Guest Editorial: North Beach Needs a New Library

by Carol Verburg on July 27, 2009

North Beach has changed. We gripe about that a lot in this neighborhood. Even if we’re artists, and came here to be among fellow artists, and should know that nothing’s more constant than change, we mind losing precious landmarks -– the hardware store, the corner grocery — to one more upscale watering hole or boutique. And of course as artists, heirs of the Beat spirit and Americans, we cherish our right to complain.

Now we’re facing a huge change in a core neighborhood icon: the proposed new North Beach Branch Library. The library we know and love (and love to complain about) was built in 1959 on a corner of Joe DiMaggio Park, one of the city’s first community parks in San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhood. For half a century now, many of us have grumbled that Mayor George Christopher made it too small and put it in the wrong place.

By 2000, library officials agreed – and added that it was too hazardous. Given a Seismic Earthquake Hazard Rating of 3 (there are only 4 levels, 4 being the most dangerous), the San Francisco Public Library slated the North Beach Branch for renovation or replacement as part of a $106 million seismic and accessibility bond it passed in the same year.

Not long after that, San Francisco acquired an adjacent triangle-shaped piece of property by eminent domain for use as a park. That inspired some of our creative thinkers to look into killing two (or more) birds with one stone: fix or replace the library, adding more room for books and other materials, computers, and patrons; and give back to Joe DiMaggio Park the section the library had taken, making possible a larger, better-designed park with more green space, distinct recreation spaces, opportunities for open play, and visibility between areas.

After a long process of back-and-forth between seeking community input, integrating those comments with their own creative ideas and practical constraints, and re-presenting the results to the public, the San Francisco Public Library and Recreation and Park Department unveiled a master plan. In a rare example of multifaceted collaboration, the new library branch and park and plaza would function as a visually and functionally coordinated public space bordered by Columbus, Lombard, Powell, and Greenwich Streets.

Among the plan’s benefits:

A Neighborhood Vision Realized. Since May 2008, the Library and the Recreation and Park Department have held five public meetings regarding the North Beach Branch Library and Joe DiMaggio Playground, in which hundreds of local residents participated. As in all collaborations, nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody got more than they started with. Both the Library and Rec & Park Commissions reviewed the location and design of the branch at public meetings in September 2008, and voted unanimously to support moving the library out of the playground onto the Columbus Avenue triangle, pending environmental review, which is set to be completed by the end of the year.

More Room for Arts and Culture in the 21st Century. North Beach has a rich literary history, and continues to be one of the most sought-after and visited neighborhoods in San Francisco. But at 5,300 square feet, the existing branch can no longer accommodate patrons and materials to keep up with demand. The proposed new branch is 8,500 square feet (59% bigger), providing significant new space for books and materials in multiple languages to suit the neighborhood’s diverse population. The new branch also will have a community room for library events and children’s programs which can be opened to the public for use after hours.

Less Asphalt, More Open Space. The proposed plan calls for removing an old parking lot to create a new library, public park, and plaza, resulting in less asphalt and more open space for San Francisco’s densest residential neighborhood. Like Mint Plaza near Union Square and the 17th Street Plaza in the Castro, this new recreation area will answer San Francisco residents’ call for more car-free gathering places that are readily accessible by public transit.

Less Cinderblock, More Sunlight. Relocating the library makes it possible to enlarge the new park and rearrange the playground, tennis and bocce courts into a unified space that’s easy to walk through, accessible, safe – and bathed in sunlight. The present library building, stylish as it was for an institutional structure in 1952, takes noir all too literally by offering very limited natural light, and casting heavy shadows on the surrounding play areas at any time of day.

The anarchic spirit of San Francisco’s pioneering and artistic traditions has provoked some opposition to the new plan, while residents who have watched too much of our city bulldozed by development tend to be suspicious of any “improvement” that fails to preserve a local landmark. The reality is that keeping or patching an unsafe and less-than-functional building is not an option. As artists, as North Beach residents, as San Franciscans, as Americans, our challenge is to celebrate the innovative spirit that built this unique neighborhood, and welcome the extraordinary new library, playground, and park that we and our city have created together.

“The new North Beach Library marks a momentous forward leap for this district so alive with cultural dimensions and icons,” said poet Jack Hirschman. “It will provide access to thousands of additional books for thousands of readers who for years have been hungry to enter and browse, but who have been hesitant to do so because the present library in North Beach is simply too small. And the excellent poetry and lecture series that librarian Robert Carlson has organized will be able to be experienced by twice the number of people. What a marvelous addition to our area! All my support for the new project!”

Another one of our local literary leaders, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, says: “We strongly support the creation of a new North Beach Library, a truly beautiful and much-needed addition to the life of North Beach and its citizens.” As a North Beach resident, I agree.


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