"My position is we need both: a new downtown library and more financial support for the branches," said Wear, who had favored the Kettner site until it lost support from other councilmembers. "If I were a betting man right now, I would bet between the ballpark district or the library's existing site," he said, noting attention has shifted from the western side of downtown to the east. A year ago, the city manager spent $29,500 of taxpayers' money for an earthquake analysis of the existing library at 820 E Street and the Padres' suggested location. A proposal to enlarge the existing library, offered by San Diego entrepreneur Steve Considine, would connect it to a new structure on the 700 block of E Street. "City council is committed to looking at all the sites," Wear said. "Councilmembers haven't coalesced behind any one location."
Councilmember and mayoral candidate George Stevens said, "I support a new main library, but my preference is we build up our branch libraries. My preference on the location is at 12th and C, near City College." That location, suggested in the past, because it could serve more students and possibly be eligible for financial support from the community college, was not among sites recently studied by library commissioners.
Other councilmembers weren't eager to discuss a new library during the holidays, but some of their staff employees privately expressed doubts that Golding could garner enough votes to proceed. One said the city can't finance a library for another four or five years, given its other construction projects. Another warned the upcoming expansion of Brown Field airport needs millions of dollars, too.
Procrastination has resulted in the loss of Barker Pacific Group's proposal to build a library across B Street from the city's Kettner parcel. The Los Angeles developer recently dropped its option to buy land for the project -- land that might also have been used for expansion purposes had the city picked Kettner, which was rejected by library commissioners as too small.
To push her Sisyphean burden over the top, some speculate, Golding would need to reduce the library's cost -- perhaps with a large donation from the Padres, a scenario already being explored. "We've discussed private financing of the library with the Padres," Madigan said. "It's hard to get serious with those discussions when the ballpark isn't certain and until they know we would put the library there." But that doesn't necessarily mean the ballpark district is the preferred location, Madigan cautioned. "I don't know which site the mayor favors. I don't think there's any site that's favored by city council."
Talk of placing the Children's Museum of San Diego, which might relocate, near a new downtown library has circulated city hall and the East Village for many months. Padres executives fueled that idea at meetings of the San Diego Board of Library Commissioners by describing the ballpark district's "Family Cultural Zone," which, they said, could accommodate a library as well as the Children's Museum. In recent months, a top official at the San Diego Rescue Mission, which operates a men's shelter across J Street from the Padres' proposed library site, heard from a real estate agent that the city is interested in mission property for the museum.
One city hall insider theorized the Padres' pitch for books is a strategy to retain Golding's support for the stadium. "The mayor's favorite site is Kettner, but there's no support for it. Now she wants to fast-track it in the ballpark district," the source said. "I think city council will site the library, but they'll leave the financing for another council to decide."
Former library commissioner Jim Abbott said that after attending many public meetings at Golding's request from 1993 through 1995, he became convinced Mission Valley would be a superior location for a replacement library. "The majority of people said, 'Don't put this library downtown.' They wanted tons of free parking....
"The fact that this thing is appearing on ballpark maps, the fact we can't get agreement on a site, the fact that council won't listen to the library commission or librarians shows that the city council isn't serious about the library. Unfortunately, like O'Connor, Golding is attempting the library at the end of her tenure," Abbott said, referring to former mayor Maureen O'Connor's 1991 proposal to create a new downtown library at the former Lane Field site. "The political reality is, Golding is a lame duck. O'Connor was a lame duck. It didn't happen."
A new library downtown has become such a political baseball that some library advocates prefer not to discuss it.
Friends of San Diego Public Library initially voted to endorse library commissioners' recommendation of the Catellus plan. A month or two later, Friends neutralized its position, voting to support a new library without specifying a site, said Jack Winer, president of the nonprofit volunteer organization. "We didn't want to cause any controversy over the site," he explained.
The Friends' political action committee, Citizens in Action for Local Libraries, or CALL, is channeling its energies elsewhere. Committee president Alberta Waggoner said, "We feel it's so important to move forward."
To that end, Citizens in Action for Local Libraries has drafted a voters' initiative that would provide more money to operate and maintain San Diego's existing 34 libraries. "There's no construction money or capital funding in our proposal," Waggoner stressed. The initiative would require the city to dedicate 6 percent of its general revenue funds to the library system, an increase from about 4 percent currently. The increase would occur gradually, in increments of one-half of a percentage point a year -- equaling about $3 million annually.
If the committee collects 60,000 signatures by summer, the "People's Library Budget Ordinance" would appear on the November ballot. The measure should fare better than last year's failed Proposition L, Waggoner predicted, because it doesn't call for tax increases. While Proposition L was a countywide measure involving eight library systems and requiring approval of two-thirds of voters, the People's Library Budget Ordinance is targeting only San Diego's library system and requires a simple majority of city voters to pass.
Although Proposition L's goal was to improve existing libraries and build new branches, Waggoner said, some voters thought its purpose was to raise money for a new library downtown.
Dick Hanley, president of Friends of Central Library, one of 34 chapter organizations, said discussing a new main library is an "exercise in futility" -- much like Sisyphus's task of pushing a rock uphill. "I'm not the one to talk to. I think they ought to build the new library next to the new airport."