Guest Editorial: North Beach Library Fiasco

by Sue Cauthen on September 16, 2008

The saga surrounding the North Beach library is getting curiouser and curiouser. But one thing is perfectly clear. Politics overwhelmed reason when the Library Commission agreed to demolish the historic 1950s building in Joe DiMaggio Playground. This forces the library out of its home of half a century and onto the infamous Triangle, the tiny (4100 sq.ft.) parcel across the street taken by eminent domain for $2.8 million to become a park.

The fact that the Triangle is the wrong shape and size for a library is just the tip of the iceberg. The logistics of rebuilding the current 5500 sq. ft library (and expanding it!) on a 4100 sq. ft. site with a 13-foot slope is one to stump the experts.

Library officials agreed. During the six-month planning period with the Recreation & Park Department, they looked seriously at two concepts: expansion at the present site, or a move onto the adjacent children’s playground (AKA the tot lot.) In fact, documents obtained via a public records request show that library strategy was to “push the (tot lot) site” and point out the defects of the Triangle.

The latter route was pretty basic. Libraries are square or rectangular buildings. In addition to being three-sided, none of the Triangle’s sides are equal, making for a curiously-shaped building replete with odd angles, the antithesis of a structure whose primary purpose is to house bookcases.

Candidate for Inefficiency

The upshot is that, despite its $8 million budget, the Triangle library is set up for inefficiency. Primary reason: the plan crams all the library services onto the first floor in a site that is too small for them. What to do?

The architects have rejiggered the site and added a recessed second story to “make do.” (Incidentally, San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) records also show strong resistance to two-story libraries.)

The second floor at the Triangle would house staff, IT and electrical facilities as well as a community room. But there is no independent access to the community room and it couldn’t be used when the library is closed. And SFPL refuses to assign a librarian to this floor so it can’t be used to create more space for library services. It would actually be off limits most of the time.

What happened? We know SFPL succumbed to playground activists’ zeal to oust the library. It’s a mystery why they didn’t want a world-class library for North Beach. Because, while North Beach will have a new library, it will not be anywhere near what it could have been. The plan is a poster child for inadequate use of public funds. It also stands to cause unacceptable delays and a potential drain on bond money earmarked for library improvement citywide.

The EIR Tag Team

For one thing, the Triangle site triggers two Environmental Impact Reports (EIR),
one for the demolition, the other because it calls for closure of Mason Street, the traffic-heavy thoroughfare that links Fisherman’s Wharf with North Beach restaurants.
Knowledgeable city planners and SFPL’s own records predict as much as a two-year delay with just one EIR

Architect Marsha Maytum’s estimate shows 8% cost escalation a year, adding up to a project cost of $11.5 million if there is a 24-month delay. An 18-month lag adds up to $10.8 million and the pricetag is $9.6 million if there is no EIR. Now SFPL’s budget is just under $8 million. But never mind.

Actually, the North Beach library was due for a makeover under a $106 million general obligation bond issue back in 2003. But the bickering over a use for the Triangle pushed North Beach to the end of the line, and the money ran out. There would be no new library but for revenue bonds approved by the voters last year. SFPL can sell construction bonds and pay off the debt with money set-aside for library operations from the city’s general fund.

Critics complain that SFPL can draw on its set-aside money indefinitely. This means less money for books and open hours, clearly a losing scenario for library patrons, to say nothing of the taxpayers.

24/7 Traffic?

And don’t forget that the Triangle library is squeezed onto the site. A planned expansion over the sidewalk and into Mason Street has provoked neighbors who fear that closing the street will create 24/7 traffic jams and access problems for security vehicles.

There are compelling reasons to stay in the playground. Neither site requires closing Mason Street, and expanding the existing library would not require a demolition EIR. In fact, SFPL holds title to its building and would simply have to raise the roof and extend the mezzanine to create more space. Then the Triangle could be developed as a park, the purpose of the eminent domain action.

Further, building at the Triangle is the most time-consuming, most costly alternative. What were they thinking? The folks who put this plan together should be ashamed of themselves.

The Triangle plan goes before the Recreation & Park Commission September 18, where quick approval is expected. After all, they are passing off a property that cost them nearly $700 a square foot that they didn’t want in the first place. For one thing, there is the potential soil contamination issue, fallout from the site’s former life as an Exxon service station.

The library is giving up a lot to move to the wrong site in the wrong place. According to SFPL records, the new building won’t even be ready till late 2013. The good news: the multiple hassles may be resolved by then. The bad news: The North Beach library will be a second-rate facility.

Sue Cauthen chairs the Board of Supervisors Library Advisory Committee.

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