When Charles Harrington Elster contemplates the task of building a new library in downtown San Diego, the Greek myth of Sisyphus comes to mind. For his crimes of murder, gossip, and greed, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain. Each time he reaches the top, the boulder rolls to the bottom, requiring the former king to resume his labor.
Groundbreaking for a library seemed imminent two years ago, in February 1998, after the city had spent more than $4 million of taxpayers' money on architectural plans, engineering studies, and land bordered by Kettner Boulevard and India, B, and C Streets near the downtown railroad station. With the total cost estimated to surpass $100 million, the San Diego City Council halted further work, balking at the expense of one of Mayor Susan Golding's top priorities.
About a year ago, Golding's request that Elster and other members of the San Diego Board of Library Commissioners study several sites revived her goal -- and that of previous mayors -- to replace the city's cramped and antiquated main library at 820 E Street. Because he regarded the Kettner Boulevard parcel as inadequate, Elster said, he welcomed the chance to explore other options. Elster became concerned, however, that special interests might dictate the location, given that Padres executives suggested the library be built within two blocks of their proposed baseball stadium in East Village.
After evaluating five possibilities, library commissioners, who serve as advisors, recommended the plan of Catellus Development Corp. to build a library over the railroad tracks, near the city's now $5 million investment on Kettner. Elster, an English-language scholar and author, said the stadium setting -- likely to generate traffic jams, parking shortages, beer-drinking crowds, and noise -- did not seem appropriate. Casting a dissenting vote was the Board of Library Commissioners chairman, Mike Madigan, who happens to work in Golding's office as the city's ballpark consultant. Madigan said he favors the Padres' plan because East Village needs more than just a stadium -- what he calls an "activity center" -- to revitalize the neighborhood.
In April, following the library commissioners' recommendation, a flurry of news reports indicated City Council was poised to decide -- that is, pick a site and launch the financing. Once again, councilmembers blanched at the cost, then estimated at $130 million, and questioned the necessity of creating an architectural showpiece downtown -- what would become a domed monument to the mayor -- when some of the city's 34 libraries have leaking roofs, worn carpets, dreary interiors, low staffing, and need space for new technology and additional books.
Since April, lack of council action -- or even discussion -- about the library has altered Elster's image of Sisyphus's punishment; the boulder now resembles a giant baseball.
"The ballpark comes first right now," Elster said, echoing staff employees of the city, library, and councilmembers. "There's a general feeling around city hall that if you start doing some major development in some place other than the ballpark district, then that could have an adverse impact on the ballpark. There's a building that looks a lot like the library on the master plan of the ballpark."
This month, council is expected to commit $300 million of taxpayers' money to help build a stadium, but whether it will ever spend a dime for a new central library remains uncertain.
Word that Golding plans to ask city council to select a library site in late January or February isn't a cause of great excitement among library employees or volunteers, who shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, shake their heads, or laugh at the prospect. Some are resigned to the possibility that if a library were built, it would sit near the stadium. Some of the Padres' promotional and presentation maps show a building labeled "Library" on J Street between 11th and 12th and a plaza called "Library Circle." At one meeting of library commissioners, team owner John Moores offered to change the ballpark district's name to "ballpark-library district."
"A lot of us have given up keeping up with it because different proposals get shot down," said librarian Catherine Greene. "Probably the only way to get a library is to link up with the stadium. That would bring in two audiences. With the Padres, instead of divide and conquer, it's gather and conquer."
With at least half of the book collection stored in the basement, the main library has been critically short of space for 20 years. And yet it serves as a distribution hub to 33 branches. At not quite 145,000 square feet, the 1954 building is less than half the size of its counterparts in comparable cities. In recent years, the advent of computers and more books has eliminated research areas where people used to read and study.
Literature supervisor John Vanderby finds it ironic that the library's fate appears tied to the Padres' new stadium. "Personally, I don't feel a public library should be with sports and entertainment," he said, "but if that's the solution, we'll go for it." While the ballpark represents a glimmer of hope for a replacement library, Vanderby said, it could also result in further delay, given the ballpark proposal is bogged down in lawsuits, cost overruns, environmental concerns, and other controversies.
Some of the stadium's most enthusiastic supporters are more optimistic about a new library. However, they agree it will be a tough sell to a city council that has postponed the project in the past and is now wavering at the city's increased financial commitment to the stadium. The city's contribution recently ballooned 33 percent to nearly $300 million from what was supposed to be a $225 million cap. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which opposed library construction two years ago, remains skeptical that hotel-room taxes can pay for unsold Chargers tickets, the Convention Center expansion, a new baseball stadium, and a central library.
"I know that issue is out there," councilmember and mayoral candidate Byron Wear said regarding concerns about whether the city can afford a new library. "But we have the financing in place for it." About a year ago, city council approved, in concept, a $130 million financial package, consisting of $100 million in bonds, $15 million in donations, and $15 million in Centre City Development Corporation funds. Reluctance to construct a library over the railroad tracks under the Catellus plan and some councilmembers' preference to spend money on branches delayed further action, Wear said.