Sunday, June 28, 2009 | There’s been a lot of action lately on the downtown library. And if you haven’t followed every detail, you might ask yourself some logical questions.

What’s a schoobrary? When did we start talking about a charter high school? Where is the money coming from? What were those dollars meant for? Will this actually be built?

With that, here’s a primer on the project and how it came to be:

The idea of building a new, larger central library has percolated for years. Supporters say a new building is needed to replace the cramped three-story central library on E Street, and would act as a major civic and cultural center.

In 2000, elected officials moved the project from Kettner and B Street to the current East Village location surrounded by Park Boulevard, 11th Avenue, and J and K Streets. In 2002, the City Council approved an ambitious plan to build and expand 24 new libraries, including the grand nine-story central library with an auditorium, cafe and reading room. The plan to finance the libraries mostly through bonds soon fell through when the city’s credit rating was suspended in 2004 amid the pension scandal.

The building’s estimated cost has escalated over the years from $149 million in 2003 to $185 million in 2005 to unknown at the moment. That price tag included $9 million of so-called “value engineering,” changes made to decrease the cost of the building, including postponing improvements to the sixth and seventh floors. Those two floors were to be rented out until the library needed them for expansion space in 20 years.

Most recently, the building’s construction was to be funded with $85 million in private donations, $80 million in downtown redevelopment dollars, and a $20 million grant awarded by the state as part of a bond measure funding library construction and expansion throughout the state.

But library boosters struggled to raise the needed private donations, and the project was pushed back and often believed to be dead. In November 2008, Mayor Jerry Sanders said the economy had “just about” brought the project to an end. “Reality is not going to allow a library of that type downtown,” Sanders said.

The state grant was set to expire Dec. 31, 2008. However, shortly before that deadline, officials floated the idea of a partnership with the San Diego Unified School District meant to save the project.

Voters had approved a $2.1 billion school bond in November 2008 that included $20 million earmarked for a downtown school. Though Washington Elementary has empty classrooms, downtown developers and residents had long sought another elementary school in the hopes that more families would remain downtown. A survey commissioned by the Centre City Development Corp. found “not much structural demand for middle and high schools.”

A draft of the project list accompanying the school bond measure indicated the $20 million would go toward a “new downtown elementary school campus.” But that language was changed in the final version of the project list, which said the money would “provide matching funds to construct classrooms and schools in the downtown area to meet the educational needs of the district.”

Library boosters and school officials began talking about putting that $20 million for a school on the sixth and seventh floors of the library. While that wouldn’t completely bridge the shortfall in private fundraising, the money could be enough to start construction.

School officials were initially interested in putting an elementary school on the two floors. But state law requires the youngest school children to be placed only on the first and second floors of a building. So the talk switched to a high school, possibly with space for middle school students.

However, traditional public schools are subject to strict construction codes, known as the Field Act, meant to keep children safe in earthquakes. The regulations require schools to be built to comply with more rigorous earthquake standards, the materials are tested more frequently and a certified inspector must be on site to examine all the major components of the school.

The school’s inclusion in the library would trigger these laws, hiking the total cost of the building, probably by at least 5 percent or $9 million. Even studying how much it would cost to comply with the law would require a $167,730 study, and school board members balked at paying for most of the analysis.

The school district then floated the idea of seeking an exemption to the Field Act. The state librarian agreed to extend the grant but requested a host of information by July 1, including verification of the private contributions and an updated project budget.

However, the Field Act exemption applied only when a school was an incidental use of the building, such as in hospitals and jails. A state official told that a school in a library, which we’ve dubbed a schoobrary, wouldn’t fall under the exemption. And in April, a school district spokesman acknowledged that officials had dropped the idea, believing they were unlikely to get an exemption.

Instead, officials began looking at the idea of a charter school. Such schools receive public money and are free to attend, but they are run by independent boards and are freed from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools. Among them, charter schools are not required to comply with the Field Act.

Charter schools are typically formed by parents or other community members as an alternative to traditional public schools. They are rarely formed by school districts. No specifics about the charter school’s educational program have been released, but board members said it could provide an alternative for students who live near San Diego High School but can’t attend the school because there’s no room.

In recent weeks, the public activity on the schoobrary proposal has heated up. On June 18, members of a citizens committee overseeing the schools bond lambasted school officials for not giving them a chance to weigh in on the proposal. They were unable to agree on a recommendation but expressed fears that the library would sink and take school funds with it.

On Tuesday, the San Diego Unified school board voted 3-2 to sign a nonbinding letter of intent with the city to provide $20 million in bond money to lease the two floors for 40 years. The school district would have to spend another $10 million in other school funds to finish the space with interior walls, lighting and carpeting.

The next day, the proposal cleared another roadblock when a City Council committee voted 4-0 to forward it to the full council, which will consider the agreement July 7.

Library foundation officials said they’ve raised $27.5 million for construction and $10 million toward the higher cost of running the building. Council members said they want a plan for how library boosters planned to raise the $37.5 million still needed for construction — assuming the price tag hasn’t increased in four years.

The city must provide an update on the library’s progress to the state by the July 1. Library foundation officials said they won’t reveal the donors’ names as part of that submission, saying their contributors want to remain anonymous until the project receives final council approval.

If the state doesn’t pull the grant and the council approves the letter of intent, the next steps will be for both sides to agree on a more formal memorandum of understanding in September and for the council to authorize the bidding process in November.

City staffers would seek approval to spend another $500,000 in downtown redevelopment funds — on top of more than $17 million that’s already been spent — to fund the bidding process, which would result in a new binding price for the library.

On this schedule, the schoobrary could open in 2013.

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at 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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