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AROUND THE FOOTHILLS / DOUG SMITH

New Proposal for 2 Libraries May Be Read as a Hopeful Sign

March 21, 1991|DOUG SMITH

It's been more than a year since my last report on the rebuilding of the Echo Park Library, a tale which came to the waffling conclusion, "We'll see."

Though much has happened since then in the bureaucratic and political arenas, the outcome of two years of planning can still pretty much be summed up in the words, "We'll see."

The Los Angeles Public Library Commission still wants to put the new branch in a spot that is cut off from the heart of Echo Park; factionalism over the site is growing louder, and the library is still not close to being built.

The story goes back to the 1920s when the branch library stood at an important crossroad northwest of downtown, at Glendale Boulevard and Temple Street. That structure was demolished after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and the library moved into temporary quarters on a dead-end street backed up to the Hollywood Freeway. That's where it has been since, because the Library Department lacked the money to rebuild.

The sudden acquisition of that money in a successful 1989 bond measure has touched off a tug of war between two communities: Echo Park proper north of the Hollywood Freeway, and the portions of Echo Park south of the freeway, along with Temple-Beaudry and other old neighborhoods along the Temple Boulevard corridor.

Besides the freeway, a chasm of sociopolitical differences separates the two areas.

A huge section of the neighborhoods south of the freeway is slowly being erased--as one house at a time is bought and demolished--so that it can one day rise again as a huge new community called Central City West.

To the north, a lively old business district in Echo Park is struggling to survive against an onslaught of urban pressures, from crime to downtown traffic, that could make it the next Central City West.

Over the past two years, groups in each community have fixed on the Echo Park Branch Library as an institution crucial to their futures.

The most recent development came earlier this month when the Library Commission reaffirmed its decision of January, 1990, that the best site for the new branch would be on a lot at the corner of Temple and Douglas streets, south of the Hollywood Freeway and just a few blocks west of downtown.

The next step is for hearings to be held on an environmental report that has been in the works several months. Then the Library Department could begin negotiations to buy the lot, which is for sale for about $1.2 million, said library spokesman Robert Reagan.

Meanwhile, pressure has continued to mount in favor of another location in Echo Park proper, which the library could get for free. That land belongs to the Los Angeles Unified School District and is currently home to a child-care center consisting of a few bungalows at the Logan Street Elementary School, a block north of Sunset Boulevard. The school district is willing to put up the land for free if the Library Department will build a new children's center adjoining the library.

Initially, the idea was one of several put forward hastily by some of Echo Park's old guard as an alternative to the Temple and Douglas site, which they considered a betrayal of their community.

Since then, the proposal has gained momentum. Board of Education member Jackie Goldberg came out strongly for it.

"It seems everybody wins," she said. "You get an after-school facility for children who would be fervent library users. You get more cluck for the buck for the use of the building."

Councilman John Ferraro, whose district does not extend south of the freeway, also came out for it. The Echo Park Chamber of Commerce hired a bus to carry about 100 residents to the Library Commission meeting earlier this month.

At its recent meeting, the Library Commission voted to go ahead with the site at Temple and Douglas, but then threw a sop to the north side faction by asking the staff to explore the possibility of financing a new library on the Logan School grounds if the school district would help pay for its operation.

Where that leaves it is unclear. A battle still lies ahead for one library. But now two are on the table for discussion, with support apparently growing.

Saying he was asked by residents of Temple-Beaudry for assistance, Dan Niemann, managing director of a partnership that is building 1,800 residential units in Central City West, added his voice to the dialogue. Though Niemann thinks a library should be retained south of the freeway, he said he also supports one at Logan school.

"I can't argue with Jackie Goldberg on that issue," Niemann said. "But we can all argue together that they should somehow find the resources to investigate doing two libraries."

Something about all this at least sounds promising. Could it be that libraries are gaining prestige? What if residents, business owners, school leaders and politicians could get together to demand--and, if necessary, help pay for--libraries? To date, that type of common resolve was possible only for a police substation.

It may be wishful thinking, but "What if?" is a happier way to leave it for now than, "We'll see."

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