A Superior Court judge on Thursday cleared a more than century-old deed restriction that has haunted plans to redevelop the long-vacant old Central Library.
The former downtown library has sat empty for nearly a decade. Now, with the official death of a restriction included in an 1899 deed signed by civic leader George Marston that seemed to mandate that the property house a public library and reading room, the city may have an easier time redeveloping an idle property that has become a symbol of city dysfunction.
Looking ahead, Mayor Todd Gloria’s office says the city is preparing to use a portion of the old library to shelter unhoused residents during the winter months and hopes to begin welcoming them by the end of the year.
“This confirms we can move forward without friction on our short-term plan to make this a temporary shelter and provides the opportunity to consider the best use for the building and land in the long-term,” Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing said.
Superior Court Judge Ronald F. Frazier on Thursday signed a proposed order from the city stating that the city is the sole owner of the property without any limitations and that the longstanding deed restriction is invalid.
Frazier’s signature followed Deputy City Attorney Jana Mickova Will’s testimony that the city hadn’t heard any opposition following public noticing of its legal action and noting that the property served as a library for more than 100 years.
Gloria’s office and City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office previously said they didn’t believe the language in the deed should restrict use of the old library. But in March, city attorneys filed a court action to try to clear the once little-known requirement after Gloria’s office said it wanted a court to formally clarify that the deed wasn’t an issue.
Indeed, the restriction previously halted a plan to convert the space into an office campus.
Since the city moved into a new downtown library in 2013, a series of redevelopment discussions have gone nowhere. Meanwhile, the shuttered old library has been surrounded by homeless camps, fueling questions about whether the property could shelter unhoused residents.
Last year, Gloria had city officials assess several city buildings including the old library to see if they could serve as shelters.
Laing said in early September that the mayor had directed city staff to take steps to prepare the building so the city could move quickly if it got a favorable court ruling.
Laing said the city spent about $74,000 to prepare the facility to temporarily house up to 26 homeless shelter beds. Among the expenses was a generator that Laing said the city must rent due to vandalism that left the facility without power.
At the time, Laing said the fire marshal signed off using a portion of the building as a shelter for several months during the winter season and that the mayor’s team was “continuing to work on plans to permanently deploy the site to address homelessness.”
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, said city officials should consider providing more than 26 beds at the facility following Thursday’s news.
After all, Moser said, a record number of people are now sleeping on downtown streets.
“The fact that it’s (going to) open and now has the green light from this ruling is good news so let’s maximize that asset and provide as many safe and immediate pathways off the street as can be humanely and safely done,” Moser said.
For now, Laing said, the fire marshal’s safety assessment is what’s limiting the number of shelter beds at the old library.