Wednesday, October 28, 2009
SAN DIEGO The dream of a new main library for San Diego is still alive, but the city council’s day of reckoning is coming closer. The council voted to put the project out to bid.
The first four rows of city council chambers were full of middle school students, come to lobby for a new main library downtown. Gina Rios of KIPP Adelante charter school told the council another generation of students from her school had appealed to them on the same issue some years ago.
“Some of the other students joked on the way back to school that day that they would all be in college before the library is actually built,” Rios told the council. “Well, those students are sophomores in high school, so now it’s our turn.”
In fact, a new main library has been talked about for at least three decades. Some wonder how the dream has survived, as the city’s financial situation seems to stumble from bad to worse. The construction estimate for the new library, made four years ago, was $185 million, and fundraising is still almost $40 million short.
But the city council is under pressure, because the state threatened to pull its $20 million grant unless the city took action and asked for bids.
Lani Lutar, of the Taxpayers Association, begged the council not to spend the $500,000 it would cost to open the bidding process.
“Please don’t flush valuable tax payer dollars down the drain, while our infrastructure is crumbling,” she said.
Lutar said the council should get a letter of credit from private donors guaranteeing their commitment before committing the city to the project
Private donors have raised more than $37 million. Barbara Mazelle of Scripps Ranch said there would be more if the city would get serious.
“This project has the highest level of private support in our nation’s history for a public library capital project,” she said. “I would expect once the commitment of the council is clear, that more private funding would be forthcoming.”
But two members of the council balked at spending any more public money on asking for bids.
Carl DeMaio compared the idea to a family, that’s deeply in debt and can't afford its mortgage, going out and getting a construction estimate on a whole remodel of their house. DeMaio proposed spending $60 million earmarked for the library to repay outstanding debts on the Ballpark and the Convention Center.
District One’s Sheri Lightner was also leery of spending any more money, in view of the current deficits. “We are facing 27 percent cuts to all city departments next year,” she said. “This central library vision may come at the expense of basic city services upon which all of our constituents rely.”
But Councilwoman Marty Emerald saw a silver lining to the prospect of a major construction project.
“We need to create jobs,” Emerald said. “If it’s another half million dollars in this very long and expensive process, let’s do it. Then we can create some opportunities to put San Diegans back to work.”
“My goal is that small businesses here in the city of San Diego get an opportunity to work on this project,” said Councilman Tony Young, who succeeded in adding $70,000 for outreach to local small businesses. “I don’t want somebody from Arizona coming in to work on these projects.”
Ultimately, the library got the six votes it needed to take the next step.
As Councilwoman Donna Frye said, “I’d like to know how much it is. What I will do ultimately when you come back with that I don’t know, but I think it’s reasonable to have the opportunity to find out.”
The bids should be in by next spring. Some hope the economic downturn could mean a good deal for the city. The council will have real numbers when they sit down again in May to decide whether they can really afford to make this long-standing dream a reality.