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San Diego still years away from building housing on top of libraries

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria gathered with several colleagues last month to make an exciting announcement: The state of California was giving the city $20 million for the design and construction of a new library for Oak Park.

But the new library, long on the wish list of Oak Park residents, will not be the first to demonstrate Gloria's goal of incorporating housing into city facilities.

Gloria announced that initiative in his 2021 state of the city address, saying: "We know that real estate is at a premium in San Diego, which is why I will implement plans to incorporate housing when we redevelop or build new city facilities. This could mean building apartments on top of new libraries and fire stations."


Last February, the City Council passed an ordinance that seeks to make such projects easier. But six months later, the city is unable to name a single library, fire station, recreation center or other public facility where concrete plans are in motion to put the mayor's policy into practice. The Library Master Plan, updated last November, makes no mention of the idea.

Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland said the mayor "has directed city staff to assess all public facilities projects for the potential inclusion of new affordable housing."

"The funding the city received from the state specifically for a new Oak Park Library is on a three-year timeline, and the city will proceed toward the design phase for a library only," Rolland said. "However, the city can explore the feasibility of incorporating homes on that land separately."

Rolland added the city has received a grant to study the feasibility of building housing on public land, with a report due out next year. And he said Gloria is dedicated to incorporating housing into the redevelopment of the Civic Center area downtown. That redevelopment is still in its infancy and has no timeline.

The new Oak Park Library will be built in a separate location, meaning the site of the current library could be made available for housing. But Rolland said he wasn't sure whether the city has plans for the property.


"My guess is that conversation hasn't happened yet," Rolland said.

In other neighborhoods, however, residents aren't waiting for the city to lead the conversation about building housing on top of public facilities.

Earlier this year, Aria Pounaki helped lead a discussion at the North Park Planning Committee on how the city might incorporate housing into a new North Park Library.

"It really started out as a conversation about how to get a new library, and how to get a larger library," Pounaki said. "As the community has been growing over time, there's a common criticism that there isn't enough infrastructure being invested at the same time that we have all this new growth. And so how can we incorporate a way to tackle the housing crisis and create this infrastructure for our new, larger population here in North Park?"

The North Park Library has a lot in common with the old Oak Park Library that's due to be replaced. It's over 50 years old. And it's small, lacking the type of amenities that people need from libraries nowadays like community meeting rooms.

The response Pounaki got from city officials was less than encouraging. North Park is nowhere near the top of the list of neighborhoods due to get new libraries. Other neighborhoods like Oak Park, which has suffered from decades of underinvestment by the city, need them more urgently.

Absent a large charitable donation to kick start the process, Pounaki said, the city isn't likely to redevelop the North Park Library anytime soon. But he hasn't given up on the idea. The library is surrounded by new apartment buildings, and it sits in one of San Diego's most walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods.

"This is a really ideal place to incorporate not only the public good of a library but the public good of maybe affordable housing as well," Pounaki said.

The ordinance passed by the City Council in February requires housing developments built over city facilities to set aside at least 25% of the apartments as affordable housing for low- or moderate-income households. Pounaki said he would prefer 100% affordable housing, but projects that include some market-rate housing would likely require less public subsidy and could potentially happen faster.

Less than a mile away from the North Park Library sits another deteriorating city building: the North Park Community Adult Center. The building is usually closed, but roof damage is visible from the outside and the walls are slowly separating from the foundation.

Stephen Russell, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Housing Federation, said when public assets reach the end of their useful life, it's incumbent on city officials to reimagine them.

"If we have a single-story building, what are we putting above it?" Russell said. "It is a wasted opportunity if we aren't in some manner making use of that space."

There's an extra complication with putting housing above the adult center: It's part of the North Park Community Park. The ordinance passed in February excludes development on land designated as open space, which most parks are.

Russell said he's not sure that blanket prohibition makes sense, especially if a building already exists on parkland and replacing it with a taller building wouldn't require sacrificing any actual green space. And, he said, adding housing to the North Park Community Park might even make it safer.

"There's lots of illicit activities that have gone on in the past," Russell said. "Maybe having more apartments, more eyes on the street, eyes on the green, would actually help the situation."