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Ambitious new San Diego library faces a funding shortfall

The nine-story, $185-million downtown structure is halfway complete but needs an additional $26 million. Critics say the city — famous for its aversion to any form of taxation — is relying too much on private donations.

October 11, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Carmen Vann, project executive with Turner Construction Co., oversees building of San Diego's new downtown main library. It's scheduled to open in July 2013.
Carmen Vann, project executive with Turner Construction Co., oversees… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — The project was ambitious from the start: a $185-million central public library downtown.

Turner Construction, the New York-based firm selected for the project, built the new Yankee Stadium, the John F. Kennedy Library and the world's tallest building in Dubai.

The architects made sure the nine-story design had all the flourishes and amenities to rival new libraries in style-conscious San Francisco and Seattle: airy reading rooms, a sculpture garden, a domed terrace, a special-collections wing and more.

But when it came to financing, the city decided to stick with what some critics say is a typical San Diego penny-pinching approach that relied too heavily on private donations. Now the structure is halfway complete and there's a problem: a $26-million shortfall, money needed to finish the project.

Mel Katz, chairman of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, said he's confident the money will be raised, possibly in exchange for naming rights. When the library opens in July 2013, no one will admit to ever being a doubter, Katz predicts.

"This is going to be a community center, a meeting place, a cultural center," Katz said. "If we want to be a major player among cities, we need culture, museums, opera, sports teams, and we need our libraries."

Mayor Jerry Sanders is equally bullish. He stuck with the project and guided it to City Council approval even as critics said he should be more focused on fixing the city's underfunded pension account and maintaining basic services.

"I think you need to think big," Sanders said. "You need to think about what moves this city."

So how did the city find itself in this predicament?

"San Diego is cheap," said Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego and co-author of a recent book, "Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego." Erie finds the library project "straight from the civic DNA of San Diego."

"There is a sharp disconnect between our hopes and dreams for the future and our fiscal reality," Erie said.

For four decades city officials and literacy activists brooded about the need to replace the old central library, which some complained was already cramped and inadequate when it opened in 1954. Ideas came and went amid disagreements about sites and anxiety over money.

The distaste among San Diego's electorate for any form of taxation is well-known.

After the Cedar fire destroyed 2,400 homes in 2003, a regional bond measure for fire protection failed to win approval. Last November, voters defeated a half-cent sales-tax boost that the mayor said was needed to avoid massive layoffs, including police and firefighters.

When the San Diego Public Library Foundation was told two years ago to develop a plan to build a new library, its marching orders from City Hall were unequivocal: no general fund money, no tax increase, no bond sales. By comparison, the Seattle and San Francisco libraries were built with public financing approved by voters.

The foundation cobbled together a $185-million project from redevelopment agency funds, a state grant and a deal with the San Diego school district to lease two floors for a charter high school. A third of the money — $64.9 million — was to come from private fundraising.

Now that the structure is half-finished, there is growing excitement among library lovers to move into a building that's twice as large as the existing facility. Half of the old library's book collection is stored in the basement for lack of space.

Would-be donors are given daily tours of the 1.5-acre site a block from Petco Park. A deadline of Jan. 1 has been set for fundraising.

George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, the city's leading public forum, is among those who had grown weary over the years watching one library proposal after another founder. When he returned to San Diego in 1973 after five years in Washington, City Hall was then discussing the need for a new library.

"Great cities are judged by the greatness of their civic institutions," Mitrovich said. "Until the downtown library becomes a reality, San Diego's claim as 'America's Finest City' is bogus."

But Councilman Carl DeMaio, a fiscal conservative who voted against the project and is a leading candidate to succeed Sanders as mayor next year, is concerned that the city is racing down the road of fiscal foolishness, as it did when it boosted city employee pensions without the money to pay for them.

He said there is fear among voters that the new library will take money from neighborhood branches. He regards the library as a kind of civic vanity project.

"People say we need a big, iconic library, but there's a good chance that icon will never open, will always be shut, because we don't have the money," DeMaio said.

Katz said that the $26-million shortfall is not for the main building but for a side building, an auditorium. He said there are already enough pledges to cover increased operating expenses for at least five years.

If the library has an ace in the hole, it may be Irwin Jacobs, chairman and former chief executive officer of Qualcomm Corp. Jacobs and his wife, Joan, are among the city's leading philanthropists, and they have already pledged $15 million for construction and $5 million for operating expenses.

When San Diego needed money to expand its football stadium in 1997, Qualcomm came to the rescue with $18 million in exchange for naming rights.

As the new library's Jan. 1 fundraising deadline looms, Erie jokes that the city has come up with an emergency financing plan to help finish the building. He even has a name for it: "I-800-CALL-IRWIN."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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