Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008 | Supporters of a main library in downtown San Diego are looking to partner with the school district in a last-minute effort to save the languishing project.

The library backers have talked to San Diego Unified School District officials about putting a small school on two floors of the proposed nine-story downtown library using money from Proposition S, a bond measure voters approved in November.

“It’s very preliminary,” Superintendent Terry Grier said. “We’re just exploring the possibility. The school board has not approved the concept, they just want more information.”

The city has also agreed to seek an extension of the $20 million state grant that is set to expire Dec. 31 at the request of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, said Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders.

The push to build a grand downtown library has struggled with fundraising since it was first passed in 2002 and met with increased skepticism because of the city’s bleak financial situation. With fundraising prospects uncertain and the project’s final price tag unknown, it’s not clear that a partnership with the school district could provide enough cash to make the library proposal viable.

California State Librarian Susan Hildreth said the state has allowed extensions of grants in the past, but said those projects have typically been further along than San Diego’s library. The grant was awarded in 2003.

“We would really need to see that they had a viable project with a clear timeline and a clear funding source in order to offer an extension,” Hildreth said.

In addition to $80 million in redevelopment tax money that has been set aside for the library, the library foundation needs to raise at least $85 million in private donations, including $50 million before construction can begin.

The project’s price was originally set at $150 million in 2002 but shot up to $185 million three years later. In that estimate, planners had decided to save money by not completing two floors and said they had cut costs through “value engineering” — for instance, by planning to use a new type of concrete that would save them $1.7 million.

The library’s supporters also have said they will not release a new estimate of the construction costs until they raised enough money to start construction.

So far, only $3 million in private donations have been publicly pledged for the effort, and the foundation has not released its fundraising totals. “They have not been keeping us updated with the numbers, but they told us they believe they can make the deadline,” Laing said.

The library foundation’s chairwoman, Judith Harris, did not return calls for comment. A foundation official told The San Diego Union-Tribune in June that $30 million in private funds had been committed.

School district officials said it’s too early to know how much the district’s share would be. But school board member John de Beck said based on a Wednesday meeting with library foundation officials, they look to be seeking about $20 million from the district — the same amount that was earmarked in Proposition S for a downtown school.

School board President Sheila Jackson said library officials have indicated they believe the school district’s involvement would be a boon to fundraising.

Downtown development officials have been interested in a new downtown school, an idea that has gained traction among some school officials despite the district’s stagnant enrollment. A downtown school would allow the district to further tap its share of redevelopment taxes from Centre City Development Corp., which must be used for facility costs at new or existing downtown schools. San Diego Unified’s share totaled $4.6 million this year and is expected to rise, said Frank Alessi, CCDC’s vice president and chief financial officer.

CCDC is already kicking in the $80 million in city redevelopment funds.

The school-library proposal under discussion involves a two-story space for high school students, and possibly also for middle schoolers, on two floors of the library that had been designated for future expansion. The space would total about 78,000 square feet in the 366,000-square-foot building proposed for the East Village, Grier said.

De Beck said he’s not opposed to the idea but not sold on it either. “The question is are we financing a shortfall of the library or (is it) something we really need?” he said.

There is value in the proposal, said de Beck, who noted that the price seems reasonable and the site could serve as a location for a planned middle college, where high school students can take community college classes while they finish up their secondary school requirements.

The main library has become an increasingly tough sell on the City Council, especially with the city’s bleak budget situation. Sanders proposed shuttering seven branch libraries to help close a $43 million budget gap this year. The City Council rejected the move, but the issue is expected to resurface in a few months when city officials put together next year’s budget.

Just last month, Sanders said the economy had just about ended the possibility of a main library.

“Reality is not going to allow a library of that type downtown,” Sanders said.

Councilman Todd Gloria had not heard details of a proposed school-library collaboration, but said he hoped a solution could be found that would allow the main library to be built in a way that didn’t harm the branch libraries.

“It’s clear to me the city will have to partner with others to get it done in time,” Gloria said. “If we have creative ideas to get across the finish line, I hope the state would allow us to explore them.”

But Councilman Carl DeMaio, who also hadn’t heard about the proposal, said the main library project is simply unsustainable, given the city’s current finances. Trying to “glom off other agencies and rope them into the project” is not the answer, he said.

“You can put lipstick on a pig,” DeMaio said, “but it’s a boondoggle we can’t afford.”

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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