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What to do with the old San Diego Central Library building?

(This article originally appeared HERE on Voice of San Diego.)

At the old Central Library’s June closing ceremony, Mayor Bob Filner talked about the rich history of the space, and said he hadn’t yet decided what to do about the building’s future use, according to retired Judge Robert C. Coates and retired architect Donald Reeves, who were both in attendance.

The old Central Library has been closed to the public since June 9, but is still being occupied by library workers for another month as they transport collections to the new Main Library, which opens Sept. 28.

Richard Crawford, supervisor of special collections at the old Central Library, said that he has not been told what will become of the site.

The Real Estate Assets office, which manages the city of San Diego’s properties, did not comment on whether any plans had been made for the building’s future, and referred questions to the mayor’s office, which did not respond.

There’s no formal blueprint — at least not one that’s been shared with the public — but there are plenty of ideas floating around about what should become of the building.

Old Library, New Ideas

Rumors that the San Diego Family Justice Center, which provides help to victims of family violence, would take over the space began swirling about eight years ago, said Gary Smith of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group. When the rumor was floated, the Family Justice Center was located in an office building downtown. But executive assistant Thelma Belen-Gonzalez shot that idea down.

Belen-Gonzalez said that the Real Estate Assets office did not recommend the space because it was not close enough to public transportation and didn’t have the right amount of square footage. Instead, the Family Justice Center moved into the San Diego Housing Commission building down the street in 2010.

Laura Garrett, chair of the Downtown Community Planning Council, said that ideas from neighborhood groups like hers and the East Village Residents Group have included everything from a gallery space to a food truck-supported dining hall.

On May 22, the East Village Residents Group sent a letter to the mayor in which it strongly opposes using the old library site as a homeless shelter (an idea that has been supported by the Homeless Women Task Force) and instead recommended the following alternatives:

• An entrepreneurial “startup” innovation center

• Art gallery and exhibition space

• Permanent (or interim) home for the YMCA

• A larger or more attractive space for San Diego colleges like the Art Institute of California,San Diego, John Paul Catholic University and New School of Architecture.

Historical architect David Marshall weighed in on the feasibility of some of those options, based on a 2010 walkthrough of the building he completed with Jeff Graham, president of Civic San Diego. He said a gallery could utilize the library’s big, open space and natural light; an educational center would fit the library’s current setting and that the building could easily function as classroom space. Fitting a full-size gym in the space would be difficult, Marshall said, but it could hold some exercise equipment.

Marshall believes that a public use would be an “easier fit” for the building. He said that the space “seems more suited to offices than hotels or residential.”

This Wasn’t Part of the (Community) Plan

In 2010, Graham and Marshall conducted a preliminary walk-through of the building to determine whether it would work as an alternative to what is now Connections Housing, a homeless services center built at the site of the old World Trade Center building.

At the time, Marshall didn’t think the library was ideal for a homeless shelter or for residential use. Graham’s notes from the walk-through include Marshall’s concerns about various compliance issues that would complicate residential use, and discuss the fact that the San Diego downtown community plan designated the space for a neighborhood mixed-use center.

A neighborhood mixed-use center would have its own complications, because such a facility would require that a certain percentage of the street level be used for commercial recreation and entertainment such as restaurants, theaters and retail.

The Downtown Community Plan depicts the ideal neighborhood center in this illustration:

Downtown Community Plan Neighborhood Center

A more recent idea, proposed by the Police Department, involved using the building for evidence storage.

At the May 6 Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Council President Todd Gloria spoke out against the idea. The conversation continued on Twitter.

 

In a May 31 budget memo to the independent budget analyst, Gloria specifically requested that Civic San Diego be tasked with assessing the best alternatives for the building’s use, conduct all necessary environmental studies and solicit community input.

Historic Designation, Cause for Hesitation?

Despite the restrictions of the neighborhood center, other uses could still work, because of the building’s historical designation.

Brad Richter, assistant vice president of planning at Civic San Diego said, “As the existing main library building is a designated historic resource, a conditional use permit may be requested for any uses not typically allowed within a neighborhood mixed-use center, such as a homeless facility, without going through a formal rezoning process.” Richter estimated that the process to obtain the permit would take six to nine months.

While there may be a way around what the space can be used for, the historic designation could still limit alterations to the building.

The Donal Hord literature panels that rest on either side of the library sign and the terrazzo sidewalk with a designed compass and city and state seals are designated historic. Crawford, a former archives director at the Historical Society, said that only those parts of the exterior are historic, not the interior.

“It can be anything four walls and a roof can be,” said Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation.

While historic designation can sometimes be a hindrance to development, Coons believes that the building will not have trouble working around any historic constraints. He said he just hopes no one tries to build a giant tower on top of it.

Beauty or Beast?

Both Gloria and Smith, the Downtown Residents Group president, drew comparisons to the Electra building when discussing the old library’s future.

The Electra building, originally an SDG&E substation, was also designated historic. But a developer worked around the designation, incorporating the bottom exterior portion of the SDG&E building, removing the interior and building up. The building is now a residential high-rise.

Others worry the building will share the same fate as the rotting California Theater, and stay vacant. It too has a historic designation status and a high price tag that has warded off developers. But Marshall, who assessed damage inside the theater five years ago, doesn’t believe that the Old Central Library will have the same problem finding its next life.

What’s Next?

Gloria told VOSD in early July that he would like to see a research committee assembled to compile the full range of options available for the site. Gloria said he had not yet received any recommendations from the mayor’s office regarding the building.

He’s not the only one who wants a study. Smith was skeptical about contemplating a future reuse for the site before a study had been conducted.

“Everyone’s talking about what they would like to see, but without the research, you can’t be sure.”

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Alex Corey is a reporting intern at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at alex.corey@voiceofsandiego.org.