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What’s In The New Downtown Library Design?


The architect-designer of the new downtown central library explains what elements are included in the design: the tech center, the high-school, the city offices, the solar collectors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. While the issue of building a new central library in downtown San Diego may still be controversial, the design for the library impresses just about everyone who sees it. A nine-story, domed building in the city's East Village adds a striking new element to the city's skyline. The architect behind that design has already added his flair to the look of San Diego. Rob Quigley designed the New Children’s Museum and the Balboa Park Activity Center. He's also put forward an ambitious design for San Diego's historic harbor front. Architect Rob Quigley is here to tell us about his design for the central library and his vision for downtown San Diego. Welcome to These Days.

ROB QUIGLEY (Architect): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about the new library downtown or the Children’s Museum or a comment about architecture in San Diego, give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, the project of building the new central library downtown has entered a new phase now. The city council has voted to get bids on its construction. How long has it been since you and Tucker Sadler were selected as the architect designers?

QUIGLEY: We were selected over 12 years ago to design this building and we’ve been working off and on for most of that time.


QUIGLEY: And we’re the new kids.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that…

QUIGLEY: People have been working on this library, citizens of San Diego have been working hard on this library for 35 years.

CAVANAUGH: It’s just amazing. Now, given the history of delay on the project, were you hesitant to get involved in this library project?

QUIGLEY: I think if I was from out of town, I might’ve been.


QUIGLEY: But, you know, this is my city, this is going to be my library, and so personally I was very invested in trying to make this happen.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the design for the library. I know that’s hard to do but can you describe for us what the building looks like?

QUIGLEY: Well, it’s – I don’t know if you remember this but we held a series of public input workshops that were wonderfully attended and we got lots of really wonderful ideas. We did this before any of us ever drew a line. And the community asked for a number of things and that has influenced the way this library looks. For instance, they asked that it not be something that was dropped on our city from outer space, that it actually grew out of our own traditions, our architectural traditions, and they cited Balboa Park. And so we – you know, the Botanical Garden building, for instance, and the California Tower. Those buildings had a huge influence. The arcades that you walk through in Balboa Park had an influence on this building. So it’ll be out of, I hope, a white concrete and it has a latticework, not out of redwood like the Botanical Garden building but out of photovoltaic cells. So they asked the building respect our past but also be of the future, be a contemporary building.

CAVANAUGH: Rob, tell us about the dome because that perhaps is the most visually striking feature…


CAVANAUGH: …of the entire building.

QUIGLEY: Well, that also came out of the workshop process. A number of groups of people suggested a dome. We – They also uniformly asked that this building be iconic, in that sense not an ego trip but something that would be identifiable in the skyline, something that would not be confused with the commercial buildings, with the condos or the office buildings, something that was civic. And the dome is a wonderful traditional way of accomplishing that. It’s a part of our democratic heritage and has a long history in the realm of architecture. But this dome is special. It’s a very functional dome. It shades the upper terraces where the 9th floor meeting rooms and reading rooms have wonderful terraces with bay views. But it’s windy and it’s hot and sunny there and so this provides the proper protection for that, and then as well gives us – gives the reading room, which is a glass cube about 64 feet square, protection so that we can have more glass than you would normally have because of this shade structure. I think of it like a straw hat…

CAVANAUGH: A hat, right.

QUIGLEY: …that you might wear if you have sensitive skin.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. Now in this library there are a lot of features that you don’t normally associate with a library. There’s lots of public space and the auditorium. Tell us why you decided to include that in the proposal for the new downtown library.

QUIGLEY: Well, these modern libraries and, what, five or six western cities have built brand new libraries over the last 15 years, and in every case they’ve just literally transformed the city because they’re not just about books and computers, although that’s a central part of it, but they’re also about people. And they’re about gathering, about intellectual discourse, and about common ground. When you think about it, there’s really no other public place that’s common ground, that all citizens can use and that anyone can meet at. So we have an auditorium on the ground level that has a sloped floor that’s a wonderful venue for poetry readings or movies or lectures. It’s even configured so that at a particularly controversial city council meeting, they can meet there where we have public access at the ground floor and don’t have to stifle up elevators. So – And then there’s, on the rooftop, there’s another flat-floored, large meeting room, there’s smaller meeting rooms, there’s an art gallery, there’s just all kinds of resources that we actually don’t have right now.

CAVANAUGH: And just so we get a full picture, at least as much as we can without seeing it on the radio, can you tell us about the technology, and the new and emerging technology that is part of this design. You’ve already told us about that photovoltaic latticework…


CAVANAUGH: …that you have.


