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

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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.” 

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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  1. The idea that plumbing/HVAC concerns are the limiting factor for turning this building into a homeless shelter is weak and disingenuous. What we need is a homeless center/shelter. If instead, this becomes an office/mixed use building,- its just depressing and another example of san diegos lack of innovation and creativity

    1. What is really ‘disingenuous’ is the slight of hand by city mover’s and shakers- look here at this problem of a deed restriction while pretending that homeless and urban blight is not about a re-purposing a building. It’s is obvious to me that a new mind set need to happen for any success with homeless and creating dynamic thriving downtown. Tear-up the old playbook – stop building shelters! Create new ideas that can raise-up the circumstances of 10,000 people – invest in education, in skill training, community housing ( not shelter housing) – I think we have to start realizing our homeless population is a here-to-stay consequence of the failures of society – people have been broken. Be bold- create a whole ‘college’ campus for people with dorms, with daycare, with vocational training – start there.

  2. The city can dispense with the legal haggling if it contained a small library/reading room on part of the ground floor, with the remainder of the building being a homeless shelter.

    1. I can’t imagine how heart broken George Marston would be to see how far his city has fallen. He provided a wonderful vision of great city, a great community and granted Balboa Park, the land for the library and many other places we take for granted. These were given to all citizens to use ‘forever’.

  3. This is tantamount to theft by the City. Marston made it clear in the deed restriction that the property was only to be used as a library. It does not say only for the first year, 10 years or 1000 years.
    Who do you think knows more about deed restrictions – the title companies or the tag team of Gloria & Elliott ?

    1. Yes you are correct- and even more important a successful legal maneuver to overturn Marstons grant and deeding of the property ‘ for use by citizens of San Diego in Perpetuity’ is the same grant and deeding for Balboa Park.

  4. No, no homeless shelter in the middle of downtown San Diego. Let me tell you a little bit about living here in San Diego – 35 years ago there was a grand design to have downtown San Diego re-made into a model city with an Olmsted (designer of Central Park) concept of a great tree lined promenade stretching from a grand new library down to the waterfront. It was a bold vision made when San Diego was (even then) full of homeless and vacant stores. Then Horton Plaza, followed by the redevelopment of little Italy – these were real successes. But some where in the 1980-90’s the vision, the will, and the oversight to Downtown San Diego development was lost. Now East Village which has had the most money invested, and has the highest incomes also has the highest homeless and crime statistics. The old library is now surrounded by urban blight mixed in low-income subsidized apartment towers. No one wants to live there, no one wants to invest in businesses – no one want to even walk around this area – the same area which was once envisioned to part of the grand promenade to the waterfront.

  5. This is Daniel Smiechowski a candidate for D2 SDCC and have spoken ad nauseum on the old Central Library before Council for 3 months straight. I grew up in that library during the Sixties and ironically have a degree in real estate. Obviously, the site needs to amend itself to the highest and best use. It would prove as catastrophic as Ash Street to throw bad money against more bad money in salvaging a building suffocating of probable asbestos, not to mention antiquated electrical/plumbing and more. I seriously doubt if the structure is of any historical import although I may be wrong. Therefore, send in the big ball and go tall! Ground floor barber shop, grocery, medical clinic/emotional/psychological/RN’s, security, free telephone, some low-income housing on lower floors together with rehab units for homeless, upper floors may be more market driven with developer incentives. Most importantly, San Diego needs a philanthropist to step in to mitigate the cost!!! Smiechowski D2 SDCC I love my City!!

  6. How do I compete for SDCC D2 against all odds and the best political hooker’s money can buy? Why do voters accept this immorality when those very same people are holier than thou? I don’t understand!

    My fellow San Diegans, this is Daniel Smiechowski a candidate for San Diego City Council District 2. Please read the following:
    Pork Bellies and Political Prostitutes
    The upcoming election for San Diego City Council District 2 is like a walk through Pigalle and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Candidates are hoarding more cash than locusts in the Western Sahara. This must stop. It is immoral and unethical and beneath the dignity of our American ideal of justice and a game won fairly.
    How is it possible that despite the small size of this City Council District, campaign contributions from all four corners of the United States arrive in candidate’s coffers? Do residents of Key West, Florida and Bangor, Maine really have a dog in the fight? Do these people care about San Diego or more about their buddies? And what about all these obscene endorsements? The incumbent in District 2 has more powerful elite folks behind her campaign than Carters got liver pills. How is this possible since this person was under the cloud of recall for practically her whole tenure on the City Council? This is a disconnect nonpareil.
    But the beat goes on and on and on and on! Year after year, unwitting voters fall for the false narrative on perception of victory. Like a baby to her mother, these voters instinctively gravitate to who they see as a winner. Except to win in politics, one must compromise the truth. With the acting talent and crocodile tears of an Audrey Hepburn, these disingenuous candidates play a ruse and dupe would be voters into political prostitution. In short, both campaign loot and endorsements prove more lucrative than ideas, work ethic, honesty, truthfulness and vision. This is wrong. This must end.
    Daniel Smiechowski Candidate San Diego City Council D2
    PLEASE SHARE 858 405 5118 VOLUNTEER to end inside private elite deals at our house at 202 C Street

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