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Commentary : Storybook Library? More Like Fantasy : Development: The mayor’s plan for a downtown main library is impractical and unfair to the populace.

<i> Robert Magness was a member of the city Library Commission from 1984-86 and vice president of the Friends of the Library in the early 1980s. He lives in University Heights</i>

George W. Marston, one of San Diego’s most visionary forefathers, saw the future of the city’s central library in 1899--and tried in vain to warn the public. Nearly 100 years later, Marston’s nightmare has come to pass.

Andrew Carnegie, who endowed libraries all over the country, had just agreed to provide $60,000 to build a library commensurate with San Diego’s growing stature. This was to be the first such Carnegie gift of a library west of the Mississippi. But the city government would agree to purchase only half a city block to house the new building at 8th Avenue and E Street downtown. Marston, to no avail, insisted that the city acquire the whole block and have the library front on Broadway.

“I believe the city will regret for all time its error if it should let this opportunity pass without obtaining the full square of land for the library,” Marston declared. “What I regret to see is the disposition to look for the cheapest possible place rather than the best.”

Fast forward to 1991. The city’s central library downtown, on the original half-block site, and now miles from the city’s population center, gets no respect. It is too small, has no off-street parking and is crowded with street people.

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Mayor Maureen O’Connor has proposed replacing it with a $70-million “storybook library” to be built on the bayfront site known as Lane Field, at the foot of Broadway, which is now occupied by a parking lot. Although her site is difficult to get to, overlooks congested Harbor Drive, would require a parking garage in addition to a massive library building and would certainly attract at least as many transients as the current central library, the mayor believes that’s where San Diego’s 21st Century library should be.

Her rationale for placing the new library there is that the land is owned by the San Diego Unified Port District, which might agree to hand it over for nothing.

That moaning sound you hear is the ghost of George Marston. Is San Diego doomed to repeat the mistake of placing its central library on the cheapest, not the best, possible location?

Common sense argues that the best location for a central library is a site that is centrally located to the population. This means Mission Valley.

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All the mayor’s dreamy talk of a storybook waterfront library comes down to the simple fact that a few politicians and downtown business boosters need a central library nearby for reasons having more to do with political monuments and the preservation of downtown property values than with the public good.

But a poorly located library is to no one’s advantage. If the facility is aggravating to get to, costs money to park there and is besieged by aggressive panhandlers, the average library user isn’t going to say, “Well gee, I ought to go anyway because we got the land for free.” The cost of the land is not a factor in deciding to visit a library.

The public has spoken many times on this subject, and the message is clear, unequivocal, undeniable and continually ignored by those in power: People do not want their central library downtown.

The last time the public spoke on this was in July, 1990, when library support groups funded a $6,900 study conducted by Decision Research. It included 403 interviews with a random sampling of voters, and the results probably have a lot to do with why the study was never made public.

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Sixty-seven percent of the respondents said Mission Valley was the most acceptable location for a new central library. Fifty-one percent said Lane Field was unacceptable. The study concluded: “There is considerable sentiment that a new central library be built not in downtown San Diego, but in a site that is more central and convenient to all areas of the city. . . . We can see no political advantage to locating a new central library downtown, and there are surely disadvantages to such a location.”

The biggest disadvantage would be to the children who Mayor O’Connor believes would be the biggest beneficiaries of a Lane Field library.

When the mayor unveiled her Lane Field plan at this year’s State of the City address, she said an entire wing of the new library would be devoted to children. But not too many children are part of the influx of residents to downtown. And last year, of the nearly 1.8 million children’s books checked out of the total city library system, the 31 branches accounted for 95%. This despite the central library’s spacious, attractively decorated children’s room, well supplied with books in English and several foreign languages.

Why would a parent in Rancho Bernardo or San Carlos or La Jolla drive 20 or 30 miles or more round trip to Lane Field, hassle with traffic and parking and transients in order to bring his or her child to a library that is linked by state-of-the-art equipment to the parent’s neighborhood branch library.

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It’s time to translate “storybook library” into plain English: fantasy.

By every criterion for a new central library, Mission Valley trumps Lane Field.

* Mission Valley is already the No. 1 destination for retail shoppers in the city, bringing almost a million people a month to within easy access of a library there.

* Mission Valley does not have a big problem with transients.

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* The San Diego Trolley is scheduled to run along the San Diego River, past several large tracts of available land that are above the flood plain and provide plenty of acreage for both free parking and an attractive riverfront library.

* Several major freeways intersect in Mission Valley, and many bus routes service the area.

There simply is no good reason to place a new library at Lane Field, and many good reasons not to.

Mission Valley is booming, and the sooner a suitable library site is located the better. If the city’s political leadership stays dutifully in line behind the mayor’s library plan--which was reached unilaterally, with no public input--the options for a Mission Valley site could be lost.

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The mayor believes that the estimated $70-million cost of the new building can be raised mostly through private donations, but the site is unpopular with the public. Who’s going to contribute the money?

In reality, the chances that the library will be built at Lane Field are slim. Politicians must face up to the fact that, no matter how difficult the task will be, it is going to take a bond measure to get a new central library built in San Diego.

To have any chance of passing, a site will have to be identified on the ballot. A downtown site would guarantee defeat at the polls. A Mission Valley site would be an easier sell and give the politicians a fair chance of encouraging public support for a new library.

Let’s get on with it, so that poor Mr. Marston can rest in peace.

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Planning Session

Plans for a new regional library will be discussed at the Friday meeting of the Board of Library Commissioners at 9:30 a.m. on the 3rd floor of the central library, 820 E St., downtown.


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