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.
"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."