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The Old Central Library's Next Chapter is Still Being Written

City officials are finally deciding what’s next for the old central library, an iconic building that’s sat empty since its replacement opened in 2013.

North Park architect Dan Smith walked through the old central library Saturday, baby strapped to his chest, hoping to score a deal on furniture or other relics. He didn’t have much luck.

“Stuff is kind of beat up,” he said, eyeing a row of grimy wooden kids’ chairs.

Smith was there for an auction meant to clean out what’s left in the building. The library that used to be there closed in 2013 when its replacement opened.

Now, city officials are finally trying to decide what’s next for the iconic downtown building.

None of the folks I talked to at the auction knew what might be in store, but they all had some suggestions.

“I like to see old things stay the way they are,”said Donna Fortin, a vintage resale shop owner. “I would hate to see this beautiful building razed and something new and ugly put up.”

Paula Johnson said she, too, hoped the city would keep the building intact.

“I just love this place,” she said. “I thought maybe I might buy a little chair or something, just a memento to help me remember it. I really like the building.”

Johnson said she didn’t know what was planned but hoped it could be a community center or affordable housing.

“Like a theater or a museum or something really cool like that because it’s a beautiful building,” she said. “Or it could also be low-income housing. I’d love to live at the library. I mean, how cool would that be?”

Vince Bayard made his way through rows of empty bookshelves.

“My opinion would be that the city should lease it to a developer, but lease it with restrictions on the building,” Bayard said. “They should keep the historic facade in front and put a high-rise on back.”

Since the library closed there’s been plenty of ideas for the future of the building. The San Diego Police Department wanted to use it for evidence storage. Others suggest turning it into a homeless shelter.

The building is now officially up for sale or lease and Civic San Diego, the city-owned agency that regulates development downtown, is deciding which proposals are most promising.

If the agency had its way, the building would be turned into a hub for tech startups and other small business innovators – an idea Councilman Todd Gloria pushed in the past.

“That is the dream scenario,” said Civic project manager Sherry Brooks. “Something to really activate the space and something that advances the vision for downtown – for this innovation technology growth area.”

Civic started the development process last year when it put out a call for ideas. Five groups responded, including the San Diego Unified School District, which proposed turning it into a health and science-focused high school. Entrepreneur group Startup San Diego proposed making it a co-working space for startup founders, engineers, scientists and other creative people.

Other ideas included turning the library into an arts center, developing a mixed-use high-rise or using it as a public elementary school focused on nutrition and health education.

In February, Civic pulled those ideas together and formally requested developers to make their proposals.

“We’re looking for the kind of project that’s really going to bring the kind of mixed-use, vibrant catalytic effect to that part of downtown,” said Civic president Reese Jarrett. “But the building itself is in bad shape and needs about $82 million in upgrades and replacements of aging systems.”

In its request for proposals, Civic made clear that it really likes the idea of a startup hub, but it’s open to any project that works financially and maintains the building’s historical significance. Developers will need to maintain the library’s historic façade, including two sculptures by Donal Hord that are part of the city’s public art collection, and the terrazzo sidewalk out front.

Brooks said Civic didn’t commit to a specific vision because of how expensive it is to resurrect the building and protect its historical elements. It forced them to let developers pursue whatever strategy they can make work.

Developers had to respond to Civic’s request by June 10, but proposals won’t be made public until fall, when the agency forms a committee to recommend a developer and project to the City Council.

Rex Edhlund, who opened one of downtown’s first-ever co-working spaces and ran it for seven years before recently selling it, said the big risk he sees is that the beloved building becomes yet another mixed-use building with condos on the top floors and commercial space on the ground.

“The problem is that half of the condos downtown sit empty most of the time – a lot of the people who own them are just part-time residents,” he said. “And then we end up with not enough foot traffic to support the restaurant that will probably open and then close in the commercial space beneath the condos.”

Fabrice Gould, a member of the entrepreneur group Startup San Diego, said he hopes someone proposed a startup hub project.

“A physical presence is really what will accelerate San Diego’s innovation economy,” Gould said. “Where do you send visiting tech entrepreneurs and investors when they come to San Diego? I was hoping the library would really help facilitate that.”

Developer David Malmuth, whose I.D.E.A. District is trying to develop a cluster of East Village properties into projects geared toward innovation and design, said other cities often give direct financial support to startup hubs like the one Civic wants.

“The reality is that startups don’t have a lot of money so if that use makes sense, I would think it would have to be some sort of a private-public partnership,” Malmuth said. “Innovation districts typically start with cheap space. … I understand the government has limited money, but if you really look at what ends up being catalytic for innovation districts, it usually ends up being a public-private investment.”

Offering city financial support for the space, though, isn’t what the city has in mind, Brooks said.

“That wasn’t considered,” she said. “The city hadn’t thought about putting any money into this. It was more, what is the city going to get out of this, either funding or public benefit or both?”

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