CAVANAUGH: What else is there in this design?

QUIGLEY: Well, of course, the library will be – have wireless…


QUIGLEY: …transmission all the way through it. An exciting idea that’s really unique that’s in discussion right now, or actually has been for several years, is the idea of actually electronically linking the central library with UCSD and with all the facilities over there at the old Marine base at Liberty Station so that in real time you could, if you lived downtown, you could walk over to the auditorium and you could hear a lecture at UCSD or if you lived in the north county area and you didn’t want to drive all the way downtown, you could go to UCSD and hear something that’s happening at the main library. So this is very doable and very, very exciting.

CAVANAUGH: And is there a school included in the complex? I know that idea has gone back and forth.

QUIGLEY: There is now going to be a charter school, yes. The school district is going to spend $20 million. Instead of building a new school, they’re going to move into the 6th and 7th floors which were designed originally for expansion space, expansion meaning longterm expansion, like 20 years from now we might – the library might need that space. In the interim, it was scheduled to be used for city offices so it had its own separate circulation system apart from the library. This is what people don’t understand. I’ve had people come up to me and say, wait a minute, you can’t have a charter – you can’t have a high school in a library. What about when the bell rings and people funnel out through the lobby?


QUIGLEY: No, that doesn’t happen. Yeah, they have their own elevators, their own dedicated lobby, their own fire stair. Now it’s just a management issue. You can connect to the library in any way; you don’t have to go outside to use the library if you’re at the school but it’s, you know, it can be secured at any time.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with architect Rob Quigley and we are talking about his design for the new central library in downtown San Diego. And I want everyone to know if you’d like to see it, if you’d like to take a computer generated tour of the new library, you can see it on YouTube. All you need to do is type in ‘San Diego’s new central library.’ And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Marilyn is on the line. She’s calling from San Diego. And good morning, Marilyn. Oh, I’m sorry. Kevin – Marilyn’s no longer there. Kevin is on the line from Point Loma. Good morning, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller, Point Loma): Good morning, Maureen. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great. Thank you.

KEVIN: Good. Fantastic topic and I think it’s a very timely one in that this is an issue that we can kind of rally behind. It’s not about the bad economy, it’s not about losing jobs, it’s about creating community infrastructure and cultural infrastructure, and I think that’s something that’s lost in this debate. We spend an enormous amount of funds, public funds, taxpayer funds on the convention center expansions and Petco Park and Qualcomm and things that are considered to be economic generators or revenue generators for the city but cultural infrastructure is something that’s been pushed to the back burner and I think it’s important to put this in context that downtown serves many neighborhoods that surround it, Golden Hill, Barrio Logan, Sherman (audio dropout), Hillcrest, etcetera, and it’s a population that the redevelopment agency downtown wants to balloon up to 90,000 people. And when you live in small spaces without a lot of public open space—there’s very parks and very little open space downtown that’s available in these central neighborhoods—the library will be a central meeting spot to gather, auditorium space, they show movies, there’s a café there. I think Rob made a great point that libraries are not just about books and internet access but they’re places to gather. And I think that’s very, very important for this neighborhood. When they built Scripps Ranch or one of these other outlying suburban communities, they always put in cultural centers, recs, ballfields, schools, etcetera. This is what downtown needs…


KEVIN: …to support this population.

CAVANAUGH: …thank you so much for your comment. And there’s a supporter, Rob.

QUIGLEY: Well, Kevin’s correct. The downtown population’s thirty – about 30,000 now.


QUIGLEY: It’s expected to grow to 90,000. That’s 60,000 people that would be thrust into the suburbs, overloading those communities if we don’t get them into a denser environment downtown, and we need to provide infrastructure for those people.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start to talk to you about the nuts and bolts, though, and that is the price. The estimate on this construction, I think it was four years ago, was $185 million. Do you expect that to change?

QUIGLEY: You know, this is really a unique period of time in the construction industry. In my lifetime I can’t ever remember construction prices falling to these kinds of lows. They’re 20 to 30% lower than they were a year, year and a half ago, so this is an unprecedented opportunity actually to take advantage of that. I don’t know what it’s going to cost. These bid’ll come in in late March or April. I think there’s a chance it could be as low as it was four years ago or maybe within 5% of that number. That would just be phenomenal. But I can tell you unequivocally that if we wait until the economy recovers, this project will cost $20 to $30 million dollars more.

CAVANAUGH: And how does that $185 million price stack up against other civic projects you’ve been associated with?

