San Diego’s Old Central Library / Photo by Megan Wood
San Diego’s Old Central Library / Photo by Megan Wood

The city is once again gauging whether the old Central Library could become a homeless shelter. 

Six city departments have recently assessed the facility that has sat vacant for more than eight years. The library is one of several city-owned buildings being eyed as potential shelters at Mayor Todd Gloria’s direction. 

It’s unclear when city officials might decide whether to add shelter beds at the library or other facilities.  

Multiple visions for the old library have been dismissed since it shuttered in 2013, including the prospect of converting it into a shelter. 

City officials in the past cited a laundry list of reasons why the old library wouldn’t be an ideal shelter site including challenges with its plumbing, heating and cooling systems. 

In 2017, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration estimated it would take about $5 million in upgrades to make the building habitable.  

The city later moved forward with a shelter at Golden Hall, another city site previously deemed an unsuitable shelter location. It now houses hundreds of shelter beds. 

Past conclusions about the old Central Library haven’t quieted the chorus of homeless advocates urging the city to use the facility — often surrounded by homeless camps — to house people living on the streets. 

Gloria spokesman Dave Rolland acknowledged the challenges but said the mayor is determined to expand the city’s shelter capacity. 

“The site does have significant issues, but Mayor Gloria is focused on finding solutions to shelter our residents experiencing homelessness, no matter how complex or difficult the task,” Rolland wrote in an email. 

Building issues haven’t been the only hiccups in long-running discussions about the future of the old library. 

Early last year, Lincoln Property Company, had hoped to receive an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city to redevelop the site into an office campus. But the developer revealed to Voice of San Diego that it was caught off guard by an 1899 deed signed by civic leader George Marston that seems to mandate that the property house a public library and reading room. 

Nearly two years later, the city hasn’t inked any agreements with the company.  

Rolland this week reiterated the city’s long-held conclusion that the city isn’t bound by Marston’s directive, a fact that Lincoln previously said didn’t pass muster with title companies who advised they’d be unwilling to insure the building. The mayor’s office spokesman said the city may file a title action to minimize concerns. 

Executives at Lincoln Property Company’s San Diego office this week didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on whether they remain interested in pursuing an innovation and tech campus with amenities including a ground floor café and small museum documenting the old library’s history. 

A city spokeswoman said she could only confirm that the city and Lincoln have not moved forward with the exclusive negotiating agreement needed for the developer to proceed. 

With the library sitting empty, leaders of the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation discussed the possibility that the building could house a shelter during a virtual symposium attended by local officials and homeless service providers Monday. 

City Council President Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn, who represents downtown, was among those at the meeting. 

After the gathering, Whitburn spokesperson Benny Cartwright told VOSD the councilman supports examining whether the old library could become a shelter – at least temporarily. 

Cartwright noted in an email that Whitburn lives three blocks from the old library and counted about 25 tents in the area when he visited last weekend. 

“(Whitburn) feels that anything we can do to get those folks indoors would be a benefit to the neighborhood, and he looks forward to discussing the possibility with other stakeholders,” Cartwright wrote. “Long term, (Whitburn) hopes the old Central Library site will be used for affordable housing or some other public benefit, but in the short term, temporarily using it to house people who are currently unsheltered would be an improvement over the current situation.” 

Drew Moser, Lucky Duck Foundation’s executive director, said philanthropists are ready to assist if the city decides to move forward with a shelter at the old library. 

Foundation leaders have for years pushed the city to consider the possibility. They recently held a press conference urging local leaders to use vacant government-owned buildings to shelter homeless residents.   

“Our view is why are we wasting existing government resources that could be quickly and cost effectively activated when we have a crisis going on and more and more people suffering on the street?” Moser said. 

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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