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In 2005, the city of San Diego estimated costs for its proposed downtown central library at $185 million.

Almost five years later, Mayor Jerry Sanders told City Council on Friday, the price tag went down slightly.

The city’s new price tag, received from contractor Turner Construction, was needed to meet a May 1 deadline set by the California state librarian. Sanders told the council the library’s price tag was within budget — construction costs had decreased by about $115,000 — and appeared to solidify an important step toward the project’s eventual construction.

Library supporters applauded the figure, calling it key to the survival of the schoobrary, the library/charter school.

“If it had been more than that I think we would have been hard pressed to proceed with the project,” City Councilman Todd Gloria said. “But this will probably allow us to schedule a vote and probably get majority support for it.”

The number released Friday is the maximum Turner Construction will charge for the project. It will bear cost overruns above that.

Key questions remain about the project, namely about the private funding it needs and whether the library’s design or construction materials have changed. The San Diego Public Library Foundation has committed to raising $63.3 million for the project, said Sara Napoli, a foundation trustee. Napoli said the foundation has received $28.5 million in private pledges, about 45 percent of its goal.

Darren Pudgil, a Sanders spokesman, said he wasn’t sure if the project’s design or construction materials had changed since the 2005 estimate. The city, Pudgil added, only had received a price tag from Turner as of late Friday, not a detailed breakdown of costs.

Construction funding plans currently include:

  • $80 million from the city’s downtown redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corp.;
  • $20 million from a state library grant; 
  • $20 million from the San Diego Unified School District for putting a charter middle or high school on the library’s sixth and seventh floors.

The remaining funds, more than $60 million, must come from private donations. Donations have received significant attention from critics, who believe the library foundation hasn’t raised enough for the project to remain viable.

Napoli said the foundation had received an additional $1 million in pledges since last June. But the foundation only has revealed publicly the source of a fraction of the total pledges.

Plans for a new central library date back to the 1970s. The project’s most recent incarnation began in 2000 when city officials chose the current planned location in East Village at Park Boulevard and J Street.

State library officials gave the library a boost in 2003 when they approved a $20 million grant, but the city’s financial scandals and flagging fundraising continually delayed the project. With the state grant set to expire in December 2008, the San Diego Unified School District swooped in with $20 million to put a school on the library’s sixth and seventh floors, and adding the “schoo” to the “brary.” The school district will contribute an additional $10 million for the interior improvements, a figure that isn’t included in construction costs.

Since December 2008, the city and library foundation have sought numerous extensions of the state grant as they finagled over the kind of school in the library. A charter middle or high school avoids both costly state earthquake code requirements and a law that restricts elementary schools to a building’s first two floors.

State library officials required the city to submit a completed lease with the school district and an update on a new price and a statement on the project’s viability by May 1. The city sent the lease and the new price tag to the state librarian on Friday.

Council votes on the schoobrary currently stand at 5-3 in favor, with council members Sherri Lightner, Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye in opposition.

Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a local think tank, said council members need to ask questions about the project’s scope and construction materials. Previous schoobrary cost estimates included cost decreases because of less expensive ceiling panels and flooring. It’s important, Bruvold said, to know if the city is receiving the same project it was promised five years ago.

“That’s the kind of information taxpayers absolutely need to see,” Bruvold said.

Sanders said he expected to bring the construction contract to a council committee in June and full council by early July to meet an Aug. 1 construction deadline.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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