Less than two years ago, downtown boosters’ dream of a new main library looked dead. Donations lagged. The costs had risen over the years and the project kept being pushed back after it was first discussed more than a decade ago.

Now their dream, long deferred, is headed toward reality. The San Diego City Council voted Monday to start building a downtown library with a school on two upper floors. The plan passed despite a downturn that has cut back on library hours across the city and the fact that fundraisers still have to scrounge up more than $30 million in donations.

“You have to take a leap of faith to do this project as a City Council,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer, adding, “I’m prepared to do that.”

The crowd that deluged City Council chambers largely favored the schoobrary plan, including philanthropists and a group of downtown schoolchildren. One backer wore a T-shirt reading “OVERDUE: SAN DIEGO PUBLIC LIBRARY.” The two dissenting votes on the library came from Council members Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio, who worried about whether future funding for running this and other libraries would be sufficient and whether private donations would pan out.

“We cannot afford to build this project at this time,” DeMaio said. “We have to get our city’s financial problems fixed first.”

Construction is supposed to start as soon as July because of deadlines in a crucial state grant, breaking ground at a planned site at Park Boulevard and J Street that was chosen nine years ago.

Councilwoman Donna Frye was the swing vote on a small but crucial part of the plan that needed six votes: extending an agreement with architects and engineers at work on the plan. If that hadn’t happened, it could have delayed the project. Frye closely questioned staff about the library costs, but ending up voting for it, causing cheers in the halls.

“This is a triumph over what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles,” said Sara Napoli, a board member for the San Diego Public Library Foundation, in an interview last week.

Library backers helped their cause by keeping total project costs steady at $184.9 million over the past five years. That price tag proved so important politically that boosters did everything they could to keep it there, including opting for cheaper flooring and benches.

City staffers said that the schoobrary would create more than 1,000 jobs, bolstering San Diego in a rough economy. And another selling point: Supporters said the project wouldn’t burden the day-to-day city budget, which is already severely strained.

“Not one cent of this project funding can be used for other city services,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said today.

The library will be paid for through other public and private funds, including $80 million in downtown redevelopment money, a $20 million state grant and more than $63 million in private donations.

But it was the San Diego Unified School District that breathed new life into the seemingly moribund plan last year when it chose to lease two floors for a charter school for $20 million.

Councilman Tony Young argued that if the city abandoned the schoobrary plan, it would also abandon $70 million in state and school district money and private donations that it couldn’t otherwise use.

But critics said it was foolish to open a new building while budgets are languishing. Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre even made a rare appearance in council chambers to oppose the plan.

“We can’t keep the libraries open that we have now,” Aguirre said. He turned his attention from the City Council to Irwin Jacobs, the top schoobrary donor.

“You’re hurting our city,” Aguirre said to Jacobs. Library backers began to boo and hiss, drowning Aguirre out. “You think you’re helping. You’re pushing the city into something that’s irresponsible.”

Last week the Library Foundation unveiled the names of the donors who have so far given $30.8 million to build it, most notably Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who chipped in $15 million for construction. Revealing the donors just before the vote was believed to shore up support for the project, proving it had prominent backers. The Jacobs were frequently praised by library supporters for their gift.

While the library will soon start rising downtown, the project could still face more hurdles as construction begins this summer and beyond.

The Library Foundation still has to raise $32.5 million by January 2012. If it doesn’t, San Diego would have to decide whether to put in its own money, raise money elsewhere or give back a state grant, which would leave it with only a library shell. Backers of the library say they’re confident that donors will step up and meet their goal.

“They will raise the money,” said David Priver, vice chairman of the Centre City Advisory Committee, which advises the downtown redevelopment agency. “Do not be impacted by the forces of fear and doubt. Support what the citizenry of this city wants and desires.”

And while building the library may not dip into the day-to-day budget, critics warned that operating and staffing it could ultimately do so. Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the larger library is expected to cost $2.8 million more annually to operate than the existing facility.

To offset those added costs, the Library Foundation has rounded up $10 million more in pledges to help it run in the first five years, half of it from the Jacobs family. Parking revenues will also help, they say. That convinced the budget analyst that the added operating costs would be eliminated or at least mitigated for the first five years that the library is open.

But beyond then, the city would likely shoulder the cost. The budget analyst also cautioned that there is no guarantee that the new library will be able to keep its current hours when it opens. The same budget woes that have clipped hours elsewhere could do so at the main library.

The schoobrary is supposed to be completed in three years. The nine-story building is slated to include roof gardens, wireless internet, a teen center, underground parking and a photovoltaic energy system.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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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