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Library closure idea prompts outcry

Long Beach faces a budget gap, and the building needs costly repairs. Locals want a replacement plan first.

August 12, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A Long Beach City Hall proposal to close its main library has triggered a backlash from downtown residents and their supporters, including author Ray Bradbury, who accused the port town of being "at war with the printed word and books."

"Tell City Hall NO to the threatened closure!" Bradbury implored in a letter published last week in the Press-Telegram. "Long Beach residents and children deserve nothing less than access to a downtown library with ready access to books and programs to help them achieve their goals."

A few weeks ago, Bradbury said, he was in Long Beach to mourn the pending closure of Acres of Books, a cultural landmark that had been open since 1934. He said the store's closure combined with the loss of the library -- the second-largest civic library in Los Angeles County -- would effectively "remove access to over 1.5 million books from one square mile of the city!"

Long Beach City Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal, whose district embraces the 133,000-square-foot structure and the estimated 27,000 children from low-income families it serves, did not argue with any of that.

"The proposal is completely unacceptable," she said. "It makes me think that Long Beach City Manager Pat West and possibly Mayor Bob Foster do not understand the core mission of a civic library."

A group called Save Our Long Beach Public Library is working to drum up public opposition to the proposal.

Then there was Joanna Plascencia, 16, who on Friday was passing out fliers in front of the library's main entrance that read, "Don't close our main library to balance the budget."

"The main library is one of the only things left in this city that's free," she said.

Foster, who favors the closure plan, has repeatedly told people that he is an avid reader and longtime supporter of the Long Beach library system. He asked for patience.

"Everybody needs to take a step back and get the facts right," he said.

Facing a general fund deficit of $17 million, city officials want to close the main library, which costs about $4 million a year to operate. Some of the money would be used to expand services at its 11 branches, but about $1.8 million would be saved.

City Hall officials said they hoped to soon schedule a meeting to take suggestions from the public. They also plan to explain the proposal, which now includes the possibility of opening a temporary library downtown.

The decision on the main library's future rests with the nine-member City Council.

On Aug. 5, five members said they wouldn't support the building's closure unless there was a comprehensive plan to replace it. Such a plan would hinge on an upcoming ballot measure.

In November, voters will be presented with a $571-million infrastructure improvement bond measure that would include about $20 million for a new main library. Where it would be built is unclear, but Long Beach's Civic Center Plaza is one possibility.

The 490,000-volume main library was built in 1977 in an architectural style known as brutalism, which is characterized by expanses of exposed unfinished construction materials including concrete and wooden beams.

The building, which once featured a public park on the roof, has not aged well. A recent study determined that it would cost at least $10 million to make it safe for continued operation.

Ceiling tiles and plumbing fixtures leak when it rains. One of the building's elevators was broken for two years.

The park on the roof has fallen into disrepair, its empty concrete planters and broken fountains adding so much stress to the walls below that it is off limits to the public. Engineers have warned that there are places on the roof where someone could fall through to the floor below.

Beyond all that, the library on Ocean Boulevard has become a hangout for homeless people who rely on its toilets.

Critics are demanding that city officials prove they need to close the library this year without first developing a plan to address the needs of taxpayers and library patrons.

Sara Pillet, executive director of the Long Beach Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising funds for the main library, agreed the building is in bad shape. But Pillet, like many other residents, said she believed the proposal had "created more questions than answers."

"What if the bond measure fails? What if they decide to build the new library someplace else?" she asked. "They are offering a temporary site, but what will it look like? How big will it be? Where will it be located?"

Libraries across the country have had to curtail hours or services as municipalities struggle to balance budgets.

"It's depressing whenever we hear about proposals like these," said Carmila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Assn. "A friend of mine works at the Long Beach Library, and she loves to talk about the lives it has uplifted over the past 20 years."

The controversy is similar to one that engulfed Salinas Public Library, where Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck's first literary study was nurtured. That library was set to close in 2005 because the budget-strapped local government could not afford to pay for the system's three facilities. Eventually it was rescued by a grass-roots fundraising campaign.

In Long Beach, Foster said, this much was clear: "The new library will be a lot smaller than the existing one."

"The one we have now is almost as big as the Union Bank building across the street," he said. "Modern libraries, given their access to the Internet and other technologies, are smaller and more efficient."

City Hall officials tried to counter the negative publicity generated by the proposal by circulating a computer-generated image of a freeway exit sign that said, "Long Beach (We don't hate books) Use 7th Street."


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