Thursday, June 11, 2009 | In the time since a grand downtown library was first proposed more than a decade ago, it’s gone through several iterations, two potential locations and one grant extension.

And the city of San Diego has plowed through more than $17 million in public money on the project which, at this point, is still an empty lot.

Library supporters say that money was needed to get the project ready and will prove well spent if the city comes to an agreement with the San Diego Unified School District on placing a charter school in the building — perhaps the last hope of hanging onto a $20 million state grant that expires at the end of the month and is critical to the project moving forward.

But the library’s critics say the project has sapped valuable resources that could have been used elsewhere. Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said crucial questions about how the city would pay to operate the larger library, or, if boosters could secure enough private donations, were never adequately answered.

“There’s been a significant amount of taxpayer dollars that have gone to this project prior to there being a comprehensive assessment of whether the city could really afford to move forward with it,” Lutar said.

The library’s cost, which continues to grow, includes time city staffers have spent on the project but excludes the cost of demolishing a police garage that once occupied the site now reserved for the library. The project has been beset with delays and changes since it was first approved in 1995. Then it was to be located at Kettner Boulevard and B Street. In 2000, the City Council moved the project to the current city-owned site at Park Boulevard and J Street in the East Village.

The move required a complete revamp of the building design, said Darren Greenhalgh, a deputy director in the city’s Engineering and Capital Projects Department. “Nothing designed at the other site was transferrable from a design standpoint,” he said.

Greenhalgh said he doesn’t know how much the move added to the project’s costs. The bulk of the money spent on the library — more than $11.5 million — has paid for architectural services, city records show. And most of this money has gone to the project’s chief architects, Rob Wellington Quigley and Tucker Sadler Architects and their subcontractors.

The current design for the building calls for a nine-story structure meant to be the heart of the city’s library system and a civic landmark akin to Seattle’s central library.

However, San Diego is facing a tight deadline to hang on to a $20 million state grant doled out as part of a 2000 bond measure meant to renovate and build libraries throughout California.

Late last year, shortly before the state grant was originally set to expire, officials floated a proposal to place a high school on two floors of the library, with the San Diego Unified contributing up to $20 million from a recently approved school bond.

The state pushed back the grant deadline to July 1 to give the city and school district time to work out the details. One potential issue was that stricter construction codes would be triggered by the school’s inclusion and increase the building’s cost.

After exploring and later dismissing the idea of seeking an exemption to those rules, the district and city are now considering the idea of placing a charter school — which doesn’t have to comply with the stricter school construction requirements — in the library.

State officials say they are rooting for the city and school district to come up with a concrete plan. “We’re hopeful,” said Stacey Aldrich, the acting state librarian. “We’d like them to be successful.”

Details of the charter school idea have not been released. Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the two sides are working to hammer out an agreement in the coming weeks. “If it was dead,” she said of the downtown library, “we would pretty much be out there saying so, and we’re not.”

If the project does fall through, many of the funds that have been spent so far would be, in essence, wasted. That includes many of the architectural services and expenses the more than $100,000 spent to prepare the grant application to the state.

But Greenhalgh noted that other expenses increased the value of the East Village site regardless of whether a library goes there. That includes the cost of hauling out contaminated soil from old kerosene tanks, conducting studies to determine if an earthquake fault lies under the site, and paying a company owned by Padres owner John Moores $272,465 to extend pipes providing chilled water to the library site.

“That’s usable if we build the library or if someone else builds something,” Greenhalgh said.

So far, the project has been almost entirely funded by downtown redevelopment dollars. The city’s Redevelopment Agency has transferred $16.5 million to the city to pay for library costs. Of that, $10 million was counted as a credit against the money the agency owed the city, said Frank Alessi, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the Centre City Development Corp.

Downtown redevelopment money is supposed to account for $80 million of the library’s cost, last estimated in 2005 to be $185 million. The rest of the money would come from the $20 million grant and $85 million in private donations, of which $33 million has been raised, city officials have said. None of the private fundraising money has been spent, Greenhalgh said.

The original push for a downtown library happened before Sanders took office, under former Mayors Susan Golding and Dick Murphy. To halt the project would be unreasonable, Laing said. But she said Sanders has drawn a line in the sand by not committing money from the city’s general fund, which pays for expenses such as public safety, existing library operations and parks.

“It’s been something that mostly has been championed in two different mayoral administrations,” Laing said, “but it was not something that [we] were going to stand in the way of in the final stretch.”

Of the $17 million, only $2.7 million has been spent since Sanders took office. And those charges came largely from contracts that had already been approved under the previous administrations. Under Sanders, no new consulting contracts for the downtown library have been inked, Greenhalgh said.

Not long ago, the city pulled building permits for the library at a cost of around $100,000, Greenhalgh said. He said if the building is delayed by another year, the library’s plans will have to be updated to comply with current construction codes.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald, a supporter of the project, thinks too much energy has gone into “picking the project apart” instead of figuring out a plan for what would be an “asset in the community.”

She says the money that’s been spent doesn’t sound unreasonable given the project’s long timeframe.

“If this is the cost of doing business over the last 10 years of making this shovel-ready, I don’t think that should be the issue,” Emerald said. “I think the issue should be where are we now and what should we do to be moving forward to making this project a success?”

Emerald’s support of the library is in line with past councils, but other new council members have questioned the plans. One of the most vocal critics is Councilman Carl DeMaio, who said city leaders haven’t acknowledged that the project’s boosters haven’t fulfilled their fundraising promises.

“What responsible city leadership should do is say, ‘Thanks for all the work you’ve done, now we’re getting back to our branch libraries,’” DeMaio said. “Instead what we have is all these wild ideas — a school, a charter school, a high school, an elementary school.”

DeMaio said the project has proved a costly and embarrassing distraction. “The letters exchanged with the state librarian frankly make us look like idiots,” he said.

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