Oct. 2 2013 08:05 AM

We're glad they came up with the money

editorial
Photo by David Rolland

On June 28, 2010, the San Diego City Council was asked to allow construction of a new central library to proceed in East Village. The problem was that the project was $32.5 million short and up against a hard deadline. If the council approved it, and if private donors didn't eventually fill the funding gap, the money would have to come out of the city's general fund, which pays for basic services and is perpetually stretched thin.

Predictable yes votes were cast by Kevin Faulconer, Todd Gloria, Tony Young, Marti Emerald and Ben Hueso. Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio voted no. But part of the action taken that day—extending the duration of the contract between the city and the architects—required six of the eight council members to say yes. Donna Frye, known for being cautious when it came to approving projects with shaky funding sources, cast the swing vote that gave the new library the green light.

We reacted at the time by saying that "city leaders just backed a reckless gamble with precious taxpayer dollars."

"Such a wager flies in the face of the rhetoric we've been fed during the six years since the city's crushing employee-pension deficit became common knowledge," we lectured. "Mayor Jerry Sanders continues to tell us that he doesn't and won't make the mistakes of the past, yet he pushed the City Council to approve a project that's only 82-percent funded while assuring the public that no general-purpose tax dollars would be spent."

However, we said we supported the project in concept, and we also wondered in that editorial if perhaps extremely generous philanthropists Irwin and Joan Jacobs had signaled to council members that they wouldn't let the library become an empty shell, giving Frye the confidence to say yes. Frye later named community booster Judith Harris, the then-chair of the San Diego Library Foundation who spearheaded the fundraising campaign with business executive Mel Katz, as someone she trusted completely to raise the rest of the money.

Well, Harris, Katz, the Jacobses and others came through. Turns out Frye and five other council members were right to trust them. According to the Library Foundation, of the donors who helped close that $32.5-million gap, $10 million came in a matching donation from the Jacobses (on top of $20 million in earlier contributions). Other big back-end donors included Price Family Charities ($5 million) and philanthropist Darlene Marcos Shiley ($1.2 million, on top of an earlier $1 million).

In all, more than 3,000 private donors ponied up $74.9 million, including $10 million for the first five years in operating costs. The rest of the $184.9 million in construction funding came from government sources: $80 million in redevelopment revenue, $20 million from a state library grant (which would have been lost if not for the June 2010 council vote) and $20 million from San Diego Unified School District, which will run a charter high school on the sixth and seventh floors.

The Jacobses and the Hervey Family Fund have guaranteed that the city's general fund won't be charged more than it was for operations with the old Downtown library during the first five years of the new library. After that, the city will have to make up the difference each year. This year, the new library's operating budget will be $2.5 million higher than the budget for the final year of the old library.

So, those are the numbers. All in all, thanks to the generosity of the donors, this is a very good deal for the citizens of San Diego. We took a tour last week of the new structure, designed by architect Rob Wellington Quigley, and it's spectacular, from the huge, open-air lobby to the eighth-floor, domed reading room with the terrific view and the whimsical, all-blue, repurposed furniture. There will certainly be aspects of the structure, its layout and its design with which to quibble, but, from a broad view, we find it to be a beautiful, living monument to literacy and education and a lovely—hopefully vibrant—indoor-outdoor community gathering space in a city desperate for active public squares.

In a September 2008 editorial, we dreamed of locating the new library, along with a new City Hall and a grand public park, at the waterfront on Navy- Broadway Complex land, but the East Village site will do fine. Now, we just need a new City Hall: a beautiful, living monument to democracy and another lovely—hopefully vibrant—indoor-outdoor community gathering space.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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