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Mayor Jerry Sanders says it would take some kind of magic to salvage the concept of a new central library for downtown San Diego and that he can’t picture how it would happen.

He said the long push for a main library downtown has been just about brought to an end.

“The economy has brought it just about to the end,” Sanders said in an interview. “Reality is not going to allow a library of that type downtown.”

The cost of the downtown library was last estimated in 2005 at $185 million. The estimate hasn’t been updated despite fluctuations in labor and construction costs. The city has long set aside $80 million in taxpayer funds meant for downtown for the project. In addition, proponents counted on a $20 million grant from the state and they hoped to raise the rest — $85 million — from private donors. But only $3 million has been pledged for the effort since it was approved in 2002. Two-million dollars of that came from the owner of The San Diego Union Tribune, David Copley, who has been dissolving his newspaper and looking for a buyer for it.

Sanders said he expected the state to withdraw its grant for the project and that city money set aside for the facility will need to be freed up for other uses.

“We are going to need the money saved at CCDC for the Embarcadero and other uses,” he said.

I interviewed Sanders for a column I’m writing about the budget controversy that has engulfed City Hall in the past few weeks. To deal with a shortfall in this year’s budget, Sanders proposed that the city shutter seven libraries before the City Council rebuffed his move and located one-time funds to keep them operating for the next few months. The mayor has warned that the council’s decision will pass along a $10 million shortfall to an already frightening budget taking shape for next year.

I asked him, just to be sure, whether he was saying that San Diego should wake up from its dream of a downtown library.

“I can’t imagine that there’s going to be any rabbits brought out of the hat now,” he said.

That, after all, would require magic.

A member of Sanders’ staff called back to clarify that proponents of the library can still prove its viability by raising the $50 million in private funds needed to break ground by the end of the year.

SCOTT LEWIS

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