QUIGLEY: Well, we did a lot of research, of course, on libraries when we first started this. And when Art and I took this job, we knew that we wouldn’t have the budget that other cities get to have for their libraries. On a – if you do an apples to apples comparison, which, by the way, is very difficult but we had a contractor do that when we first started the project, in our budget, cost per square foot are about a third lower than, say, the Seattle main library.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, we had a supporter…

QUIGLEY: So when people call this an…


QUIGLEY: ...architectural palace, I couldn’t be more complimented.

CAVANAUGH: I see. We had a supporter and we had an opponent of the new library on the show a few weeks ago. They argued about whether the construction would cost the City of San Diego any money because there are a number of sources that this $185 million tab is going to be taken from. Realistically, do you think the City will have to pick up some of that tab, though?

QUIGLEY: I think that the fundraising effort, which has been phenomenal to date considering the kind of lack of action that has taken – that this project – this project has a history of 30 years of lack of action. And for people to reach into their pockets and commit money is pretty phenomenal and with that history. But, yeah, I can’t get into the kind of smoke and mirrors conversation that I heard about budget money but what I can tell you, something very easy to understand and very clear, that in the face of adversity there are always opportunities and we have, in this recession, an amazing opportunity. We received a grant of $20 million from the state. Now, that’s our tax money that was sent to Sacramento that a lot of intelligent people in San Diego clawed back so that we have that $20 million now to spend. It’s designated for a new main library. If we don’t spend that, if – a no vote on the council is a vote to send that money to some other California city so they can build a library, and that drives me crazy. Secondly – So that’s $20 million. Secondly, the City has spent $17 million on engineers, architects and project managers, logistics, all that for a set of plans that now has a building permit. We have 1400 sheets of technical drawings and a working building permit. We’re ready to – We could literally put a shovel in the ground tomorrow to start this thing. So that’s $37 million that’s on the line on this thing. And then the construction window, a generational opportunity that I spoke of, is another $25, $30 million, so that’s $60 to $70 million that we literally burn up in smoke with a no vote on this library. That’s a phenomena that’s unique to this particular project and this particular time. Usually, a no vote means you don’t spend money. In this case, a no vote means you essentially waste $60 to $70 million dollars at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 for architect Rob Quigley. And Jay is calling us from Old Town. Good morning, Jay. Welcome to These Days.

JAY (Caller, Old Town): Good morning, Mr. Quigley. Nice to talk to you. As you know, Seattle, everything’s been up there, there’s a problem with parking and access to a beautiful, incredible library and there’s not many people in it maybe because of access, although it does have good public transportation downtown. What is your – from the early drawings I’ve seen, the number of parking spaces doesn’t seem to even allow for the employees and students and all the staff at this new facility. What do you – how do you propose for people to get there and be there other than to giving money to Ace?

QUIGLEY: That’s a – that’s a very good question. And, unfortunately, we still are an auto-dominated society. We need to accommodate the automobile. My research shows that our new main library will have more available parking than any other library that I’m aware of actually. We have two floors of dedicated spaces down below, if I remember right, somewhere around 250 cars. Kitty-corner, adjacent to the site, kitty-corner is a multi-story parking garage. There are all the – tailgate parking is kitty-corner on the other side. You know, I mean, we’re talking about a quarter of a block walk to what must be four city blocks of parking that’s used on game days only. It just sits there vacant and naked. So one of the things I like about this site, compared to the other three sites we designed the library on, you know, over the twelve years, is that not only does it have good public transportation with the trolley and the buses but the parking and the access from the freeway is actually quite extraordinary.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a moment to ask you about another building that you’ve designed in the same general area, and it’s the New Children’s Museum.


CAVANAUGH: I wonder, what did you want that building to accomplish?

QUIGLEY: The Children’s Museum?


QUIGLEY: Well, as you know, the Children’s Museum is this wonderful San Diego institution and it’s quite unique. There’s really nothing else quite like it in the country, and it’s kind of coming together of very sophisticated artists and children and creating just wonderful things together. So our directive, actually, on that building was to create a warehouse for creativity, a building that wasn’t precious so that children would sort of feel like they have the license to, as was said, get goopy. And so when I saw kids throwing paint on my beautiful concrete walls, I couldn’t have been happier. It was exactly what’s supposed to happen. But, you know, there’s an interesting phenomena with that project that is relevant to the discussion on the main library. We had a hard time getting that going for funding, it was the same story, you know, the sky’s always falling in San Diego. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the greatest upturn that we’ve ever had or it’s a recession, the sky is falling. And we had trouble getting donations and for a while there it looked like that project was not going to go ahead even though the drawings were done, we had the site, everything was ready. And then the Jacobs came forward with a wonderful gift at the key moment, just as I thought it was going to die. That was enough to get us started, to start construction. Once we started, it was like you opened up the floodgates, money came in. And the same thing will happen on the library. As soon as people actually know that this is going to happen, as soon as we break ground and actually start digging the hole for the parking garage, money will come in. That’s just the way it works.

