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Downtown Library One Step Closer, But Far From Reality

(SAN DIEGO) Tuesday supporters of a proposed $185 million downtown library in San Diego’s East Village applauded the City Council’s decision to put the plan out to bid. Though it’s an important step forward toward reality, the future of the long-awaited central library remains uncertain.

Since it was first approved in 1995 the library has gone through several designs, two possible locations and one grant extension. The extension came after a threat by the state to pull a $20 million grant unless the city took action. Most recently, the project was altered to include a 450-student charter school. Because of this addition the San Diego Unified School District will pay $20 million in bond money from the 2008 voter approved Proposition S.

The San Diego Public Library Foundation says it has $37 million in pledges from private donors toward building the project. However the $185 million construction estimate for the new central library was made four years ago, and current fundraising estimates have the city coming up almost $40 million short.

Supporters of the library say it wouldn’t cost the city any additional money from the general fund, but those in opposition disagree.

“I’m certainly not opposed to the concept of the library, but due to the city’s $200 million deficit and the economic instability, I don’t think this is the right time to proceed forward as planned” said Lani Lutar, President & CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “The foundation won’t produce a letter of credit for the pledged money. And should the pledged money not come through San Diego will be forced to make up the difference. Also, the city can’t afford to build the main library because it would increase cities operating costs. You’d have a great downtown library, but at the expense of the branches.”

To date the city of San Diego has spent a little over $17 million in public funds for the project, which currently is an empty lot. The majority of the money spent has gone to the project's chief architects, Rob Wellington Quigley and Tucker Sadler Architects and their subcontractors. The $17 million already spent is part of $80 million of funds from the Center City Development Corporation (CCDC) to help finance construction of the library.

At Tuesday’s meeting three members of the City Council were hesitant to spend any more public funds for bids on the library.

“We are facing 27 percent cuts to all city departments next year,” District One’s Sheri Lightner said. “This central library vision may come at the expense of basic city services upon which all of our constituents rely.”

District Five’s Carl DeMaio proposed shelving the downtown library for now, and re-allocating the $60 million earmarked for the library to repay outstanding debts on Petco Park and the Convention Center.

In a memo from DeMaio to the City Council and Mayor Jerry Sanders dated October 19th, DeMaio says “The potential savings available from abandoning the Downtown Library project display the inaccuracy of the notion that the project has ‘no impact to the General Fund.’ The facts are clear: canceling the Downtown Library provides immediate funds to help close the General Fund budget deficit – and will take pressure off branch libraries that might see cuts and closures in this tough budget year.”

The library ultimately got the six votes needed by the City Council to proceed to the next step. As District Six Councilwoman Donna Frye said at Tuesday’s meeting, “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.”

Putting the plan out to bid will cost San Diegans $500,000 in capital improvement funds - $440,800 will be spent on contract amendments and $59,200 will fund additional costs related to the library.

If constructed, the downtown library would be at the center of the city’s library system, including space for adult literacy programs, art exhibits, technical services, a rare book room and a general resource center including information on the entire region.

At Tuesday’s City Coucil meeting Lutar said “instead of proceeding as planned we need to get creative in how we address our cultural needs. If this can be achieved through the redevelopment of a civic center or the joint use of a general library and city hall, and distribution of books through a warehouse it may be more cost effective. The economic situation requires that we explore all options”

The bids should be concluded by May, 2010, which will allow the City Council to make a final decision regarding the future of the library with specific financial figures.

The proposed site of the downtown library is on a vacant lot at J Street and Park Boulevard in East Village, near Petco Park.