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City Council Approves New Central Library

Audio

Aired 6/29/10

Last night, the San Diego City Council approved a plan to build a new $185 million Central Library in the East Village. We speak to Alison St. John about what the new library will include, and the funding issues that still need to be resolved before the project can be completed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After years of discussion and planning, the idea of building a new, large downtown library in San Diego has gotten the go-ahead. On a 6 to 2 vote, the San Diego City Council approved the plan and construction is scheduled to begin in August. KPBS Metro reporter Alison St John is here with more. Good morning, Alison.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us, how long has San Diego been discussing the idea of building a new central library downtown?

ST JOHN: Oh, it’s been well over a decade. Some people say 20 years, other people say 30 years. There’s mentions of it back in 1971 that the city needed a new downtown library. The current library was built in 1954 or at least that’s when it started to be a library and it is, if you’ve ever been in, a pretty gloomy building. So this project has just been like a gleam in the eye of politicians. Susan Golding was talking about it back in the early nineties, and now finally this is quite an historic vote to say, yes, we’re going to go ahead come wind or high water. I mean, it is true they don’t have all the money but the decision is made.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us what supporters say that a brand new big library would bring to downtown.

ST JOHN: So, you know, many cities treat their libraries as very important civic centers and a lot of cities—Seattle has just built a wonderful, brand new library in the last decade. And the idea is not just that it’s a place for books because everybody knows that, you know, there are a lot of other ways of getting your information now. But there will be a place for technology for computers, and that’s one thing you see in the current library is that the computers, there are waiting lines for people who want to use them, so it provides access to people who may not have access to computers otherwise. It’s also a community meeting place, a lot of meeting space. It’ll have, as we know now, a school as well on it, so it’ll be a wonderful resource for the school kids at this – at the school on two floors of the library. And it’s more of like a civic gesture. If you think about your priorities, it the past we’ve put money into baseball parks but we haven’t put money into the library. This is sort of a sign that San Diego sees itself as being a city that cares about culture and literature and wants a good downtown central library.

CAVANAUGH: And yet at this pivotal city hall meeting yesterday, not everybody was for it. Why did it get two votes against the project?

ST JOHN: Money.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ST JOHN: It’s, you know, at a time when the city is cutting back and people are worried about police and fire, it’s hard for some people to understand that, you know, the city would be going ahead with a multi-million dollar project, almost $200 million, a little bit less, to build it. And so people are saying, you know, we really shouldn’t be embarking on an expensive project when the city is already financially strapped. And there are people with different positions. You know, we had Mike Aguirre, the former city attorney, who showed up and said, look, the city is bankrupt, you know, this is – you’re hurting the city by thinking that you can actually embark on this project. However, Ben Hueso, the council president pointed out the city is not bankrupt. It has money in reserve, so we’ve been building up reserves. We’re gradually becoming more responsible. We’re paying off our liabilities. And this money that’s been collected for the library, about $150 million, cannot go to any other sort – any other purpose. You know, you can’t hire more firefighters with it, you can’t fix potholes with it. If we don’t build this library, we are going to lose this money.

CAVANAUGH: And indeed, however, the project cost is higher than the amount of money that has already been pledged towards this library so where is that remainder coming from?

ST JOHN: The city has said, look, we are not going to commit to putting anymore into this and so it really has to be from the private sector. And the Library Foundation has been working for many years to try to get money, and it’s not an easy thing to raise money for a project that may or may not happen, you know, just a dream. So they are convinced that now that it’s been given the go-ahead, that the city council has put its full commitment behind it that, you know, bricks and mortar will start to appear, that it will be easier now to raise what is essentially $32.5 million more that will be needed to complete the building so the doors can open.

CAVANAUGH: And I think that it surprises some people considering how long some construction projects actually last that they’re actually going to begin it or they say they’re going to begin in August. Why this quick start?

ST JOHN: It’s all to do with the state. The state has contributed $20 million to this project and put certain deadlines in, saying if you don’t sign a contract by a certain time, if you don’t break ground by a certain time, if you don’t open this by a certain time, we are going to withdraw our money. So without that deadline, I don’t know if this thing would ever have gotten off the ground. It’s been quite a useful deadline because the city has waited right up until the last moment in each case and then just it’s squeaked by. So it’s in order to leverage that $20 million from the state that the city is following this timeline.

CAVANAUGH: And do we have a timeline of when, indeed, this might be completed?

ST JOHN: Yes, well, theoretically, you know, it’s supposed to break ground in 60 days and be a grand opening in July of 2013. So this thing could go up pretty rapidly, and quite an exciting sight, I think, in the East Village to see it go up. It’s gotten a very innovative design by architect Rob Quigley with a huge dome. The original design was going to have solar panels on the dome so it would sort of gleam in the sunlight. Due to financial constraints, that’s had to be changed. And it will still have solar panels—it’ll be Silver LEED certified—but the solar panels will be on a flat surface which, I’m sure, are much easier to design technologically. But the dome remains and there’ll be, you know, big reading room spaces up under the dome so it could be quite a beautiful space.

CAVANAUGH: Now are there any other legislative hurdles that this project has to pass or is this it? Basically, as long as the remaining money is raised to see the project through, it’s a complete go?

ST JOHN: It’s a go, yes. I mean, perhaps there might be some concern about hiring because part of the reason that the city council was so pleased to hire, it was because it would create 1,000 jobs and jobs is just like the primary issue for most elected politicians these days, and so there is a concern about will the companies be able to fulfill their commitment to make 85% of those jobs be San Diego jobs. But essentially, you know, it’s – it doesn’t have to have another vote. It’s a go. The next question is, you know, let’s hope that that money comes in. And, you know, San Diego is really challenging the private sector to say we’ve made this commitment, we’ve taken this stand, and we want to see the support coming from the community for this.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us, Alison St John. I want to let everyone know if you’d like to see what the projected library looks like, you can go online to our website. It’s right on the front page at KPBS.org. Join us at this time tomorrow for a longer discussion of the new library project. We’ll be speaking with the people whose support made this project happen. That’s tomorrow on These Days here on KPBS.

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