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Guest Opinion | John Fauvre: Realistically, The Die is Cast

Published on Monday, September 25, 2023 | 12:49 pm

I attended the public meeting on the Central Library Thursday night and learned some things about public engagement in the repair process.

The meeting was in an impressive auditorium, the speakers seemed expert and assured, and about 75 people attended. The project principals told of developing repair plans. I had had the privilege of an earlier meeting with most of them two days before. After learning of the choices offered for repairs at around $200 million I had thought that the chance for public engagement opened the opportunity to suggest two ideas.

One, to consider using a post-tension approach to strengthen the walls, possibly better and less expensive than the shear wall approach recently endorsed by the Council.

And two, to ask the Council to consider exercising its municipal powers to undo the 1980 designation of the building as a City Landmark. This was made without information that the building was seismically unsafe and had the effect of imposing the Secretary of Interior repair standards on any correction. These standards are higher and more expensive than a normal repair project. And withdrawing the designation need not require any destruction of the building or detriment to the Civic Center. Just call the building informally a “treasure,” or an “icon.”

At that meeting on September 19, I was told that neither idea had been evaluated by project staff and that both could be worth further study.

I was also told that consideration of any new ideas at this stage was difficult because at the outset of the process over a year ago, with no information about cost, possible alternatives, or the willingness of almost to pay any price, the Council had directed staff to prepare a plan to fully repair the 1927 building for another century of use. Full plans to be ready for submission for a vote on a massive bond issue as part of the 2024 election process were called for.

Two days later, before the public meeting, I was told that project staff had suddenly remembered that it had thought of the post-tension approach and felt it was inappropriate for use on the library building. I got no opposition to the idea of changing the landmark designation. Then, at the public meeting that evening, we were all told that the post-tension approach might be useful in a few undesignated parts of the building and that redesignation of the building to lower repair costs might be too controversial and time-consuming to consider. The time pressure to be ready for the 2024 bond election was said to preclude any change in plans.

At the public meeting, after presentation of the technical plans for repairs, project staff spoke about developing plans for public engagement. The Mayor had appointed a Program Development Committee about a year ago, and it had already endorsed a list of scores of possible programs and reconfigurations of existing rooms when the Central Library reopens, at least five years from now. This committee had done no polling of the general public and had no cost information or budget as it listed its desires. I imagine that some of its members must have felt essentially powerless and therefore that responding to any questions from the public was just a bother.

Nevertheless, the plan for future messaging and public engagement is come through this committee, with direction from project staff. This is to be called robust public engagement, whatever that means.

In conclusion, I feel that possibly this press to proceed quickly might be the best way to get the repairs done, and possibly any repair approach will cost about $200 million. The alternative for a pause for further consideration by the Council of any different approach in light of the new cost estimates and some new comments from the public might cause undue delay (or simplify and hasten the process) and add costs of inflation (or reduce construction costs, find better interest rates for the bond offering, and allow for the assessed valuation of City properties to increase and be more supportive of bond payments.)

But realistically, the die is cast. Any future public engagement is likely to be limited to disclosures of staff progress and why we should pay for a $200 million project to reopen the Central Library in at least 5 years. Let your Councilmember know if you want more.

John Fauvre

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