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City Council approves new downtown library

By JOE BRITTON

City News Service

The City Council voted 6-2 on Monday to approve the construction of a $185 million central library in downtown San Diego’s East Village.

Work on the new downtown library, a dream of civic leaders for almost two decades, is scheduled to begin in August, with a predicted opening date of July 2013.

The design for the project, 330 Park Blvd., features a nine-story, dome-topped library with an auditorium, meeting spaces, sculpture garden, outdoor cafe and underground parking.

So far, $152.4 million of the $184.9 million cost of the library has been identified.

Of that amount, $30.8 million has been raised from private donations, $20 million will come from a state grant and the San Diego Unified School District has agreed to put in $20 million to lease two floors of the library for a charter high school that will house about 400 students.

Redevelopment funds will cover about $80 million of the cost and an additional $1.6 million will come from other sources.

An additional $10 million has been donated for the operation of the library once it opens.

That leaves $32.5 million that the San Diego Public Library Foundation must raise by January 2012 to complete the project.

The gap in funding, and it’s potential impact on San Diego’s budget, was cited as the reason for Councilman Carl DeMaio and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s dissenting votes.

“I am afraid this project contains too many risks to our general fund,” DeMaio said. “Too many shoes that may drop.”

“We cannot afford to build this project at this time,” he said.

Judith Harris, who chairs the San Diego Public Library Foundation, testified that fundraising efforts will be made easier once the City Council gives the project the green light.

“I will tell you, that as the foundation, we have many people who have been waiting to see if this indeed was a city-endorsed project before they take our next meeting,” she said.

At the start of the hearing, Mayor Jerry Sanders said many potential donors are waiting on the sidelines.

“I would not be standing here today urging a yes vote were I not confident that the foundation will be able to raise the remaining funds needed once we break ground on this project,” Sanders told the City Council.

The largest donation to the project so far was made by Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder and former chief executive officer of Qualcomm Inc., and his wife, Joan, who contributed $20 million for the new central library.

In total, more than five dozen people have already contributed to the new library.

Project opponents argued that building a new downtown library now would be irresponsible when the city can’t afford to keep its existing libraries open due to ongoing budget cuts.

“The city of San Diego is bankrupt. It can’t keep the libraries we have now open,” said former City Attorney Michael Aguirre.

Project opponent Phil Hart added, “It is flat out irresponsible to have a project like this start when you are $32 million short.”

Detractors, however, were far outnumbered by those backing the new central library.

Katie Sullivan, chair of the San Diego Board of Library Commissioners, said the existing downtown library is outdated and most of the books and other materials are locked up in storage.

“Our new central library will allow our materials to see the light of day and be enjoyed by all San Diegans,” she said.

Following the vote, Sanders issued a statement praising the City Council for approving the project.

“San Diego has invested close to 20 years in the planning of a central library that is worthy of our great city, and the outcome of those two decades of effort rested on (the) City Council’s decision today,” the mayor said. “I am grateful to our council members for having the foresight and vision to move forward with this project and deliver a better public library system to future generations of San Diegans.”