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Old San Diego Library Becomes East Village Eyesore

Photo by Matthew Bowler

San Diego's former central library sits vacant as city leaders decide how to redevelop the facility, Feb. 16, 2015.

San Diego's old, vacant downtown library is sitting fowl while neighbors, politicians and business people wonder what's next.

San Diego’s downtown library moved to its new location nearly a year-and-half ago, and the old library was left empty.

Now, the East Village neighborhood wants life to come back to the library-turned-eyesore, and city officials along with a business association said they have a plan.

Alfonzo “Pokey” Reyes has been running a business one block from the old library for nearly 20 years. He took over downtown’s iconic Pokez Mexican Restaurant from his parents.

From his corner on 10th Avenue and E Street, Reyes has seen the neighborhood change a lot.

“When my parents had it and I came to work for them, it was rough,” Reyes said. “I had to stick my money in my sock when I walked home after closing up to make sure no one robbed it.”

That was nearly two decades ago and Reyes feels perfectly safe at his business today. But he said things did take a downturn when the library closed.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Graffiti mars the wall of the vacated central library in downtown San Diego at E Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, Feb. 16, 2015.

Just after the library closed many of San Diego’s homeless took over the sidewalk in front of the now locked front doors.

Reyes said that many tourists looking for authentic San Diego fare, walked around the old library finally making it to his restaurant. Customers would often ask if it’s safe to walk back past the lines of homeless camping out in front of the library.

Reyes tells them “Yeah, its safe, they’re people too. Just stay away from the one screaming out of his head.”

This is all part of downtown living and working for Reyes.

“That’s downtown city life,” Reyes said. "Sometimes you bump into a couple of crazy people but then you run into a bunch of nice people."

This part of the East Village is not like its more moneyed southern half. The north side has has a rough and tumble reputation due to several low-cost resident hotels and somewhat more affordable apartments. But change is in the air.

Christina Chadwick, spokeswoman for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, said the group is paying attention to the fate of the old library.

“Certainly, the downtown library is a prime piece of real estate and is going to drive economic growth,” Chadwick said.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership, a nonprofit downtown advocacy group made up of downtown San Diego businesses, wants the city to make long-term plans for the historic building, according to Chadwick

“We’d be able to work with education, life sciences, startup industries, I think that there is plenty of opportunity for everybody here,” Chadwick said.

Todd Gloria is the city council representative for the area, and he doesn’t want to rush into anything rashly.

“We are right to take our time and be smart,” Gloria said.

Gloria is in favor of ambitious plans for the historical building, but in the meantime he has another option for the decaying edifice.

“I just happen to believe that we can do something there in the near future,” Gloria said.

Gloria’s plan is for the city to invest a little bit now, and make the old library move-in ready for small business. He thinks turning it into a hub for startup businesses like the new downtown Fab Lab could buy the city time to make a solid long-term plan. Gloria’s idea is to be upfront about a three- to five-year time constraint with entrepreneurs. The library as an entrepreneur hub would be temporary.

For Gloria the short-term occupants would allow the city to push for a long-term plan that will benefit the entire community.

“In that length of time we could find our way forward by either partnering with a private sector developer to do something hopefully iconic on that site that would be befitting of downtown,” Gloria said. “And yield enough revenue for the city to make it worth our while, I think that would be an elegant solution.”

Back at Pokez Mexican Restaurant, Reyes is worried he’ll be priced out of the neighborhood he helped bring to life. When asked what Reyes thinks should happen with the old library, he said no one has asked him that before.

“I don’t think anybody cares about me,” Reyes said.

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