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Library With a Future

February 16, 1986

The San Diego mayor's race has not been marked by robust debate on a wide range of local government issues, but all three leading candidates have come forth with interesting ideas concerning what to do about a new central library.

Until recently, the thinking about replacing the obsolete 32-year-old main library on E Street has centered on placing a new library somewhere in the downtown area. But last month, Sears announced that it is closing its Hillcrest store, prompting suggestions that the building, with its 1,100-car parking lot, be purchased by the city and converted into a library.

Councilman and mayoral candidate Bill Cleator was quick to endorse the proposal, saying it could save millions of dollars from the $40 million to $54 million estimated for construction of a downtown library. Cleator noted that the Sears company hopes to do something with the property in short order, and that progress on a new library decision so far has come slowly.

Candidates Maureen O'Connor and Floyd Morrow also have put forth ideas about the library, Morrow's being the more exotic. He proposes replacing the traditional stacks of books and checkout procedure with a visionary system that takes advantage of the tremendous amount of information that can be stored on small laser discs. Morrow argues that if his idea were followed, the space savings would be so significant that a new library building would not be needed.

O'Connor's proposal falls somewhere between Morrow's desire to use 21st-Century technology and Cleator's desire to use an empty 1950s building. She would like to see a private developer build the library in exchange for being given the air rights to build housing above it. This mixed-use concept has been used for public facilities in other cities, notably New York's Museum of Modern Art, which sold its air rights for a 53-story apartment building.

The O'Connor proposal is similar to that advanced by Councilman Mike Gotch, though Gotch has favored building the new library near City Hall. O'Connor prefers to raze the E Street structure and rebuild there.

Of the three ideas, we think O'Connor's is closest to the mark. The Sears proposal has the attraction of parking and a lower cost, but it could prove to be a penny-wise, pound-foolish saving. Above all else, the new library should be large enough and modern enough to be serviceable well into the next century. It's hard to see the Sears store, which is the same age as the existing library and about 100,000 square feet smaller than what has been proposed for a new facility, meeting those fundamental criteria.

And, though the bottom-line cost might be less than a new structure, it might be harder to pay for without having the tax-increment financing and developer participation of the downtown plans.

Given the potential savings, the City Council has an obligation to explore the Sears option. But it should not be rushed into buying the property unless it clearly meets the community's needs for the next generation of library users as well as for today.

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