CAVANAUGH: As you look at the sites that you’re going to place your buildings on and you design what these buildings should look like, do you have an overall vision for what San Diego really could shine at? How the downtown San Diego could look? Do you ever have that? Or is it just really…


CAVANAUGH: …one building at a time for you?

QUIGLEY: When I – I came – I moved to San Diego from Los Angeles in the early seventies in part because I thought the city really had potential and that it – the potential could be impacted by individuals, as opposed to LA which was going to be whatever it wanted to be no matter what anyone did. So it was – downtown at that point was kind of a blank slate. Our first offices down there were in a warehouse and there were no restaurants to eat at in the evening. The police would come to our parties because they were bored. There was no crime downtown. So it was rather a unique place. But it seemed like it had the potential to be a uniquely urban city, urban in the best sense like, you know, in Europe. So Little Italy’s a wonderful example of the potential, and East Village is becoming that and Cortez Hill is becoming that where you can walk to the market, you can walk down to get a cup of coffee or to the drugstore. You don’t actually have to use your car. And our life—we live in Little Italy now—and over the last five years it’s reached that point where it really is a urbane lifestyle. Now, as I say, that’s important if we want to preserve our neighborhoods in the suburbs because they can only take so much density before they become unfortunate and we can channel that density to downtown, and that’s always been my thinking about it and it’s really happening.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Anna is calling from City Heights. Good morning, Anna. Welcome to These Days.

ANNA (Caller, City Heights): Good morning. I just wanted to call in and say how enthusiastic I am about this project as someone who used to work at that library and serve the public. And what strikes me about it is that finally we’re able to get materials out of two basements in the existing structure and have space for them so people can actually browse. Those of us that are book lovers know that one book always leads to another. And this is really encouraging to see that our collection can be out for the public to have easy access to and…

CAVANAUGH: Anna, let me ask you since you’ve worked at the old downtown library, what are conditions like there?

ANNA: They are cramped, and I’m going to – I’m going to express that from the point of view, I believe, of the public as well as somebody who worked there. It is very cramped and there are competing needs that are not able to serve all people’s needs well. And that can be something as simple as having adequate tables and chairs and lighting just to sit and quietly read. And because of the technology now and the limitations of the space, even time you put in another computer, you lose another table and chair. And so the competing needs have made it very clear that the existing library cannot serve all of the interests and informational needs of the public.

CAVANAUGH: Anna, thank you so much for your call. I want to ask you, Rob, you know, there are some people who just say, you know, look, we should not be building such a big project like this during the recession, you know. I understand that it’s not going to cost the City a lot but when you have to cut city services during a time of budget deficits, a project like this just should not happen right now. What do you respond to people who say that? Because, I mean, you must hear that.

QUIGLEY: Yes. Yes, I, of course, hear that all the time. Although I have to say I’m hearing it less and less. I think maybe more than most councils in the past, we seem to have a council now that has leadership and has vision, and vision is about understanding the larger context of the times. We’re not going to be in this recession forever and recessions actually provide opportunities. The County Administration Building, the old City Hall, was built during the Great Depression. There was an opportunity to create jobs and to create one of our better civic buildings, and there’s an opportunity now. I talked about the construction window that is unique to this time. That’s not going to happen ever again in any of our lifetimes. And if we don’t build now, five – even five years from now, certainly ten years from now, we’ll look back and we’ll say who were those idiots in control who didn’t take the opportunity, who didn’t recognize that this is, in fact, the right time to build.

CAVANAUGH: And the timeframe right now is bids will come in early next year and the city council is set to vote in April?

QUIGLEY: And they’ll vote in April, and that’s a do or die, yes or no vote. Either the project dies and all the money goes with it or we go ahead and build a – and it’s about a 30-month construction schedule.

CAVANAUGH: Rob, thank you so much for…

QUIGLEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …talking with us. I’ve been speaking with architect Rob Quigley. And for those people who would like to comment and we didn’t get a chance to take your call on the air, post your comments at Now, coming up, a new approach to the old problem of border pollution. That’s next as These Days continues on KPBS.

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