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.


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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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    This article relates to: Bob Filner, Government, Land Use, Neighborhood Growth, Neighborhoods, News, Share

    Written by Alex Corey

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

    20 comments
    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink

    I was taken aback by the statement quoted in the article that the old central library building is too far from public transportation. It's one block from the bus lines on Broadway and two blocks from the trolley line (well, maybe three or four blocks to a station).

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    I was taken aback by the statement quoted in the article that the old central library building is too far from public transportation. It's one block from the bus lines on Broadway and two blocks from the trolley line (well, maybe three or four blocks to a station).

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin

    Can it be used for anything if it doesn't meet building codes, Safety codes, fire codes, or earthquake codes? If not what kind of money would it take just to bring it up to code let alone any reconfiguration.? Ideas are great to banter about but this has all the earmarks of a rat hole in which we will pour big money.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Can it be used for anything if it doesn't meet building codes, Safety codes, fire codes, or earthquake codes? If not what kind of money would it take just to bring it up to code let alone any reconfiguration.? Ideas are great to banter about but this has all the earmarks of a rat hole in which we will pour big money.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw

    Let’s see, the city paid big money for a lot on which to build it’s new library, about 3 times larger than the current one, which library staff said was literally falling apart. Then, we cobbled together redevelopment funds, a state grant, 20 mil from the school district to provide a charter high school the public didn’t realize it needed, and a fund raising drive for the remainder. You could even get your name on a restroom for the right size contribution. Suddenly this dilapidated old library is now an historic site? What will restoration cost and where does the money come from? Come on, let's sell the thing and recoup some badly needed funds for the city.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith

    Bill: The city owned the land the new library is being built on. For years it was the Police Dept. police car garage.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw

    I stand corrected on the property. I was thinking of the property Susan Golding bought near the train depot. My comment still stands: Get rid of the damn thing and sell off a lot of other idle property the city has simply been sitting on. I'm tired of storm drains leaking, police understaffing, streets that tear my car apart and....

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink

    Bill - from the article: "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."

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Let’s see, the city paid big money for a lot on which to build it’s new library, about 3 times larger than the current one, which library staff said was literally falling apart. Then, we cobbled together redevelopment funds, a state grant, 20 mil from the school district to provide a charter high school the public didn’t realize it needed, and a fund raising drive for the remainder. You could even get your name on a restroom for the right size contribution. Suddenly this dilapidated old library is now an historic site? What will restoration cost and where does the money come from? Come on, let's sell the thing and recoup some badly needed funds for the city.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I stand corrected on the property. I was thinking of the property Susan Golding bought near the train depot. My comment still stands: Get rid of the damn thing and sell off a lot of other idle property the city has simply been sitting on. I'm tired of storm drains leaking, police understaffing, streets that tear my car apart and....

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    Bill: The city owned the land the new library is being built on. For years it was the Police Dept. police car garage.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Bill - from the article: "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."

    Tegan Glasheen
    Tegan Glasheen

    If the city owns the building and is elsewhere leasing office space (even with the Hughes-brokered good deal), why not turn it into city offices? Would its sale price or rental revenue beat the savings of free space?

    Tegan Glasheen
    Tegan Glasheen subscribermember

    If the city owns the building and is elsewhere leasing office space (even with the Hughes-brokered good deal), why not turn it into city offices? Would its sale price or rental revenue beat the savings of free space?

    Don Blucher
    Don Blucher

    Seems to me the "Mixed-use" idea is one appropriate option. A "San Diego City Center" or other such name. Including cafes, dry cleaners, a bakery, shops, grocery, a Museum of San Diego History, a small SDPD storefront, safe places sprinkled throughout to sit, read, converse, and get out of the heat or cold. As the City increases the downtown density with all the adjacent high-rises, residents need interesting, vibrant places to "hang out", run errands, and , generally, enjoy the best that this city has to offer. The State receives rents and revenues from Old Town State Park. Why can't our City receive similar benefits from long-term lessees in this building?? Seems like productive, responsible urban planning and management to me.

    Don Blucher
    Don Blucher subscriber

    Seems to me the "Mixed-use" idea is one appropriate option. A "San Diego City Center" or other such name. Including cafes, dry cleaners, a bakery, shops, grocery, a Museum of San Diego History, a small SDPD storefront, safe places sprinkled throughout to sit, read, converse, and get out of the heat or cold. As the City increases the downtown density with all the adjacent high-rises, residents need interesting, vibrant places to "hang out", run errands, and , generally, enjoy the best that this city has to offer. The State receives rents and revenues from Old Town State Park. Why can't our City receive similar benefits from long-term lessees in this building?? Seems like productive, responsible urban planning and management to me.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    Sell it and be done with it. It's not special in any way, just another old tired not very attractive building. Still better looking than the gaudy faberge egg that replaced it though, that thing is an eyesore.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Sell it and be done with it. It's not special in any way, just another old tired not very attractive building. Still better looking than the gaudy faberge egg that replaced it though, that thing is an eyesore.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    C'mon. This is San Diego, a city with no sense of history. They will bulldoze the old building and replace it with a cheaply constructed high-rise apartment or condo tower, just like they do everywhere else. If you're new to town, just look and see how many buildings built more than 75 years ago that are still standing today. Nothing gets in the way of quick developer profits in this city.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    C'mon. This is San Diego, a city with no sense of history. They will bulldoze the old building and replace it with a cheaply constructed high-rise apartment or condo tower, just like they do everywhere else. If you're new to town, just look and see how many buildings built more than 75 years ago that are still standing today. Nothing gets in the way of quick developer profits in this city.