wide out where the public chooses its items, back in the back, we are so crowded that we can hardly move. We have simply run out of space.
PENNER: Are you in the downtown library?
LINDA: I have been.
PENNER: Okay. And that's where you're talking about? The downtown library?
PENNER: Okay. That's – that is a point that's been raised before, and what about that? I mean, is the downtown library just too old? Too crowded?
PERRY: Certainly. We have three very good object lessons of what it looks like when government builds cheap and functional: the downtown library, city hall and the sports arena. All built when San Diego was in various phases of its cheapness, and so we now know what it looks like. In terms of the downtown library, I have long thought that the librarians who work there should get combat medals for the yeoman work they do dealing with some of the folks that come in off the street plus dealing with those aged facilities, and they're there every day. They found me a book the other day from the 1920s; it's been out of print since Alonzo Horton was a pup. I think they do terrific work but I don't think you're going to sell this project, this enormously expensive project based on we need more storage space. You could get yourself a rental place a heck of a lot cheaper. Again, we need someone to step forward and say, San Diego, this project is worth it, regardless—literally regardless—of what it costs. There's risk involved, let's take it because we need it. Absent that, I think this thing is going to be nibbled to death by ducks. The stakeholder approach almost never works, I think.
PERRY: Most of the things we have in…
PERRY: …San Diego were done long before the stakeholder approach took favor.
DONOHUE: And I think, like Tony said, these are things that you don't want to do on the cheap. If you're going to do it, you want to do it right. And that's what it feels like this project has been sort of scaled back slowly over time to sort of fit the same budget and so you are seeing some corners cut, you're seeing some of the main pieces being delayed in their construction. There's – It's not – There's not going to be an auditorium right away, which is sort of one of the big parts of this meeting space. And we're having this sort of typical San Diego conversation which is, don't worry, we can build it and it's not going to cost anything. And I think one of the key points is, like Tony's saying, you need somebody to stand up there and say, listen, this is something we need and want and we should be willing just to pay for it. So if this is what we want, let's step up as a community and let's pay for it and let's build it because I think we've seen the accumulation over a long time of this city continuing trying to build things and promising people that it's not going to cost anything and now you have a city that can't keep its, you know, streets together and it can't keep its own branch libraries open because it's adding – it keeps adding all these things and never paying for any of them.
PENNER: Andrew, one last question. Your colleague Scott Lewis, who works with you at the voiceofsandiego, he calls Jerry Sanders a weak mayor who leads a city hall that pretends it simply has no choice but to spend $80 million of downtown redevelopment money on this huge, new edifice. Explain that, if you can. In fact, explain the proposed financing. I mean, that $185 million price tag is five years old.
DONOHUE: It is and that's the – that's one of the things people are holding their breath for, is what is this thing actually going to cost? But the financing is $80 million of downtown redevelopment money, which people like to pretend that that's not public money but that's very public money that's supposed to be going to revitalizing an entire neighborhood. A $20 million grant from the state, and that's another reason people are saying, well, we got to just do this because we've got this $20 million from the state. And then the other $85 million is supposed to come from private donors. Now, we know that only about $27 million of that has been raised to actually build the library so there's still a huge gulf in the amount of private funds that needs to be raised.
PENNER: Is there any deadline on this? Did they have to have all the money accumulated by a certain time?
DONOHUE: You know, there's been this – there's been this false rolling deadline from the state since, you know, 2005, so I don't – They keep saying you got to get us all this information by July first of this year but I don't…
PENNER: It's Wednesday.
DONOHUE: I don't really believe the state deadline very much…
DONOHUE: …because we've been hearing that for a long, long time.
PENNER: Well, I'm sure we'll get an update on this as we go along. Sorry we couldn't get to all the phone calls. There were plenty. Let's move on.