By Joe Flynn
“Planning? We don’t need no stinking planning!” No, I am not talking about The Treasure of Sierra Madre, I’m talking about the treasure of our old Central Library. One would think after decades of working to build a new central library, some thought would have been given to a new use for the old library.
And it is not just another old building; this one has a lot or treasured memories for many San Diegans, especially those who spent hours there doing school projects and term papers or just for the pure enjoyment of literature.
Many of us look back with nostalgia on digging through the card catalogues using the Dewey Decimal system, and going to the stacks for a needed reference. Yes, we dearly love our computers with the world only a google away, but we are glad we have had that hands on experience, glad to know we are not entirely dependent on the pcs. And while we may not have had pc’s back then we had dedicated librarians who kept churning up references and information, and they never crashed.
But how did the city prepare for selecting a new use for the old Central Library? Well, for openers the city abolished Planning as a separate department in the 90s. Yes, they will tell us that the city still has a Planning function and point to an organization chart to show the pureed remnants of a Planning Department that once had defined functions and a separate voice.
Perhaps it was that separate voice that engendered opposition. When major projects came before the council, a separate planning voice spoke to the community’s preference expressed through a Community Plan, impacts of the project, and choices available. And as much as elected officials love to lay claim to the title of “decision-maker” they are not really fond of making decisions when there are at least two clear choices.
So now the city is wondering what to do with the long vacant Central Library. For the many years since the new Central Library was approved there was time to look ahead for a reuse. But no, only now after three long years that the Old Library has been vacant has the city finally come to the conclusion that it might be time to consider a new use for our old treasure. Really?
But we really can’t blame the city for all of the dithering and delay, at least not directly. The city council has turned over the decision making authority on this building to Civic San Diego, a remnant organization of CCDC after the tax increment funds were cut off. So now you can see the direction in favor of business.
In the request for proposals on re-use the Civic San Diego group, “. . . made [it] clear that it really likes the idea of a startup hub. . . .” That is a start up for business, or maybe a public-private use. I wonder if anywhere along the line anyone considered a possible public use?
The city does own the property, and there are precious few public uses downtown. True, the building will require some rehab, but public uses do require and warrant public outlay.
But it never got a call. And now, since we had dithered so long, there will be a new urgency in making a decision — ” we have to do something soon, it has been vacant too long.” And of course it will be seen as an opportunity to pick up some city money for other pet uses. And we know from experience that when the city has a cash cow, someone else ends up milking it and skimming the cream.
Joe Flynn is a retired City of San Diego Planner