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Guest Opinion | John Fauvre and Jim Spencer: Planning the Revival of the Central Library and Civic Center

Published on Thursday, September 14, 2023 | 5:34 am

We are offered our first chance at public engagement on how best to restore our wonderful library system and to refurbish our emptying Civic Center next week on September 21. We need to prepare to air important questions and comments.

At this point, City Council has considered just one approach to the complicated process ahead—to rebuild to the high standards and expensive methods prescribed for a historic landmark at a cost of over $ 200 million. A group of concerned citizens has engaged with City and project staff on possible alternatives. They have been mostly responsive, polite, and thorough in explaining their performance of the Council’s directions. But it seems to us that the Council’s lofty vision of monumental grandeur has so far precluded consideration of some basic decisions about the library system and the texture of the Civic Center. We think other possible choices should also be considered.

We start with the importance of the Central Library itself. It is the hub of a wonderful branch system, providing inspiration, great open stacks, enchanting interior space, and great areas for City services, meetings, and contemplation, all founded on the 1924 commitment of our City fathers. But the building also transcends its current space. All of the values it serves are now met in new ways. Access to information now depends on iPhones and iPads and evolving programs. A great children’s room, access to open stacks, meeting and service rooms, and contemplative niches probably do not need the 120,000-square-foot edifice. Indeed, in the recent campaign to renew the library parcel tax, its supporters, including City Council, argued that the current level of service equals what we had before the Central Library was closed and that operating costs for the system over the next decade would be stable. Yet the Council has made its choice without information on how much the project would cost or how to pay for it, let alone a possibly even greater bond issue to also cover the significant debt for Rose Bowl repairs. We think the Council, and the taxpayers, need to know how much we will have to pay.

So, why not revive the Central Library to meet this century’s needs at a price we can better afford? Is there a less expensive way to save the whole historic structure? Could a contemporary building that honors Civic Center architecture and fully meets the needs of the library system be built for maybe “only” $ 100 million? We think so. So far, the City Council has apparently not explored this question, and staff have felt unauthorized to consider it at all.

 The expressed justification for the limited planning process arises from the strict requirements for historic structures. Any alteration that may be a detrimental impact is subject to exhaustive evaluation and may be prohibited. But alternative views have not been explored yet. The City Landmark designation granted to the building in 1980 relied on the representation that the building condition was good, that the building was safe, and it assumed that no repairs for $ 200 million would be needed. We doubt that our prudent Council would not have done so had they been aware of the added repair costs the designation put at risk. Nothing in the Municipal Code or the City Charter prevents the City Council from rescinding the designations founded on that error.

 Nevertheless, state environmental protections for historic structures still apply. Repair and improvement of the building might be considered a possible “detriment,” but the building is now just a wreck, maybe following the path of the historic Julia Morgan YWCA building, and a fix need not be determined to be an insolvable detriment. A new and functional library that honors our heritage and the Civic Center’s design and might save $100 million might well mitigate and offset any detrimental impact. Yet the City Council has declined to consider this possibility. This could take time and stimulate controversy, but big questions are hard to answer. There have also been questions raised by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects about the unusual use of the consulting engineering firm that first asserted that the building was unsafe as the structural engineer of record for the project and if it has the independence to provide advice.

We urge other concerned citizens to attend the upcoming meeting to seek citizen engagement and to encourage further study by City Council before it makes a final choice and asks our support for another massive bond issue. And that all concerned citizens will let our Council Members know how they feel.

 By John Fauvre and Jim Spencer
Citizens for Reviving the Central Library and Civic Center

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