Monday, December 19, 2005 | Here’s a test for those of you who are chewing on the idea of the city of San Diego building a big, beautiful new library downtown: Get on the phone and give Mel Katz, who chairs the city of San Diego’s Library Commission, a call. Say you oppose the proposal. Ask him to dissuade you.

Listen to him intently. Hang up.

Then remember why it feels weird to build a big, beautiful new main library at the same time the city is making its way through a wrenching financial crisis.

Remember the newly elected mayor talked quite a bit about the possibility that the city will enter bankruptcy and that he’s going to demand that city employees accept salary freezes in order to avoid it. In an atmosphere like that, recall that it seems ridiculous for a city in such financial trouble to embark on an ambitious project like this.

But then spend a moment wrestling with what Mel just told you. Because it’ll stick a bit. His desire for a new library is genuine and powerful. He communicates well his conviction that building a big, beautiful new library in the heart of this city is exactly what’s needed.

And he persuaded me that we need a new library.

Unfortunately, he didn’t persuade me that we can afford it.

Ask him about the cost to the city of this big, beautiful new main library and Mel will tell you something like this:

“If this is going to be a bonding issue, I would completely agree that this isn’t the time to do it – there are plenty of other more important infrastructure needs. But it really isn’t. The library does not compete with anything else the city needs,” Katz told me.

Really? OK, let’s hear him out.

The argument is simple. The city – led by Councilman Jim Madaffer – wants to build the $185-million library with $85 million in private donations, $20 million in grants from the state and $80 million from the Centre City Development Corporation.

As for operating the new library after it’s built, Madaffer is telling everyone that it will actually be cheaper to run the big, beautiful library than the 51-year-old dinosaur he is trying to replace.

That’s right. Building a new library is not only free, but it’s going to result in future savings.

In that case, maybe we should build two – get twice the savings.

In all seriousness, Katz is right. There are more important infrastructure needs that should not be delayed or obstructed by our civic focus on the library.

And he says it won’t. But I’m not convinced.

Simply put, the city has a long list of absolutely vital needs right now and this library will inevitably divert funds from those basic needs.

Take the $80 million that the Centre City Development Corp. is going to fork over for the project. Are there really no more important uses for that money right now? CCDC oversees the redevelopment of downtown – an area that now houses more than 30,000 people.

That’s far more people than were there 30 years ago when CCDC started, yet the city has done nothing to improve fire protection in the area. The fire department told The San Diego Daily Transcript‘s Kevin Christensen in November that it only had one ladder available to fight a fire in one of the new downtown high-rise condominium projects. Yet it’s the sale of those condos that have given CCDC such a flush bank account.

CCDC currently has plans to build two fire stations – both of which it hopes to have completed by 2010.

Why is it so crucial for construction to begin on a big, beautiful library right now but this serious lack of fire protection for residents downtown can wait four more years? In fact, the firefighters have been decrying the lack of fire stations downtown for some time, yet Madaffer accuses you of being “myopic” if you suggest the city has more important needs right now than a big, beautiful library.

And while it’s noble for Katz to say he wouldn’t support the library if it meant bonding or taxes, he might only mean he wouldn’t support the library if it meant bonding or taxes for the library.

For other projects, it’s a different story. CCDC hopes to fund the construction of the fire stations with the new revenue from the developer impact fees the agency passed last year. In other words, yes, Katz and Madaffer are correct that the city is not taxing anyone or bonding in order to build the library. But at the same time it writes checks to build the library, it’s raising fees to pay for the fire stations.

And those fees will not add up to be sufficient money for fire stations by 2010, so guess what CCDC and the city will do?

Issue bonds to build them.

Maybe it’s too simplistic to say that CCDC could take the money it’s giving to the library and use it to build fire stations. It could be so simplistic, in fact, that it’s “myopic.”

If so, maybe I can get CCDC to pay for my laser-eye surgery.


There’s a side note to all of this that is interesting. Where do the two candidates – who hope to represent downtown on the City Council – stand on the library?

Democrat Lorena Gonzalez said she was “fully committed” to a new main library. She said the city could always downsize or change the project to make it affordable but that it must be built.

As for Republican Kevin Faulconer, he couldn’t be reached. His name recently disappeared from the list of board members who oversee the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. The association has been hostile to the idea of a new main library for years.

In fact, former association President April Boling recently wrote a letter to the editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, criticizing that paper’s recent assertion – much like Madaffer’s – that those who question the city’s library plans are “cynics who espouse a myopic view.” Boling wrote as a representative of the taxpayers association.

As for Faulconer, while the library isn’t mentioned on his campaign Web site, one thing is: the lack of fire protection for downtown San Diego.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly at

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