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City attorneys this week took action in Superior Court to try to clear a more than century-old deed restriction on the old Central Library that has complicated plans to redevelop the long vacant property.
For nearly nine years, the old Central Library has sat empty while city officials and others debate what to do with it. Now the city is weighing whether it could become a homeless shelter or something else.
But the city has decided it needs to first address a little-known requirement in an 1899 deed signed by civic leader George Marston that seems to mandate that the property house a public library and reading room.
City attorneys and other officials have long said that the city isn’t bound by Marston’s directive.
But a developer that once appeared poised to ink an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city to redevelop the site into an office campus told Voice of San Diego in 2020 that the city’s conclusion didn’t pass muster with title companies who advised they’d be unwilling to insure the building. The city never moved forward with agreements with that developer.
Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria, reiterated the city’s longtime perspective on the deed restriction Thursday but said the city will ask a court to formally bless that conclusion before moving forward with any plans.
“The city does not believe the property’s use is restricted in any way by the language in the grant deed and will seek a court determination to confirm this prior to converting the site to a potential emergency shelter,” Rolland wrote in an email.
In recent years, the shuttered library has been adorned by homeless camps and homeless advocates have urged again and again that the city convert it into a shelter. City officials previously 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.
Mayor Gloria late last year directed city staffers to give the property another look, leading at least a half dozen city departments to assess the facility.
Now City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office is moving forward with a title action in hopes of clearing a path for the building’s future.
In the Wednesday filing, city attorneys argue that the library site at 820 E St. housed a library for more than 100 years, long since fulfilling any deed restriction. They argue the restriction should be rescinded.
“At this time, the city would like to convert the property into an emergency homeless shelter or other permissible use and may, in the future, wish to sell the property,” attorneys wrote. “However, prior to incurring the cost of any such conversion or before any potential future sale of the property, the city respectfully requests a judicial determination that the provision in the grant deed stating ‘for the public use as a site for a building for a public and reading room’ is merely directory, invalid, cancelled or otherwise non-binding in any way on the city’s (or future owner’s) use of the property, or in the alternative, that said provision has been fully satisfied.”
It’s uncertain how long the court process will take.
Elliott spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb wrote in an email that the City Attorney’s Office hopes to get the issue resolved within the next six months, but that the process and timeline will depend on whether anyone challenges the city action.
Drew Moser, executive director of the nonprofit Lucky Duck Foundation which has for years rallied for the city to make the old library a homeless shelter, cheered the Wednesday court filing. He has previously said philanthropists are ready to assist if the city decides to move forward with a shelter there.
“We support any tangible action step forward to turn this idea into reality,” Moser said. “There’s far too many suffering on the street who need an immediate pathway off the streets and onto a bright, more fulfilling journey which shelters can provide very quickly and cost effectively.”