Debating The Downtown Library
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October 23, 2009 – KPBS Reporter Sharon Heilbrunn speaks with Councilmembers Ben Hueso and Carl DeMaio about the controversial downtown library plans. Afterwards, the editors discuss.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): It's been a project in the making for nearly a decade, but will a new downtown central library ever be built in San Diego? KPBS reporter Sharon Heilbrunn brings us this story. SHARON HEILBRUNN (KPBS News): After nearly a decade of work on the project, plans for a new downtown library could be shelved. The San Diego City Council is considering putting the project to bid at a cost of about $500,000 for the original architects and construction consultants. The last estimate to build a new library, $185 million, is four years old. If the new bids come back at a higher cost, there's a possibility that the project won't move forward. Supporters say the new library is sorely needed. The proposed nine story facility would replace and be twice as big as the current library built in 1954. Council President, Ben Hueso, says it will enhance a neighborhood that is undergoing revitalization. BEN HUESO (San Diego City Council President): Here we have this very efficient model that we're creating that will provide educational services, that will provide civic median space, will provide a gathering space for San Diego that would provide a huge archive of information that we can begin to store for future years. So, it's really sad that San Diego taxpayers have paid $20 million to build a library in San Diego, and with the naysayers opposing the library, it's possible that this $20 million will maybe go to build a library in LA. It would be a huge lack of leadership locally in San Diego if we don't advocate for our locally generated tax dollars to be spent in our communities. HEILBRUNN: The project will be funded by a $20 million grant from the state, $80 million in redevelopment monies, and $62 million in private donations. About half of those private donations have been pledged and the city will look for the remainder after the project is approved. But not all the council members are for the project. Carl DeMaio says the city could save $63 million over the next five years if they dropped it. CARL DEMAIO (San Diego City Council-member): Well proponents of the downtown library make the mistaken claim that the general fund won't be impacted by proceeding with the project. First of all, $63 million comes from the redevelopment agency and those monies could be used to backfill general fund obligations such as Petco Park and the Convention Center. Second of all, if private donations fall short the general fund has to make up the difference. We believe that construction costs are going to skyrocket above the original estimate. We don't believe that private donations are even going to come close to covering construction costs in the current budget plan. And finally, once it’s built the general fund has the obligation to operate and maintain it annually. And according to the IBA, according even to the library department, the numbers are going to be much higher to operate the library and that will come at a cost to the general fund each year. HEILBRUNN: Now if everything goes as scheduled, the new library is expected to open in July of 2013. We want to know what you think about this project. Log onto www.kpbs.org/sdweek and leave us a comment. For KPBS, I'm Sharon Heilbrunn. PENNER: On Tuesday the San Diego City Council is scheduled to vote on continuing the bidding for the downtown library. Joining me now to talk about the push to build a new library in downtown San Diego is Barbara Bry, co-publisher and opinion editor of sdnn.com, and Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks for coming. Barbara, this project was proposed twenty years ago. It's still in the proposal stage. Has it lost its freshness? BARBARA BRY (SDNN.com): Gloria, I think this project is not going to happen at this moment in time given the city's financial circumstances and the fact that the real cost of construction is unknown. PENER: Yeah, but truly the city council now is voting to direct staff to continue the bidding process. Does that sort of kick up the momentum in this project? TONY PERRY (Los Angeles Times): Well it gets a lot of chatter, but what we're going to have is a debate between the cost of it - the DeMaio side - and the value of it - the Hueso side. And the question is can the value people out-talk the cost people? And in San Diego, cost usually wins. We're not much into the value of things, so they've got a real sell job. I think it could be sold, but I'm not sure that Ben Hueso is the best spokesman for it. PENNER: What about the value of it? I mean, there are certainly questions as to whether it's really needed. It may be better to put the money in the branch libraries where people go to neighborhood libraries and want to use them. PERRY: Indeed. And in the Internet age. This is a pre-internet proposal basically. I know it would have computers, but it was dreamt up in a pre-internet age. That's the selling job they're going to have to do. Why is this worth it? What will this do? Just saying it's good for one neighborhood I don't think is going to cut it. They're going to have to make this a San Diego wide project that helps all of us. And we don't tend to think in those terms any longer. We're segmented into communities; we're all cost oriented. It's going to be a very very tough sell job. PENNER: And what about the cost? I mean let’s be specific. You heard what Carl DeMaio said. Right now my understanding is that funding is still $36 million short. What risk is it that the city could end up paying for the operating costs of this library out of the general fund? BRY: Well what I'd actually recommend, Gloria, is that the proponents of building the library scale down their proposal to build a smaller structure that they do have enough money for, and raise enough private money to have funds that could go into operations. But I think they may be thinking to grandiose about what they would like in an ideal world. And this isn't an ideal world. PERRY: I like grandiose, frankly. I think we know what it looks like when San Diego city government thinks small and cost effective. You get, well you get this library which was too small the day it opened. You get City Hall, you get the Sports Arena. That's when San Diego thinks small and cheap. I think the time is now. I agree with the mayor the time is now to think big and for the future. How do you pay for it? That is a problem. PENNER: Well it is a problem, because remember back to 2002 when the decision was to increase city pensions? They hadn't figured out how they were going to pay for it and it has come back to bite us. Don't you need to know how to pay for something before you start thinking as big as the proponents are thinking? PERRY: Yes. And I remember the expansion of Qualcomm which was not going to cost the taxpayers any money, and then kaboom, there was the ticket guarantee and it cost us a lot of money. So I'm not oblivious to cost, but I also think we ought not to limit our thinking. This is a large American city - we ought to have some vision here. BRY: I agree we need something new downtown, but I'm just concerned about the scale. And also I think we have to look at the other civic projects that are in the pipeline, particularly a new city hall which I think we clearly have to have. PENNER: Ok. So we need something downtown. We needed a new city hall. But what is the responsibility of, let’s say, the voters in all this. Should they have a say in whether they build a new public library for the people? BRY: I think they should have a say if we're going to use taxpayer money. The way it's structured now, we're not. They think we're going to use private money, a state grant, Prop S money, CCDC money, and if they can get a library done with all of those funds I don't think the voters should have to vote on it. PENNER: Well we're going to have to watch and see. Thank-you very much.