San Diego’s Old Central Library: Public Benefit or Profit Center?

by on April 4, 2016 · 1 comment

in Culture, Education, Environment, History, Homelessness, San Diego

Former San Diego Central Library

Old Central Library (Photo: Allan Ferguson/Flickr/CC)

A not-so-common idea for a building that belongs to us

By Jeeni Criscenzo / San Diego Free Press

For three years, 150,000 square feet of space in downtown, belonging to the citizens of San Diego, has stood vacant. Each night, for these past three years, impoverished human beings have spread their cardboard beds on the brass inlays of the terrazzo at the entrance of the old Central Library on E Street.

But any suggestion that this place could provide shelter for homeless people is dead on arrival, so I won’t be wasting words on that idea. But I do think we need to come up with a fair and just use of this building that retains the spirit of its original reason for being built. After all, it belongs to us, if we are willing to fight for it and put a little imagination into its transformation.

On March 18, I joined a tour of the old San Diego Central Library as part of a pre-proposal inspection of the property. Civic San Diego had arranged the tour to set the stage for those they deemed have the qualifications to submit a proposal by May 26th for how they would meet the the city’s directive to reuse and/or develop the property “to foster innovation and entrepreneurship from: technology driven industries; private entrepreneurs; arts, cultural, and performing arts organizations and academic institutions of higher learning.” Admittedly, my qualifications to be there are a bit murky.

Brass Railing in old Central LibraryAdmiring the brass hand railing on the stairways and excellent condition of the vinyl tile floors, brought to mind a different time and place when the dated design of this old lady lent dignity and grace to a place anointed by the citizens for the common good—a place where everyone of every status could access learning, a place for community. Now its halls and vast expanses of shelving were being poked and photographed by strangers who mostly had a very different purpose in mind. They will go back to their offices and pour over their photos and floor plans and ponder the best way to transform this relic of the commons into a profit center.

According to the Request for Qualifications/ Proposals (RFQ/P), the five-story building consists of:

…approximately 144,600 gross square feet with approximately 75,000 square feet of usable space above grade. The Property is a designated local historic site, located on an approximately 29,160 square foot parcel… The building has two windowless basement levels, with low ceiling heights due to hanging pipes, ducts, and sprinkler heads. This low height may preclude uses of the basement other than for utilities, maintenance, and storage. The building lacks fire sprinklers on the upper three (3) floors.

Room With Glass WallWhile personally lacking the experience, resources and expertise to submit a proposal that would pass muster with Civic San Diego, my mind was racing with “what if” scenarios as I walked through the building.

So much attention has been given to making our city a delightful place to visit and play if you have discretionary income for Charger and Padre games, and Comic Con, but little consideration has been given to the hundreds of thousands of people who work and struggle to live here. And while thousands of those people don’t even have the basic necessities of a roof over their head and food and medical care, there are other things that a building downtown could provide that would make their lives better by empowering and educating them.

This building is ours! It belongs to the citizens of this city. The vision that built it was one of the collective good. What a shame it would be to hand it over to a commercial entity with laser focus on profitability. What if we could put together a community effort to keep this building in the commons with a proposal that meets the requirements of the RFQ/P? In that interest, I’m throwing this out for you to think about and discuss. Get excited. Organize. And put something together by May 26th.

Metal shelving in former Central LibraryThe two basement levels could be used for storage, or wood and metal workshops, similar to the MakerPlace. Right now these floors are lined with steel shelving, which would certainly be useful for storage but could also be recycled to make space dividers for workshops. Imagine fix-it shops where entrepreneurs could fix small appliances, or re-build computers or operate any number of small businesses that fit into the sustainability model for a future where we don’t throw everything away. How about sewing and textile workshops? Quilting, silk-screening?

The NC Land Use Designation requires a minimum of 40% of the ground floor street frontage to contain active commercial uses. What about a common market? A place where people could sell eggs and produce from their backyard gardens, crafts and recycled and up-cycled items, such as clothing, housewares and tools, or the items manufactured in the basement workshops. Those lovely card files would make excellent seed banks. Maybe this would be a good place to introduce a common currency, such as Common Credits that we had tried to start a few years ago …

The second level could be for families and kids. A child care center (there is even a puppet theatre!), after school tutoring, adult education, housing counseling, social services and benefits counseling, financial literacy, cooking and nutrition classes, exercise, computer lab.

Theater in former Central LibraryThe third floor has a small theater – perfect for performance poetry, local theater, and musical performances—giving local talent a venue. The rooms on the third floor could be used for local non-profit board meetings, workshops, and classes in public speaking, theater, writing, painting …

Imagine—a place for all of this, for the community, for people who don’t have discretionary income for any of this but have so much to offer in return. For families who can’t spend the equivalent of their monthly food budget on a Padre’s game, and work hard to get by and would benefit from all of this. For innovators who want to start a business, parents who need child care and an outlet for their imaginations, community groups who need a place to meet.

Parks are great. But we need indoor places too. And this place already exists. We could make it thrive with what’s there. Figure out how to do it without knocking down walls. Make do with what’s there, and bring it to life with the sound of children and laughter and learning. Back in 1954, that’s what the citizens of San Diego were thinking when they built this place. I’ll bet we could keep that spirit alive. What say you?

The Request for Qualifications/ Proposals (“RFQ/P”) and all related documents can be download here.

The complete series San Diego Commons at the Crossroads here.

All photos by Jeeni Criscenzo except where noted


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Glenn Davis April 5, 2016 at 10:44 am

I believe that San Diego’s original library, one of the more than two thousand endowed by Andrew Carneige, was located on the site. All the more reason not to turn over that parcel for other-than-the-public-good.


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