Should San Diego's proposed $185 million main public library ever be built, it will be built on a foundation of ifs.
If the city's library foundation can raise $85 million from private interests, and if the city's redevelopment agency comes through with an additional $80 million, and if the state keeps its promise of another $20 million, and—the biggest, scariest if of all—the cost of the project doesn't skyrocket any higher than it already has, then San Diegans will finally get a public library to be proud of. If the City Council green-lights the whole deal, of course.
Who could be pessimistic about that plan?
Not Mel Katz, who's charged with raising private funds for the project. Chairman of the San Diego Public Library Commission and vice chairman of the city's Library Foundation, Katz is confident that success is just around the corner.
“We're making what I think is excellent progress,” he said. “I'm very optimistic. This project is definitely going forward.”
Optimism is something Katz has in abundance. He dismisses questions about the many challenges to his plan as if the obstacles were already cleared; he speaks lovingly of funds yet to be raised as if the cash were already in his pocket. Like Santa Claus, Katz has an indomitable spirit—he just knows he can make all this happen. What he doesn't have is the actual money for it.
San Diego is $85 million short on its plan to build a $185 million main library downtown. The shortfall has put a serious crimp in one of the city's longest-standing and maddeningly elusive civic goals.
City officials have been talking about the need to replace San Diego's 53-year-old main library since 1976, when the building was only 22 years old but already woefully inadequate. Over the decades, City Hall commissioned 45 separate studies on the feasibility of building a bigger and better facility—all dying on the vine, if you don't include the current plan, which Katz is certain will bear fruit.
This latest effort was born in 2001 as the lovechild of the City Council and Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown redevelopment agency. A site was chosen—between 11th and Park avenues and J and K streets—and in April 2005, the council, at the urging of then-mayor Dick Murphy, voted to spend $6.5 million for architectural drawings and site preparation.
If Katz's feelings for the plan can be called optimistic, that's nothing compared to the plan itself: a 297,581-square-foot, nine-story behemoth sporting a 350-seat auditorium, 400-seat reading room, outdoor plaza and café, 36,630-square-foot teen center, 9,646-square-foot children's library, technology center and three-story domed reading room.
The price tag? A mere $150 million, or a little less than 100 times the cost to build the original main library in 1954. To pay for this civic wonder, city officials cobbled together a plan in which the CCDC would cough up $80 million, the state would provide $20 million in the form of a Proposition 14 grant and the Library Foundation would beg and plead for the rest.
Armed with $6.5 million in starter dough and brimming over with “can-do” spirit, city officials hired a project overseer, Turner Construction Co., and a pair of highly respected architectural firms, Rob Wellington Quigley and Tucker Sadler Architects. Drawings for what would be the crown jewel in the city's 35-library system were rendered—rendered so well, apparently, that Katz referred to them no less than six times when interviewed (“Have you seen the drawings? They're beautiful. They're more than 2-feet high!”).
All was proceeding well and might have continued in that direction were it not for that pesky Three Gorges Dam project in China, which sucked up so much building material over there that construction prices skyrocketed here, and for the even peskier problem of San Diego's pension-fund debacle, which wrecked the city's finances just as it was committing itself to the purchase of a crown jewel. The last time anyone bothered to check on the projected cost of the library—in 2005, right around the time Katz got his first look at those lovely artists' renderings—it had risen to $185 million. A county grand jury report released in May of this year put the cost at nearly $200 million, though Katz says that figure is incorrect.
So what does a cash-strapped city do when its pet project has jumped in price by $35 million seemingly overnight? Current Mayor Jerry Sanders and the council, not wanting to be the ones to deprive residents of their 3-story domed reading room, simply directed the library foundation to raise $85 million instead of the original $50 million. “The mayor has made it very clear he's in favor of this project, but only if we do it without city funds, raising taxes or going to the bond market,” Katz says. “The City Council gave us the marching orders to go out and fund-raise.”
That's a staggeringly bold vote of confidence in a municipal booster organization's fund-raising abilities—so bold, in fact, that City Hall apparently feels nothing further need be said on the matter. The mayor and the council members—those who bothered to respond to CityBeat, anyway—deferred requests for interviews to District 7 Councilman Jim Madaffer, who's been City Hall's point person on the topic of libraries. Madaffer didn't return multiple calls.
Alan Gin, professor of economics at the University of San Diego, described the project's financing scheme as potentially workable, if risky and not particularly wise.
“It sounds like a big portion of the finances is coming from the CCDC, which is not as bad as taking on the whole burden,” Gin said. “The city is in a difficult financial situation, so I'm not sure about the economic wisdom of such a big project. When you're having financial difficulties, you usually don't want to get involved in major purchases. If this were a private individual with money problems, he probably wouldn't go out and buy a new car.”
For San Diego resident Bonni Graham, the situation is just another reason to feel frustrated with City Hall. “Fundamentally, it's just embarrassing that we don't have a good library,” says Graham, a 41-year-old CEO of a local documentation-services provider. “But I think we can probably have a very decent library for a lot less than $185 million. I don't think we need a $185 million library. Reevaluating the budgets for this project may not be a bad idea.”
But, according to Katz, that's just the problem: The city can't reevaluate the project, and not just because CCDC has already spent $16 million and counting getting it this far. Under state rules, he notes, the library project has to constantly be moving forward or the city will lose its $20 million grant. This would explain why Katz launched into a discussion about semantics when asked about reports that the project is on hold.
“There's never been a decision to put the project on hold,” he says. “If we put it on hold, if we use that terminology, we would lose the state's $20 million. That money is there until December '08, as long as we continue to show progress.”
But if the project isn't on hold, perhaps Katz should have mentioned that to George Biagi, a spokesperson for Mayor Sanders, who says, “It is on hold, based on the ability to raise funds.” And someone really should have sent a memo to architect Tucker Sadler, which in September released a fact sheet on the library describing the project as “on hold.”Asked about the fact sheet and Biagi's comment, Katz said, “I think they just used the wrong terminology.”
No, Katz is 100-percent confident that the library will be built, just as he's 100-percent mum on how the foundation plans to come up with all that money it has to raise. When asked how much has been pledged so far, he would only point to a previously disclosed figure of $3 million—$2 million from San Diego Union-Tribune CEO David Copley and $1 million from the Hervey Family Foundation. That $3 million figure was disclosed in April 2005.
“We're in the quiet phase of our fundraising,” Katz says. “The whole idea of quiet fundraising is that until we have $50 million in pledges, we don't want to be announcing things.”
In other words, Katz says he has an $82 million trick up his sleeve. He assures that come December 2008, the deadline for San Diego to show its financial cards or risk losing the state's money, he'll walk up to the City Council dais and reveal $50 million worth of charitable pledges—the amount he says the foundation must raise before going public with its fundraising efforts. Just don't ask him how he'll do it, or how he'll raise the other $35 million.